Five thoughts from MLS Week 16, when a pair of heated rivalries stole the show, the Los Angeles Galaxy rediscovered their swagger and a new team climbed to No. 1 in the Power Rankings:
1. A win for the unbalanced schedule. There is plenty that has been -- and could be -- said about MLS' unbalanced schedule, with some cases to be made for it and some against it. But Sunday's pair of rivalry matches provided a compelling argument supporting the lack of overall balance and emphasis on regional bouts. They defended the viewpoint that this schedule is great for the league.
Without overstating anything, the Portland-Seattle and New York-D.C. matches on Sunday evening were everything that rivalry games should be. The way they played out is exactly what the league is counting on: using these rivalries to further cultivate fan bases, generate sellouts at the box office and spark more widespread attention and higher television ratings in the entertainment sphere. Between the passion pouring from the Timbers Army and South Ward at both Jeld-Wen Field and Red Bull Arena, the non-stop, intense action on the field and the palpable sense of dislike between the teams (one that even spilled over into an on-field altercation in Portland), the notion that these clubs will meet three times this year with the new schedule -- instead of the usual home-and-home two meetings -- is a boon for the league and its fans. The added contest won't water down these matches in the least.
At a time when Euro 2012 is dominating the soccer headlines across the U.S., MLS needed a response of its own. And it got one in a major way. The trash talk off the field -- Brad Evans called the Sounders' organization "a cut above" Portland before missing two great looks at goal -- created some genuine, non-manufactured buzz in the week leading up to Sunday. The heroes created by these games, including the unheralded duo of Portland's David Horst and New York's Brandon Barklage (more on him below), ensured that Sunday's matches will be entrenched as "Remember When" moments for years to come. With the strides MLS has made over the years, it is easy to forget that the league is still relatively young, and that these burgeoning rivalries (no matter how far back the Seattle-Portland rivalry dates) are the foundations on which the league has rightfully chosen to build.
The league's unbalanced schedule is far from flawless, and the fact that a rivalry like the Texas showdown between Houston and Dallas has only has one match this season (something that could potentially change in the future if Houston moves back to the West when NY2 or another franchise steps up to become the league's 20th team) is an unfortunate byproduct of the competition shift. But with the most recent Cascadia Cup and Atlantic Cup matches fostering an atmosphere that fans want to be a part of, it's hard to fault the league for enhancing the importance and increasing the number of conference games on the schedule.
2. Brandon Barklage strikes back. Whether prompted by pure revenge or simply the motivation of playing against the team that cut him after last year, Brandon Barklage -- he of the zero career MLS goals entering the weekend -- turned into a world-class finisher for the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night. He etched his name in Atlantic Cup lore among the likes of Juan Pablo Angel, Luciano Emilio, Alecko Eskandarian, Ben Olsen and a host of others.
D.C. players will obviously rue Barklage's performance in the aftermath of the Red Bulls' win, but, despite the result, most D.C. players must be at least partially happy for their former teammate. Barklage's story goes as follows: A hard-working player with a bulldog mentality coming off a collegiate career at New Mexico University and St. Louis University, Barklage tore his ACL twice in three years with United and was deemed expendable as a result (let's be honest, it's a decision that most teams going through a roster overhaul would make). He was a popular figure in the D.C. locker room, and now, given the chance to play after New York picked him off the scrap heap, he is finally enjoying good health and on-field success.
Although Barklage's two goals against D.C. made for his most pronounced outing of the season, he has quietly been a revelation at right back for the Red Bulls since the tail end of April. That's when he earned the first of his nine (and counting) consecutive starts and was part of the unheralded back line unit that turned the club's season around. New York's rash of injuries forced manager Hans Backe to deploy Barklage, a midfielder for the duration of his career, as a defender. It has proven to be quite the serendipitous development.
3. Here comes the Galaxy. In the words of the immortal Ron Burgundy, "Boy, that escalated quickly!"
In the span of just seven days, the Los Angeles Galaxy went from old, uninspired has-beens into legitimate playoff contenders. Not to be overshadowed by the rivalry hoopla and the San Jose Earthquakes' rise to the top of the Western Conference standings, the Galaxy's nine-point week has elevated the defending MLS Cup champions back into postseason contention after all but being left for dead. In victories over Portland, Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, the Galaxy got back to doing what they do best: playing with heart and confidence -- as evidenced by their tremendous comeback in Salt Lake -- and putting opponents on their heels and defending with a lead.
Not surprisingly, the Galaxy's resurgence is due in large part to the improved play of captain Landon Donovan. The Galaxy are undefeated this season (5-0-0) in games which Donovan has a goal or an assist, and Bruce Arena's lineup tweak against Salt Lake that had Donovan playing essentially as a lone striker worked wonders. The move forced Donovan to become more involved, to apply more pressure to RSL's back line and to be more inventive off the ball, the latter an area of the game in which Donovan thrives. Donovan told the media upon his return from the U.S. national team that the responsibility was on him to be a better leader and kick-start the Galaxy's season. To his credit, he is delivering on that promise.
Looking ahead, David Beckham's pending departure to the Olympics next month will certainly take away from the club's on-field performance, and the CONCACAF Champions League games that begin in August will clutter the schedule going forward. For the first time in weeks, however, there is reason to believe that the Galaxy will be able to overcome all that and forge on -- something that could not be said prior to their nine-point, seven-day assault on the conference standings.
4. Will Bruin's emergence keys the Dynamo attack. The striker in the spotlight for the Houston Dynamo's matchup against the Montreal Impact was Brian Ching, and understandably so given the saga that involved Montreal and Houston's tug-of-war over the veteran forward during the preseason. Despite his professionalism during his brief weeks as a member of the Impact, Ching was booed mercilessly every time he touched the ball, and the Impact even marketed the game with video clip of Ching -- while with the Impact -- admitting his desire to finish his career in Houston. That's all good and well, but he wasn't the Dynamo striker that was at the center of attention once the action started. Will Bruin is quickly becoming the centerpiece of Houston's attack.
The Dancing Bear has proven to be a nightmare for opposing defenses in his second season, tallying four goals in his last three games to up his 2012 total to nine. Ching has played a big role in Bruin's development, both on and off the field, and Bruin is thriving as a result. That must be music to the ears of coach Dominic Kinnear, whose strike force was looking a bit underwhelming earlier in the season. He can now count on Bruin, who has two three-game scoring streaks this season, to carry the load after an inconsistent rookie year.
Anyone clamoring for Bruin to be a part of the U.S. men's national team's friendly against Mexico at Estadio Azteca in August, or the following World Cup qualifiers in the fall, probably needs to pump the brakes a bit. But Bruin is certainly playing himself into All-Star discussion and consideration for January's national team camp, one typically reserved for MLS players on the fringes of the international picture.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Matt Pickens (Colorado Rapids)
Defenders: Brandon Barklage (New York Red Bulls), Jason Hernandez (San Jose Earthquakes), David Horst (Portland Timbers)
Midfielders: Mike Magee (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Felipe (Montreal Impact)
Forwards: Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Danny Koevermans (Toronto FC)