MLS has returned in full force after a long international break, with two new coaches, a new stadium, a goal-line controversy and a full slate of matches marking the 2012 season's Week 15:
1. New managers find impact slow to take shape. Often when a team goes through a managerial change, there is an immediate emotional response that leads to inspired performances off the bat and a change -- though not necessarily permanent -- in the club's fortunes. For the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC, though, that was hardly the case in their first experiences under new management.
John Hackworth's first match since taking over in the interim for the ousted Peter Nowak produced a similar result for the Union, who were shut out for the fifth time in 12 games and have scored a league-worst eight goals. To be fair to the Union, they played a much more focused, energetic game under Hackworth, applying heavy pressure and winning the possession battle. Freddy Adu looked extremely spry while running the attack, and one of the moves Hackworth made to differentiate himself from Nowak, handing seldom-used Jack McInerney the start up top, generated a number of early chances. At the very least, there are building blocks for Hackworth to use going forward.
The same cannot be said for Toronto FC, as Paul Mariner had a rough go of it in his first match since replacing Aron Winter. Then again, it might not have mattered if it were Pep Guardiola taking that roster into Livestrong Sporting Park. The familiar combination of self-inflicted wounds, poor execution, bad luck (how did Eric Avila's shot that hit both posts not go in?) and a failure to mark in the box doomed the Reds, who had a few weeks to stew on their first league win before facing the harsh reality that is this season. In his introductory comments after being given the job, Mariner said that only minor tweaks were necessary and that the current group of players was good enough to turn things around. After biding his time and waiting for a much-deserved head-coaching job in MLS, at least Mariner already has coach-speak mastered.
2. Montreal moves into a new home. It's like clockwork: A new MLS stadium opens, and the home team puts on a show and wins.
The Montreal Impact continued that trend by opening the renovated Stade Saputo with a thrashing of the Seattle Sounders, turning in a comprehensive, impressive victory. The Impact, led by the Patrice Bernier-Felipe midfield tandem, played an inspired brand of soccer while completely bossing a stunned Sounders team that sorely missed suspended midfield cog Osvaldo Alonso. The match made home teams either opening a new stadium or playing their first home game as a franchise in the last three years an overwhelming 7-1-2 under such circumstances.
It was quite surprising and a bit underwhelming, though, to see so many empty, blue seats come first kick. Only 17,112 -- more than 3,000 less than full capacity -- turned out for the stadium's re-opening, which is quite disappointing for a team that drew more than 60,000 to Olympic Stadium for a match against the Los Angeles Galaxy and almost 59,000 for the first home match at that same venue against the Chicago Fire. Perhaps there was a lack of fanfare leading into the match, because MLS was flying under the radar during the international break and has been overshadowed by Euro 2012; perhaps it was because Stade Saputo is not an entirely new stadium; perhaps it was because the match was not part of the ESPN/NBC Sports Network package; or perhaps the Impact were not aggressive enough in branding the re-opening as a major event, but for whatever reason, the match lacked the same celebratory feel that emanated from Houston just a little more than a month ago.
Ultimately, what matters most for the Impact is that they came out flying in a permanent place they have to call their own, and they generated some momentum ahead of Designated Player Marco Di Vaio's arrival, which will only spark the attack even more.
3. Goal-line technology implementation needs to happen ASAP. Anybody who caught the 64th minute of the Chicago Fire's 3-1 triumph over the New York Red Bulls saw what should be the final straw in the argument regarding the implementation of goal-line technology into The Beautiful Game, at least in MLS.
Despite New York defender Wilman Conde's best effort to pull a Tim Ream circa 2011 and sweep a goal-bound ball off the line, Dominic Oduro's deflected shot that slowly crept its way toward the vacated net clearly crossed the line in full and should have counted as a goal. Instead, referee Baldomero Toledo and his crew -- despite not having the best look at the play -- rewarded Conde's hustle with a no-goal call and allowed play to continue. If players in MLS can't keep up with Oduro's pace, how are assistant referees manning the sidelines expected to do so? To negate all potential human error in situations where good goals go uncounted, implementing replay is a must.
Fortunately for the Fire, the blown call did not matter, as they turned up the pressure and tacked on two more goals to break a 1-1 tie and continue the Red Bulls' woes at Toyota Park, where they are now 0-6-3 all-time. Regardless, the bigger issue remains that in 2012, when fans at the stadium and at home and coaches and players on the sidelines can see a replay within seconds and know unequivocally that a goal was scored, this problem -- no matter how infrequent -- continues to persist.
The International Football Association Board will meet following the conclusion of Euro 2012 to determine whether to approve goal-line technology and which system to potentially use, and as soon as a favorable decision is made, MLS should be on board with implementing the technology into its games. MLS commissioner Don Garber said as much in an April meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors.
"We're interested in being a test league, and we hope that we could achieve that," Garber said. "I would be open to whatever it is that could be done to ensure that we have goal-line technology. There's a lot more that we need to learn about it, understanding the process. The bottom line here is that I would be open to using goal-line technology as soon as it is made available."
That day can't come soon enough.
4. Mid-season contract decisions loom. The summer transfer window opens next week, and a bevy of new players have already signed on to join MLS when eligible, beginning June 27. Vancouver's Barry Robson, Houston's Oscar Boniek Garcia, Columbus' Jairo Arrieta, Chicago's Alex and Montreal's Di Vaio are all attacking talents who have begun or will begin training with their teams ahead of the opening of the window in the coming days.
While those players will be beginning their MLS careers mid-season, there are a couple of players who once joined the league in the summer months and whose contracts are up in the coming weeks, putting pressure on their respective front offices to avoid facing too much turmoil in their own locker rooms. Big decisions are looming for central midfielders in D.C. and Chicago, where salary constraints and front-office preference will play a role in determining whether Branko Boskovic and Sebastian Grazzini will be sticking around for the rest of the year.
Boskovic's situation has been touched on in this space before, and while he does not have a regular place in the starting lineup, the Montenegrin Designated Player has been integral in D.C.'s recent results. He has accounted for assists in the last three matches, including the game-winning one off a free kick in Philadelphia on Saturday. Just a month ago, Boskovic's exit seemed like a safe bet, but he has played his way into making this a tougher call, has demonstrated pinpoint set-piece service and is also a popular player in the D.C. locker room. D.C.'s ideal scenario would be to sign him for the remainder of the season for less money and re-evaluate things in December so as to not ruffle any feathers with the team playing as well as it is.
Grazzini's case is a bit trickier. The Argentine playmaker is only on a $50,400 deal, according to MLS Players Union documents, and with his deal up at the beginning of July, he wants a bigger payday. Grazzini is in somewhat of a Mauro Rosales situation, where the Seattle Designated Player -- oddly enough, also a veteran Argentine playmaker -- was on a veteran minimum deal before earning his big-money contract after a full year with the Sounders. The Fire reportedly maintain an option on Grazzini, the financial ramifications of which are not publicly known, and with Alex, a Brazilian attacker, joining the fold, Chicago has a contingency plan already in place. Can the Fire afford to part ways with one of the few attacking central midfielders in the league who can unlock opposing defenses when given the space? That remains to be seen. The big-picture issue is whether teams will continue to hand out year-long contracts to players entering the league mid-season or if they opt to go the 18-month route that is so prevalent across Europe during the mid-season transfer window. Altering the dynamic and balance of a locker room in the middle of a campaign is a task that must be handled with extreme discretion, and it is something that teams are better off avoiding, if possible.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeepers: Andy Gruenebaum (Columbus Crew)
Defenders: Kevin Alston (New England Revolution), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Martin Bonjour (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Midfielders: Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Jackson (FC Dallas), Felipe (Montreal Impact), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Patrick Nyarko (Chicago Fire)
Forwards: Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake), Sebastien Le Toux (Vancouver Whitecaps)