From Alessandro Nesta's MLS debut to Jairo Arrieta's breakthrough performance, here are five thoughts from Saturday night's MLS action:
For all of the recent Designated Player signings in MLS, the league's newcomer with the most international cache isn't among them. But that hardly means Alessandro Nesta will be any less of an impact (don't worry, a quarter has been placed in the Impact pun jar) player for the final four-plus months of the season.
The Italian veteran center back and World Cup winner made his first appearance for the Montreal Impact in their 3-1 victory over the first-place New York Red Bulls at a sold-out Stade Saputo. Nesta partnered with Nelson Rivas, whose return from injury is another welcome development for the Impact, to help rectify a defense that had conceded 16 goals in its last seven games.
For a player still gaining fitness, Nesta sure had no problem conjuring his typical class, winning challenges in his own box, timing his tackles with precision and going head-to-head with the likes of Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper in his 90-minute shift. He was also a part of the eventual game-winning goal for Montreal, starting the sequence for the club's second goal with an accurate ball out of the back up toward Davy Arnaud, who worked a give-and-go with Felipe before finishing on the breakaway.
Between Nesta's successful debut and Marco Di Vaio finally breaking his scoring drought with his first goal in eight games (given the blue uniforms and the amount of Italian internationals on the club, can we just start calling Les Bleus the Azzurri instead already?), Montreal has the building blocks to make things interesting down the stretch of its inaugural MLS season. With teams directly ahead of Montreal in the playoff hunt having three or four games in hand and the Impact having just 10 games remaining, making the playoffs won't be easy, but at the very least the Impact have the kind of players to play the role of one heck of a spoiler.
Much of the focus on the FC Dallas-Los Angeles Galaxy bout was centered on who was not available for the match. For Los Angeles, Landon Donovan was serving a one-game suspension for card accumulation; David Beckham wasn't about to commute for a game from London for the second time this week; and steady left back Todd Dunivant is still nursing a calf injury. For FC Dallas, Brek Shea was left out again altogether despite not having his name on the injury report, meaning that the embattled star was a healthy scratch for the second time in as many games following his incident of showing up manager Schellas Hyndman after being substituted out of Dallas' loss to the San Jose Earthquakes.
With all of that, it would be easy to overlook who was on the field: opposing American center backs Omar Gonzalez and George John. Last year at this time, the major debate in U.S. Soccer circles was which of the two would be the next U.S. national team regular, but after a combination of injuries and failed transfer moves, both players have had their international aspirations put on hold.
When John entered at halftime, it marked his first match after sitting out the last seven games with concussion symptoms. For Gonzalez, the appearance in the 1-0 victory was his third of the season after tearing his ACL in January. It was by far his most influential and dominant showing of the three, and it was his first 90-minute stint for the Galaxy since the 2011 MLS Cup final. The hope for both players is that Saturday night's returns prove to be the springboard that catapults them back into the national team and transfer market discussion.
Over the last few games, Brad Davis has been playing at the level of his 2011 MVP candidacy, and that's great news for the surging Houston Dynamo.
Between all the changes going on with the Dynamo -- a formation change to a 4-3-3; Geoff Cameron transferring to Stoke City; Oscar Boniek Garcia being integrated into the team; Mac Kandji and Calen Carr emerging up top -- the one constant remains Davis. With two assists in a 2-0 win over Toronto FC, the veteran left winger now has assists in four straight games (six total) to give him his fifth season of double-digit assists in the last seven years. His pinpoint set piece delivery a big part of it, as was the case for Houston's first goal against TFC, but he's showing confidence in the run of play as well, as evidenced by his no-look slip pass into space for Brian Ching's game-clincher.
Coinciding with Davis regaining his top form, Houston, too, is looking like its 2011 edition. The club's defense is playing at its usual stingy level after a period of uncertainty, turning in five clean sheets in the last six matches. Even though Cameron's departure creates a massive void -- one that may very well end up being filled by former Dynamo standout and U.S. World Cup starter Ricardo Clark -- Davis has the leadership qualities and top-level ability to carry the team through the major transition.
The win in Toronto -- the club's first ever -- was just the start of a nice night overall for Houston, which saw first-place New York slip up at Montreal and second-place Sporting Kansas City falling at home to Columbus to pull within one point of New York with consecutive matches against the Red Bulls next up on the schedule. Even further, the Dynamo will not have to face in-form New York midfielder Dax McCarty on Friday, as he will be suspended for next week's clash because of card accumulation.
Few expected the New York Red Bulls' offseason signing of Brandon Barklage to be so vital toward the team's success, but it continues to be evident that he is one of the team's most important players.
Right back was a black hole all night in the Red Bulls' loss at Montreal with Barklage out with a hamstring injury and Jan Gunnar Solli sliding back from midfield to attempt to fill the void. Montreal directed its attack at that corner of the field repeatedly, electing to go right at Solli and center back Markus Holgersson and eventually succeeding after a series of defensive miscues. With Montreal threatening outside the box, Solli was wrong to step up on Justin Mapp at the top of the area, and even more wrong after retreating to give Di Vaio a good six yards of space inside the area to take his time, set up and beat Bill Gaudette to the far post.
Later on in the second half, after an awful turnover by Joel Lindpere in the Red Bulls' own third, Solli was left wandering upfield, well out of position as Red Bulls killer Sanna Nyassi fired home the clincher from short range with no pressure in the area which Solli should have been patrolling. If Barklage has to miss next Friday's match at Houston and Heath Pearce is not ready to return from his hamstring injury, then New York will be looking at the prospect of facing the in-form Davis with no reliable option to stop him.
Jairo Arrieta knows his place in the starting lineup is not a given, especially after the Columbus Crew went out and signed striker Federico Higuain (brother of Argentina and Real Madrid star Gonzalo) to a Designated Player contract Friday before the close of the league's summer transfer window. Perhaps that was the jolt the Costa Rican needed to find his top form, because he was on his game Saturday night.
With two goals, including a spectacular long-range effort, Arrieta helped Columbus to a huge 2-1 win at Livestrong Sporting Park over Sporting Kansas City, a win that has the Crew on the cusp of the postseason picture in the Eastern Conference and one made possible by Arrieta's work and the team withstanding wave after wave of SKC pressure to the tune of a 70-30 possession discrepancy.
With Arrieta's improved play, the Crew player who should really be looking over his shoulder now is the inconsistent Emilio Renteria, who suddenly has to fend off the club's big signings and up-and-coming forward Justin Meram just to get on the field. With more performances like the one Arrieta turned in Saturday night, the Venezuelan's time in Robert Warzycha's lineup appears to be fleeting.