The Galaxy steady the ship, and two Eastern Conference contenders are on shaky standing. That and more from Week 2 in Major League Soccer:
1. Talks of a Galaxy crisis were exaggerated. Those ready and eager to write off the Los Angeles Galaxy off had a list of reasons piling up in their favor. The club's disappointing CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals exit, combined with a vulnerable defense and underperforming attacking stars gave legitimate cause for concern after a three-game sample size. But that's just it. It was a three-game sample size. In March. The fact is, the Galaxy might not be as invincible as most made them out to be, but they aren't going to fold, either. The team as a whole has only had a few weeks together, with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane spending their winters on loan in the Premier League. No matter the familiarity between the players in that lineup, it still takes time for all of the pieces in that well-oiled machine to get going. Defensively, there are still plenty of questions. The unit had a steadier outing in a 3-1 win against D.C. United with Andrew Boyens plugged into Omar Gonzalez's vacated central role, but it still got stretched and lacked total organization and was fortunate not to have been beaten by D.C. attackers on a few occasions.
Nevertheless, in the 90 minutes following their 2011 championship ring ceremony on Sunday, the Galaxy displayed the quality that most expected of the star-studded club this season, and the scoreline was kept down only due to the heroics of backup D.C. goalkeeper Joe Willis. After having to play four games in 12 days, the Galaxy won't play a meaningful match for another 13 (against bottom dweller New England, no less), getting the chance to rest any weary legs following a grueling early-season slate. The Galaxy now have company atop a loaded Western Conference, but don't expect them to get left behind in the title race because of an early-March stumble.
2. The real crises are developing in Philadelphia and New York. There's something going on in the Mid-Atlantic, and it's taking a toll on two playoff teams from a year ago. A quick start to the 2012 season was thought to be key for the Philadelphia Union, in order for the club to put its roller coaster of an offseason in the rearview mirror and inspire confidence that the club's moves, including the controversial trade of Sebastien Le Toux, were ultimately for the greater good. Two losses later, the Union are on shaky ground with an unpolished attack, a flustered goalkeeper and an apparent disconnect between coach and captain. The spine of a team is through the center, and issues involving goalkeeper Zac MacMath and center back and captain Danny Califf have only added to the team's early struggles.
Confidence is the most valued trait for a goalkeeper, and despite his saying otherwise, it is rather apparent that MacMath's is waning by the game. His season-opening follies in Portland could have been a product of rainy conditions and a slippery ball, but the second-year keeper was to blame again for letting a cross cleanly sail over him reach to a wide-open Jaime Castrillon by the far post for Colorado's first goal. MacMath also appeared to dive away from Tony Cascio's powerful shot after a defensive breakdown, one that came with Philadelphia having a man-advantage that it could barely use to its favor until it was too late.
In defense of the Union's decision makers, 2011 goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon's return to Colombia was his desire, not the team's, and MacMath had previously demonstrated that he has the skill-set to be a No. 1 keeper. But after Mondragon provided such steady, consistent play last season, MacMath is bringing back memories of the adventure-filled expansion season, when goalkeeping mistakes were part of the norm.
The oddest development for the Union, though, involves Califf, who was scratched from Sunday's starting lineup. While manager Peter Nowak, in his postgame comments to the media, insisted that Califf was dealing with the aftereffects of a meniscus issue in his knee (despite it not being listed on the club's most recent injury report), Califf seemed miffed by the suggestion and claimed to not have an injury of the sort. It's a situation that bears watching going forward. Things will need a sudden upturn next week against Chicago, because the following week the visiting opponent at PPL Park is none other than Le Toux's Vancouver Whitecaps.
A little further up Interstate 95, the sky-high expectations in New York have been met with two underwhelming, flat performances.
Hans Backe refusing to start the in-form Kenny Cooper up top with Thierry Henry for a second straight game was one of the head-scratching decisions of the week. The Red Bulls attack turned in another lifeless showing, albeit against one of the league's better defensive units in Real Salt Lake.
After everything that happened last season, it's hard to believe that Rafa Marquez, fresh off a two-game suspension, could play the role of savior. The Red Bulls will need him to play the role of deep-lying midfield distributor -- a la David Beckham in L.A., Torsten Frings in Toronto, Pavel Pardo in Chicago and Gabriel Gomez in Philadelphia -- to take creative duties off Henry's shoulders and allow the Frenchman to do what he does best: Finish in front of goal.
In the Red Bulls' defense, their losses have taken place on the road at the homes of two of the better teams in the league, FC Dallas and RSL, but Backe's hot seat will get a whole lot warmer if the club can't come up with a result against a Jeff Larentowicz-less (suspension) Colorado Rapids on national television this weekend.
3. The Beckham Treatment. David Beckham's role in the success, growth and viability of MLS is indisputable, and his productivity on the field continues to spark the Galaxy. That said, the iconic Englishman continues to get away with more misconduct than any other player in MLS. After inexplicably throwing a ball in the direction of a referee in the Galaxy's season-opening game without being disciplined, Beckham delivered a crunching tackle on D.C. United's Marcelo Saragosa and walked away uncarded. It marked the second straight season in which Beckham committed a particularly harsh challenge on a D.C. player, after he came up with a scissoring leg swipe of Josh Wolff at RFK Stadium last April.
Beckham's aggressiveness hasn't gone completely unnoticed -- he tied for the most yellow cards in MLS last season (10). In the aftermath of last season's injuries to Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales, MLS commissioner Don Garber adamantly said before this season that the league's discipline committee would take a hard line on overly harsh challenges, even those that did not result in in-game whistles or cards, by dealing out fines and suspensions as it sees fit.
It is doubtful that Beckham, will receive postgame discipline for his rough tackle on Sunday, but it does make you wonder what would have happened if it were someeone else who delivered the challenge. The league's effort to clean the game up, protect its players, prevent unnecessary injuries and eliminate embellishment is commendable, but the implementation, especially when concerning the marquee stars in the league, is far from a clear-cut exercise.
4. Estrada rises to challenge in Seattle. David Estrada may yet be worth the first-round pick that the Seattle Sounders used to acquire him in 2010. The UCLA product tallied the most unexpected of hat tricks over the weekend, scoring his first three MLS goals in just his seventh first-team game as a pro. With the club searching for a capable complement to DP striker Fredy Montero for the last two years, it turns out that the solution might have been inside the home locker room at CenturyLink Field after all.
Against Toronto, Estrada showed a strong sense of understanding between himself and Uruguayan DP Alvaro Fernandez, with his well-timed runs past the porous TFC back line taking defensive attention away from Montero.
Seattle fans were disappointed when Emerald City Supporters favorites Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle were traded for one-time U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson -- but a new fan favorite was born Saturday night. Estrada will force Johnson to earn his minutes when he regains full fitness from his current hip injury.
5. Team of the Week.
Goalkeeper: Tally Hall (Houston Dynamo)
Defenders: Seth Sinovic (Sporting Kansas City), Marvell Wynne (Colorado Rapids), Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps), Ramiro Corrales (San Jose Earthquakes)
Midfielders: Alvaro Fernandez (Seattle Sounders), Ned Grabavoy (Real Salt Lake), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Forwards: David Estrada (Seattle Sounders), Kei Kamara (Sporting Kansas City), Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy)