Monday May 21st, 2012

The first returns on Thursday's blockbuster trades, a title favorite continuing to underachieve and more from Week 11 in MLS:

1. First returns on the major trades. Thursday's blockbuster trades had some big names changing home locker rooms, with Juan Agudelo and Danny Califf going cross-country to Chivas USA, and the Goats sending Heath Pearce and Michael Lahoud back east to the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union, respectively. All four players debuted for their new clubs over the weekend, and the early returns would suggest that Chivas are poised for improvement, the Red Bulls plugged a major hole and the Union helped facilitate the steps forward for both sides while confusing their supporters even further.

Califf was an absolute rock in his Chivas USA debut, playing as inspired at center back as he has all season and showing no lingering effects from any supposed injuries that kept him out of the Union lineup over the last few weeks. Most importantly, he provided stable play in front of Dan Kennedy down the stretch to help Chivas avoid another late-game collapse and hold on for three points against his other former club, the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Like Califf, Agudelo was freed from an unfavorable scenario, and he opened his Chivas career with an energetic, active shift. With the revelation that Luke Rodgers could return to the Red Bulls from Lillestrom in Norway as soon as next month, Agudelo became more expendable in New York, and the club was able to grant his wish to get out of town and into a more nurturing atmosphere. Although Agudelo did not mark his debut with a goal, he was an integral part of the sequence that led to Chivas earning the decisive penalty in their first win over the Galaxy since 2007.

In Los Angeles, the rising U.S. star forward has starter's minutes there for the taking, and he is reunited with one-time mentor Juan Pablo Angel. With that, there is no reason Agudelo can't blossom over the next few months, and with the California-based Jurgen Klinsmann nearby, the move should do wonders for his international status. Klinsmann's approval of the deal was evident through Agudelo's call-up to this week's U.S. camp -- one that prevents him from playing in Chivas' coincidentally timed match at Red Bull Arena this week -- despite his early-season struggles and battle through injury.

"He has an opportunity now, and we want him to grab it and make clear to everyone that he deserves to be a starter no matter where he plays," Klinsmann said on U.S. Soccer's official website.

Chivas general manager Jose Domene hasn't drawn rave reviews in his brief time in charge of the club's personnel, but he deserves plenty of credit for showing the ambition to orchestrate two high-profile moves to improve his franchise in addition to plucking a young Colombian talent like Jose Erick Correa from his native country. Chivas USA has a suddenly intriguing strike force. For him to make those moves he had to part with a valuable asset in Pearce, who is versatile enough to play anywhere across the back and has been a consistent performer since joining MLS in 2009.

Pearce provides reinforcement and versatility to the New York Red Bulls back line, and he appeared to have a seamless transition to his new club despite a mentally grueling couple of days with word of the trade. His performance in Montreal with the Red Bulls down a man earned passing grades, and even though New York's unheralded defenders were getting the job done, Pearce is a proven commodity that can hold things down over the long haul. Even more, the allocation money that the club received from Chivas in addition to Pearce can go a long way in helping the club be a major player during the summer transfer window.

As for the Union, who perhaps unknowingly helped rival New York strengthen its back line by sending Califf to Chivas and allowing the Goats to part ways with Pearce, it is unclear how they will benefit from Thursday's trade. Califf is the third face of the franchise to depart in the last five months, following in the footsteps of Faryd Mondragon and Sebastien Le Toux. Lahoud is a physical, hardworking talent and a nice complementary piece for a team that might be a player or two away from being a contender, but on the Union, he's a player who could easily get lost in the shuffle in an already-crowded midfield. His debut for the Union was marked by using his physicality in a reckless manner, and he was fortunate to have not been sent off in Philadelphia's 1-1 draw with FC Dallas.

Compounding matters for the Union, the club was already down to just two natural center backs on the roster, and with Califf shipped out of town and Carlos Valdes suffering another head injury this weekend, the back line is far from being defined. At one point Saturday night against FC Dallas, Philadelphia was playing a makeshift back four made up of a midfielder and three fullbacks in front of a hobbled, journeyman, backup goalkeeper. There's plenty of symbolism in that for a team that seems lost after being so close to having it figured out a season ago.

2. Galaxy far, far away from meeting expectations. The Los Angeles Galaxy-Chivas USA encounter was neither super nor a clasico, but the rivalry match provided a very telling 90 minutes about two Home Depot Center-based franchises going in opposite directions this season.

Chivas USA is an energized side, one that is eager to prove themselves following two major trades and show that it is no longer the punching bag at the HDC. The defending champion Galaxy, meanwhile, continue to be in free-fall mode and are lacking answers. At the White House last Tuesday, David Beckham and Landon Donovan both spoke of how their trip would be used as a rallying point and a springboard to getting back to the way things were. That was hardly the case Saturday, when the club's showing was more of the same from a team that, on paper, should be among the contenders in the Western Conference but in actuality is underachieving more than any team in league history.

Entering the season, it was imperative that the Galaxy bankrolled points early on in anticipation of being without Donovan, Beckham and Robbie Keane for their respective spells of international duty this summer. Instead, the club sits dead last in the West, has not won it is last five matches and faces the unenviable task of climbing from the bottom up without its superstars just to position itself for a place in the postseason.

It does not get any easier this week, with the Galaxy facing the San Jose Earthquakes in a California Clasico and the Houston Dynamo in an MLS Cup rematch in a four-day span. With Donovan and Keane already departed and Beckham typically rested when two games are played in such quick succession, the Galaxy need their non-DP performers to rally together and rebuild the foundation and the club's identity before the its futile title and Supporters' Shield defense reaches even newer lows.

3. Klinsmann does Shea, FC Dallas a favor. Brek Shea's omission from the U.S. national team roster came as a surprise to some who would have thought the highly touted FC Dallas winger was a shoo-in. Despite his uneven season, no player had been a more prevalent part of Klinsmann's camps and rosters since last summer than Shea.

Shea, like FC Dallas, has struggled to find consistency at his top level, and his frustrations boiled over last week against Columbus with his deliberate kick of a ball at an assistant referee that somehow went unpunished in the match but caught the ire of the MLS Disciplinary Committee. The three game-suspension undoubtedly sent Shea a message, but it also made Klinsmann's decision to leave the left winger off the U.S. roster a bit simpler. Between the lack of maturity that Shea showed on the play (he did own up to everything in comments made following the suspension) and the fact that a call-up would have prevented Shea from serving the suspension until later, Klinsmann elected to pass.

"We have watched Brek during the last few months, and given his performances and some of the other issues we felt he should be on the standby list," Klinsmann said. "He's still a young player with a lot of talent, and also a lot to learn."

Klinsmann did Shea and FC Dallas a favor by leaving him out of this camp. Shea would not have been able to serve his suspension while away on U.S. duty, so instead of being out of MLS action until July 4, which would have been the case had he been tabbed by Klinsmann, Shea is due to miss the next two matches and return on June 16 for Dallas' first foray into BBVA Compass Stadium against Texas rival Houston. Expect a well-rested and motivated Shea to turn next month.

4. The pre-break push. With the international break giving most MLS teams 2-to-3 weeks off, schedule makers had to cram matches in before national teams take center stage. As a result, the next six days will be a whirlwind around the league.

Between midweek and weekend league games and the final of the Canadian championship between Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps, nine of the league's 19 teams will play twice between Wednesday and Sunday. TFC, Vancouver, Chivas USA, Chicago Fire, FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, Columbus Crew, LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes are all on double duty, leaving coaches -- some who are already short-handed by international absences -- with lineup decisions and tactical adjustments to make and players left with no option but to be stretched to the max.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Andy Gruenebaum (Columbus Crew)

Defenders: Danny Califf (Chivas USA), Eric Brunner (Portland Timbers), Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), Alain Rochat (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Midfielders: Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United), Oswaldo Minda (Chivas USA), Perry Kitchen (D.C. United)

Forwards: Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders), Saer Sene (New England Revolution)

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