The U.S. U-23s based in MLS face a return to reality, while decisions on and off the field question consistency. That and more from a wild Week 4 in MLS:
1. U-23s returning at their own paces. This weekend was supposed to be a coronation ceremony for a promising U.S. U-23 men's national team reaching its first goal of 2012. Instead, it was a harsh return to reality, as Mexico and Honduras claimed places in the Olympics while the future U.S. stars tried to turn the page and get back to work for their clubs.
The grieving process takes a different form and unfolds at a different pace for everybody, and one of the long-reaching effects of the highly scrutinized qualifying fiasco will be how lasting of an impact the Canada loss and El Salvador draw has on an impressionable group of young men.
Friday's D.C. United-FC Dallas game was a prime example of that. After logging heavy minutes in all three U.S. qualifying matches, D.C.'s Perry Kitchen and Dallas' Brek Shea returned to their respective starting lineups for their fourth game in eight days. Shea had his moments attacking down the flanks, but he ultimately looked worn out and a step slow and had a glossed-over look as he exited the stadium. Kitchen, meanwhile, embraced the next step, seemingly compartmentalizing the futile qualifying effort and his club duties, putting his head down, powering through and moving on.
"[Shea]'s still tired, and he might be emotionally tired as well," FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman noted following his club's 4-1 loss at RFK Stadium. "Kitchen came back and looked like himself. Every player it affects differently."
And that's just it. For some, getting back on the field and not looking back is an essential part of the process. For others, more time will be necessary to heal the wounds.
"It's not been a good week for me, personally," Shea said after going all 90 minutes. "It's hard coming back and trying to flip a switch and play a game. It hasn't been a good week. I'm just trying to get my head clear, get back to playing."
Shea and Kitchen are just two of 14 MLS players on the U-23s coping with the disappointment. Not all were regular starters for their teams before they left for international duty, but for ones that were, this weekend did not necessarily provide an immediate opportunity to move forward.
Incumbent starters Teal Bunbury and Sean Johnson, for example, returned to find their places in the lineup not waiting for them. While C.J. Sapong continues to justify his place in the Sporting Kansas City lineup ahead of Bunbury, Johnson, whose goalkeeping blunder in stoppage time against El Salvador is the lasting image of the qualifying tournament, watched from the bench as young Italian Paolo Tornaghi earned another start for the Chicago Fire. Both players will have to prove themselves, it would appear, just to get back the lion's share of minutes. That's a far cry from packing for London, and it's just another hurdle to clear in the process of accepting the qualification mishap and moving on.
"[Friday's win] still doesn't make up for [the failure to qualify], but it definitely helps," Kitchen said. "This is my focus now."
At some point in the coming weeks, the rest of Kitchen's MLS-based U-23 teammates will hopefully be able to reach that mindset as well.
2. Disciplinary committee's slippery slope. The intentions behind MLS' quest to eliminate potential injury-causing challenges are good and pure, but the league is heading down a slippery slope that ends at the doorstep of Pandora's box.
Wielding its power as a second line of punishment behind league officials, the MLS disciplinary committee issued Houston Dynamo midfielder Adam Moffat an undisclosed fine and one-game suspension late last week for the kind of hard tackle that takes place rather regularly and one that drew on-field discipline in the form of a yellow card. The league deemed Moffat's tackle of Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso -- one in which he came through the Sounders midfielder with an exposed cleat after making contact with the ball -- a "reckless challenge which endangered the safety of his opponent."
The real problem with exerting additional discipline to challenges like Moffat's is that the process is so subjective. There is no black-and-white checklist of what constitutes "reckless" and "endangering," and as a result, there's no possible way to consistently identify non-red-card-drawing tackles that are suspension-worthy. Plenty of hard tackles will go without further discipline, and rightfully so, but it opens the door for criticism and shouts of unbalance. If the league's mandate to protect its players and prevent hard challenges ultimately does that, then it will have been a success, but there's no way for it to proceed without each hard tackle -- i.e. D.C. United defender Brandon McDonald's rather hard challenge on FC Dallas striker Blas Perez -- being questioned and scrutinized going forward.
3. Consistency lacking on and off field. As far as MLS has come over the years, there is still a glaring lack of consistency in appearances, all the way from the playing field to the league's player-acquisition mechanisms.
On the field, two instances in separate games yielded wildly inconsistent decision-making processes.
In Seattle, physical San Jose forward Steven Lenhart initiated contact off the ball, running into defender Marc Burch's leg in the area and drawing a penalty call out of nothing from referee Mark Kadlecik. At the Home Depot Center Sunday night, meanwhile, Chivas USA center back Rauwshan McKenzie paid tribute to WrestleMania by nearly spearing C.J. Sapong to the ground in the area while not meriting a whistle from referee Edvin Jurisevic. Penalty calls or ones that go uncalled often draw the ire of one side in a battle, but those two decisions could not have been on further extremes of the penalty spectrum and still resulted in head-scratching reactions.
Off the field, the league's player-acquiring mechanisms still pique a bit of confusion. The Colorado Rapids were able to sign one-time U.S. forward Kamani Hill this past week, securing his rights through a weighted lottery. Despite having no other competitors in the lottery, Colorado was still forced to forego its rights for future player lotteries for the remainder of the season -- which is standard for the lottery process -- according to league sources. Fair enough.
That would seem fine if not for a similar instance that unfolded in the offseason that yielded a different outcome. The Portland Timbers were able to secure U.S. U-20 midfielder Charles Renken through what MLS deemed the "waiver" process as a result of the Timbers being the only team interested in signing him, therefore forgoing the lottery and allocation order routes. Portland, according to reports, was willing to part with its place in the allocation order to sign Renken, but the club was not required to give it up, essentially signing Renken without any of the ramifications that are in place to make the signings of U.S. internationals a fair battle.
Colorado having to be restricted going forward while Portland is not seems a bit unbalanced, at no fault of either club. They're just working within the system. That the league did not publicly acknowledge that there was even a lottery for Hill, who scored on his debut for the Rapids, makes the situation even murkier. It just goes to show that while progress has been made in the road to fairness, transparency and consistency, there is still work to be done.
4. Attendance figures disappoint. This past week was one the most entertaining and unpredictable of the young MLS season. Unfortunately, it was witnessed live by plenty of empty seats.
Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was various spring breaks, perhaps it was fan bases being unsatisfied with the opening few weeks, but crowds of less than 14,000 were announced at D.C. United's Friday night clash with FC Dallas, New York's home match with Montreal, and Sunday's Colorado-Chicago and Chivas USA-Sporting Kansas City bouts. Hundreds of more empty seats marred the stands for the Los Angeles Galaxy's home loss to New England and Philadelphia's scoreless draw with Vancouver -- a match that had the added lure of being Sebastien Le Toux's first game at PPL Park since being traded in the offseason.
If not for the Pacific Northwest skewing the curve (more than 38,000 showed up in Seattle, while more than 20,000 braved the rain in Portland for an early candidate for Game of the Year), this would've been one of the uglier weekends at the ticket turnstiles, and it's a shame, especially for those who missed out on one of D.C.'s best attacking displays in some time and Thierry Henry's first MLS hat trick.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Joe Willis (D.C. United)
Defenders: Chris Tierney (New England Revolution), Eric Gehrig (Columbus Crew), Marvell Wynne (Colorado Rapids), Lee Young-Pyo(Vancouver Whitecaps)
Midfielders: Nick DeLeon (D.C. United), Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)
Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Maicon Santos (D.C. United)