MLS' Rivalry Week might not have had the goal barrage most would have hoped for, but drama and storylines oozed out of just about every match in a landmark week:
1. MLS Breakaway's debut. MLS has taken strides over the years, from the construction of state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadiums, to increasing average attendance numbers to improving the quality of play. The one frontier the league has yet to conquer is increasing dull, static TV ratings, but last weekend offered a glimpse into a potential solution.
NBC Sports Network's MLS Breakaway debuted in conjunction with Rivalry Week, offering fans at home whip-around coverage along the lines of NFL's popular RedZone channel. Unfortunately, most of the drama and late-game heroics came during the matches either before or after the four-and-a-half-hour studio show, which featured host Russ Thaler and top broadcast team Arlo White and Kyle Martino offering their instant analysis of games and notable happenings around the league (and impressively doing so immediately after being ushered from calling the D.C.-New York game at Red Bull Arena to the studio in Stamford, Conn.). The poorly timed lack of league-wide action did not take away from the spectacle, though, nor did it subdue the buzz created by MLS in its effort to showcase its league. The fact that MLS has a partner in NBC Sports that is willing to try new and innovative ways to promote the league's TV content is a boon for the present and future.
Breakaway had a multi-pronged effect. It gave home viewers who have a basic cable package exposure to games around the league. It also pressured local MLS broadcasts, which have come under scrutiny, to up their quality, knowing there was national attention. For teams who don't appear on national TV frequently, despite their relative success -- think Columbus and Real Salt Lake -- Breakaway provided a chance for widespread acknowledgment, even if just few-minute doses.
It was not a perfect experience, which is to be expected in the first run-through, although some of that was not in the network's control. With four low-scoring draws and eight total goals spread across six games before the Seattle-Portland nightcap, there was not a whole lot of rapid-fire movement necessary, and the live look-ins did not guarantee any exciting moments. The studio team managed to provide its insight to fill the down time rather seamlessly, regardless. When the games were flashed to as goals were scored, instead of the home broadcast's announcers having their calls aired, it was often the studio hosts narrating the play-by-play, which took a bit away from fans having the feel of being connected to a local broadcast they might not otherwise be able to see.
All things told, though, Saturday was a landmark day in MLS media. We won't know the real impact of Breakaway until ratings come out and it is determined whether it becomes a regular feature, but for at least one night, MLS' TV coverage had a Major League feel to it. That's a step everyone should be able to embrace.
2. Kinnear's fighting words. Houston Dynamo coach Dom Kinnear certainly did not hold back after watching his club fall to FC Dallas on Sunday afternoon.
Kinnear's pointed tirade at Dallas for allegedly diving to earn foul calls turned plenty of heads, for both the content of his comments and the stark, uncensored level of truth they contained. While Kenny Cooper's actions, both allegedly diving and handling the ball that led to Dallas' late game-winning goal, were the ones that pushed Kinnear to the boiling point, his overall message was one directed at a league-wide problem.
For those who missed Kinnear's remarks, he told reporters after the game that, "I've watched this league for three weeks now and it saddens me that we have people who have no problem diving, and looking for fouls and then looking to the heavens. It's a sickening epidemic that's going on in our league and hopefully it cancels itself out here pretty soon. Because some teams play hard, some guys cheat. Sometimes the cheaters win. When you have guys that don't even get looked at, don't get touched, falling on the ground looking for fouls, it makes me want to throw up.
"Hopefully the players look at themselves and realize that they are cheaters, first, and putting the game into total disrespect. And hopefully that's something that we, as coaches and players and as a league, can stop. Because it makes me not want to watch the game."
Now, for these words to come from a coach of Kinnear's stature definitely gives them more credence. Kinnear is traditionally a frank and candid guy, but he hardly toes the line of controversy just for the sake of it. That said, it doesn't take long for certain players to earn the reputation of being a diver (it took Toronto FC newcomer John Bostock about half an hour to put referees on notice), and the league has taken measures to eliminate simulation.
Regardless of whether the league's referees are as adept at catching it as frequently as is necessary, the MLS Disciplinary Committee will continue to enforce its punishments. Otherwise, there's not much else that can be done short of embracing an honor code. Unfortunately, diving happens everywhere, and while in an ideal world MLS would be the world leader in fair play, that's just not a realistic expectation despite Kinnear's warranted frustration.
And, let it be said too, that had Kinnear's own players -- specifically Giles Barnes and his bonehead choice to fire from an angle instead of pass to a wide-open Will Bruin for a sitter -- made better decisions earlier in the match during the run of play, then perhaps Dallas' alleged antics later on would not have been such a hot-button topic.
3. Kevin Hartman, anybody? The moment Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens went down clutching his forearm, plenty of inquiring minds went straight to wondering what Kevin Hartman was doing on Saturday afternoon.
With the goalkeeper who holds the MLS records for games and minutes played, starts, shutouts, wins and saves without a team after being let go by FC Dallas in the offseason, it only seems natural to connect his whereabouts to the situation going on at Dick's Sporting Goods Park right now. Pickens' broken forearm leaves the Rapids in a bind in goal for the next three to four months. Steward Ceus' howler in the opening week hardly inspired confidence with him between the pipes, and even though Clint Irwin was borderline heroic after being rushed into Rocky Mountain Cup duty for his MLS debut, there are fair questions about his long-term prospects. An experienced alternative is certainly a must.
In Hartman's old stomping grounds, Raul Fernandez's latest erratic display has plenty wondering if FCD is really better off with the Peruvian in net. Even though it is unrealistic to expect Schellas Hyndman to do a 180 and turn back to the 38-year-old Hartman, especially given his track record of making a defined break from players he lets go, it is understandable to question why he was jettisoned in the first place. With uncertainty in some nets creeping in and a player of Hartman's stature seemingly available for hire, El Gato may very well find his rightful place back on an MLS roster to add to his storied career.
4. Chivas USA earns more respect. Chivas USA has been an intriguing story for months, but the club is starting to earn its intrigue for the right reason now: Performance on the field.
The Goats salvaging a tie with the rival Galaxy despite being down to 10 men for 50 minutes was worthy of respect. Flamboyant coach Jose Luis "Chelis" Sanchez Sola alluding to that in his -- yet again -- colorful postgame remarks. The bogus red card given by Ricardo Salazar (See Seattle? He does it to other teams too!) put Chivas in a bind, but the club held its own and even managed to find an equalizer after conceding a late go-ahead goal.
Chelis' madness had many wondering if Chivas was going to crash and burn in spectacular fashion, but with his unheralded group of players seemingly buying into what he is selling -- as evidenced by the effort in the club's last two matches -- perhaps MLS commissioner Don Garber's preaching for patience with the club was the right tact after all. Despite the lack of fans it has brought to the stands so far, this club is rapidly becoming must-watch material.
5. Team of the Week. Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
Defenders: Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes), Dejan Jakovic (D.C. United), Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Carlos Borja (Chivas USA)
Midfielders: Jonny Steele (New York Red Bulls), Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders), Steve Zakuani (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Deshorn Brown (Colorado Rapids), Marco Di Vaio (Montreal Impact)