All hail the maple leaf. With some of the top teams in MLS on bye to focus on the CONCACAF Champions League, an unprecedented and historic week took center (centre?) stage and highlighted Week 2 ...
1. Oh, Canada. Canadian soccer has been through enough in the last calendar year. Whether it was the women feeling robbed of a result against the U.S. in the Olympic semifinals; the men falling apart in an 8-1 defeat in Honduras with a chance to qualify for the CONCACAF Hexagonal; the U-20 men falling to the U.S. with a chance to qualify for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup; or the general malaise and circus encompassing Toronto FC reaching new lows.
So Saturday's historic feat, in which all three Canadian MLS teams won on the same day for the first time, is certain cause for celebration in the Great White North. Toronto FC snapped a 15-game league winless drought, securing three points for the first time since July and handling Sporting Kansas City, of all teams. That Vancouver took care of business at home against Columbus is not surprising, but to do so without injured captain Jay DeMerit while getting vital contributions from high-priced forward Kenny Miller and newcomers Nigel Reo-Coker and Daigo Kobayashi is an excellent indicator of things to come for Martin Rennie's side.
The most impressive, though, might just be the Montreal Impact, who breezed through two of the league's toughest opposing venues -- Seattle's CenturyLink Field and Portland's Jeld-Wen Field -- and emerged with six points. The only other team that pulled off that double in one season was Real Salt Lake last year. Montreal has done it in consecutive weeks under new management that has thumbed its nose at those maintaining that foreign coaches have a rough go in MLS. Marco Schallibaum's defensive and counterattacking tactics have been expertly executed by his charges, and for Montreal, which has already matched its road win total from a season ago, it appears to have staying power potential as long as its aging veterans are able to hold up over the course of the season.
The Canadian sides all did things a bit differently as well. Toronto and Montreal were completely dominated in terms of possession (Sporting KC had a 68-32 edge on possssion over TFC, while Portland saw 62 percent of the ball compared to Montreal's 37), but were able to be effective on the counter and cash in on their opportunities. There was a bit of home-turf advantage as well, as Sporting KC and Columbus both had defensive lapses in possession that gifted goals for Toronto and Vancouver, respectively, and paved the way for their results.
Where these teams go from here and whether the Canadian reign becomes a theme of the season remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The rare Canadian sweep won't be repeated this coming week. Montreal and Toronto square off with one another, and Vancouver is on bye.
2. Finding perspective in slow starts. In most sports, but especially MLS, it's vital to remember the cliche, it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
The forgiving league format in which 10 out of 19 teams make the playoffs after a 34-game season creates plenty of margin for error, so those fretting after a winless couple of weeks should be mindful. Of course, not all seasons and teams are created equally, so those finding solace in the fact that the LA Galaxy began 3-8-2 last season before turning it on and winning another MLS Cup might want to temper their comparisons a bit as well.
The 0-2-0 Colorado Rapids and Chicago Fire, for example, don't have a Landon Donovan-David Beckham-Robbie Keane-caliber trio to turn to, nor do they have a pending Omar Gonzalez return in waiting. They are both dealing with key absences, though, players who should be able to help rectify their issues.
Chicago is yet to play with Arne Friedrich and Logan Pause, two veterans who can tighten the back line. Coach Frank Klopas has the attacking talent at his disposal to churn out a prolific team, but the new pieces are still finding their rhythm. In the meantime, it is on the club's defense to pull its weight, but after conceding four goals to the Galaxy and then failing to come up with a sound clearance to ultimately allow New England's Jerry Bengtson to head home the shock game-winner Saturday, that unit is not getting the job done. Friedrich especially, with his positional expertise and ability, will help alter that once his hamstring heals.
Colorado was always going to need time to work in its hoard of new parts. The Rapids still have not had integral playmaker Martin Rivero or forward Edson Buddle, both hurt, see the field and instead have turned to rookies Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown in big spots early. The team's leading scorer from a season ago, Jaime Castrillon, might not be able to play until August after knee surgery. Like FC Dallas showed last season, it is quite realistic to stem the tide during player absences and make a run from the bottom of the table to playoff contention. It appears that is what Colorado must replicate to become a player in the Western Conference.
3. Miller Time haunts New York again. "Miller Time" has never carried a positive association for New York sports fans, not after Reggie Miller's NBA playoff heroics in mid-1990s. This version is self-inflicted, though.
Roy Miller's new nickname should be "The Cat," because the New York Red Bulls left back appears to have nine lives. The Costa Rican international has been at the heart of some performances that would see countless others earn one-way tickets out of town, only for him to be given chance after chance to redeem himself. Only the chances at redemption have gone begging worse than his ill-fated free kick that sealed New York's playoff exit last season.
On Sunday, he pulled off the impressive feat of being beaten for a late equalizer, committing a handball that gifted San Jose a stoppage-time penalty and then needlessly encroaching when Chris Wondolowski's initial spot kick was saved by Luis Robles. The reigning league MVP made good on his second chance to bury the Red Bulls and ensure they walked away from their season-opening two-game road swing with one point instead of the six they could have had. After Miller's latest failure, the writing may be on the wall for Connor Lade to step into the lineup or for Heath Pearce to slide to left back.
4. Scheduling priority in plain view. MLS catches plenty of flack for its scheduling, most notably games during international breaks throughout the season, but the league did a solid by giving Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle bye weeks this past weekend, with all three involved in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
In his preseason address, MLS commissioner Don Garber reiterated his goal at making his league one of the best in the world by 2022, and a step in that process is becoming the best in the region. To do that, regular CCL success and earning a place at the FIFA Club World Cup is a must, and the fact that the league will go to lengths to assist its teams in the competition as much as it can is commendable. It is not unprecedented for the league to show preference to CCL participants. Two years ago, the league allowed Real Salt Lake to reschedule a league game against the Philadelphia Union that was initially slated in between the two legs of the CCL final against Monterrey in an effort to provide an advantage, albeit one that ultimately did not pay off.
With Houston, L.A. and Seattle all having realistic chances of advancing after last week's first legs, the extra rest and preparation time afforded to them will certainly come in handy and provide a luxury that the opponents of the Dynamo and Sounders, Mexican sides Santos Laguna and Tigres UANL, won't have after they had to play this weekend. Whether it pays off this time will be determined this week, but at least MLS is trying and has its priorities lined up.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Matt Reis (New England Revolution)
Defenders: Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union), Hassoun Camara (Montreal Impact), Dejan Jakovic (D.C. United), Austin Berry (Chicago Fire)
Midfielders: Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Daigo Kobayashi (Vancouver Whitecaps), Juan Toja (New England Revolution)
Forwards: Robert Earnshaw (Toronto FC), Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), Kenny Miller (Vancouver Whitecaps)
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