Portland impresses at home; Henry finally gets on the scoresheet
Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things you should know about
But they'll all remember downtown Portland's fabulous introduction to Major League Soccer, historic stuff for the 16-year-old league.
A teeming scene on a rainy Thursday was everything that everybody always wanted MLS to be, straight off from the national anthem. (Great call from management, by the way, to eschew any cheesy musical act and just let the fans sing.)
A packed stadium brimming with character despite the modern renovation was the brilliant backdrop for it all: Timber Joey and his intimidating chain saw; a Timbers Army in fantastic voice; vibrant waves of green rolling through the stands, a patchwork of shirts, scarves and flags. It looked as if this club has been around for almost 40 years. In spirit, it certainly has. Indeed, the Timbers have seen pro soccer at some level since 1975, even if it wasn't always tiptop tier. Still, this was something else.
"Even during the warmup, I thought it was electrifying," Portland coach John Spencer said.
The defense must better manage and protect leads, of course. But a full six points from two home matches has Portland positioned comfortably mid-pack in the West. Mostly, they can feel proud about elevating the standard for atmosphere and scenery in and around MLS grounds.
U.S. international Benny Feilhaber, who definitely needed to improve his club situation and escape the Danish second division, has signed with MLS. Chivas USA is up first in the allocation order and has until Tuesday afternoon to decide. It's a tough choice, because Robin Fraser's team actually has some defensive and midfield depth; the real shortage there is at forward. (Which you know if you saw the Goats' goalless draw in Vancouver -- or any Chivas USA game this year for that matter.)
Vancouver's Omar Salgado, the league's No. 1 draft pick, got a few more minutes and had one chance. Just down the coast, Darlington Nagbe, the No. 2 pick, is starting to log more time for Portland.
David Beckham joined the dog pile, taking shots at league referees. (Just which of his five cautions, by the way, did he feel were unwarranted?) For MLS, perhaps it's just nice that Beckham even bothered to notice this little ol' ragamuffin of a soccer league, given the amount of time he's spent ignoring it.
Obscured by the big doings in Portland, Houston beat MLS' international transfer deadline Friday with a pair of 11th-hour signings: Spanish forward Sergio Koke, recently playing at Greek side Aris Thessaloniki, and Jamaican international midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson. Koke, 27, can also play attacking midfielder.
First, some referees are actually doing ok. Terry Vaughn, for instance, is managing matches nicely at the moment.
Second, about the abundance of cautions and ejections: Yes, they are up. So far 47 MLS matches have averaged 3.98 yellow cards, up from 3.1 last year. And ejections are up from .225 per match in 2010 to 0.4 so far this year. That's significant, although ejections always tend to spike early in seasons.
But do the increases really surprise anyone? MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the league's intention to crack down, to initiate a desperately needed course correction on enforcement. Didn't everyone expect an adjustment period? Somehow, no one is talking about that.
Yes, some of the yellows cards probably fall into the category of "overcorrection." But most have been spot on. The problem, of course, is that so many of the same violations were never cautions before. That was the real problem. Analysts keep saying "The refereeing is bad right now." Really? As opposed to what? It was just bad in a different way before.
Third, MLS players really do foul a lot. Then they complain. They go all Mad Max over obvious fouls, sometimes embarrassing themselves in the process and leaving the rest of us to wonder if they even know the rules? Chicago's Cory Gibbs cracked Kenny Cooper brutally last week. He heard the whistle, and ... cue the hissy fit. Rather than be delighted that he wasn't cautioned, he barked like a mad dog.
Same for Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso, who scythed down Philly's Kyle Nagazawa -- and then leapt up absurdly to complain about the foul. Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza tried to kick Toronto's Alen Stevanovic right out of BMO Field, from behind no less, and then improbably found reason to scream at Vaughn for having the audacity to call a foul.
So, MLS and U.S. Soccer could crack down on all this, but that would lead to more cards and further hyperventilation. What's a referee to do?
Lastly here, U.S. Soccer absolutely (which assigns the matches) deserves blame for one element of all this. Four referees worked their first MLS matches over the weekend. Chris Penso was the top of the litter, getting things mostly right at Red Bull Arena. Mark Kadlecik was pretty good Saturday at BMO Field.
But why such a rushed introduction? MLS and U.S. Soccer knew there would be additional teams this year, which means more games. Why weren't officials folding in new faces gradually last year (rather than dipping repeatedly back into the flawed pool)? MLS needed new whistle-carriers last year -- not a bucket full of them this year.
Only Henry isn't the slow kid. Or he shouldn't be. He's a global star with a World Cup trophy among scads of other awards. He's getting paid $4.5 million year. And yet, with New York in control against slow-peddling San Jose, it was almost comical to watch the home team plotting and navigating to tee up Henry's first goal of 2011. They finally did as Luke Rodgers delivered a pinpoint cross to the back post, leaving the Frenchman to thump his chest in equal parts relief and triumph.
Meanwhile, D.C. United's Charlie Davies hit his league-leading fifth goal, a marker that still comes with a bit of an asterisk. Referees have awarded 10 penalty kicks in an 18-team league so far. D.C. United has three of them, and Davies has taken all three. Still, he's finishing chances and that's something.
San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, last year's surprise Golden Boot winner, has two goals, both in the same contest. So, he has been blanked in four of five so far. Landon Donovan and David Beckham are still hunting their first of 2011; it didn't help that neither played Sunday, as Beckham sat out suspended and Donovan still has a knee issue.
Speaking of not being on the field: Forward Brian Ching's continued injury issues are hamstringing the Houston Dynamo offense. Houston was all over New England on Sunday (27 shots, 11 corner kicks) but needed a late game-winner from fullback Hunter Freeman to claim the points. Rookie forward Will Bruin is getting into good spots but still needs precision and more of a predator mentality near goal.
Goalkeeper: Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles)
Defenders: Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Alain Rochat (Vancouver), Rodney Wallace (Portland).
Midfielders: Fred (D.C. United), Paolo Cardozo (Los Angeles), Joel Lindpere (New York), Chris Pontius (D.C. United).
Forward: Jorge Perlaza (Portland), Luke Rodgers (New York).