Carlos Bocanegra returned home, a pair of Galaxy youngsters filled some big shoes and a new team vaulted to the top of the MLS power rankings following the league's Week 21:
1. Bocanegra makes his return. Considering his stature in the U.S. Soccer realm, former national team captain Carlos Bocanegra's return to MLS could not have been met with less fanfare.
With an announced crowd of 7,851 scattered around the StubHub Center for a midweek, late night showing between two of the league's most futile franchises, Chivas USA and Toronto FC, Bocanegra took the first step in attempting to reclaim his place on the international scene, albeit in an unconventional manner.
More accustomed to playing on the grander stages of Europe, Bocanegra assimilated quite well into Chivas USA in his debut after being out of action for more than a month, playing a big role in helping the club end its 14-game winless streak with a 1-0 victory. Despite being listed as a left back, Bocanegra lined up in his typical place on the left half of central defense, and he marshaled the Chivas back line as if he had been immersed in it all season long. Vocally barking out instructions and positioning himself well throughout the game, Bocanegra's reintegration to MLS went about as well as could have been expected, save for one early rash challenge that was yellow-card worthy. Granted, he was going up against one of the worst sides in the league, which made for a simpler transition and a good vehicle to shake off some rust, but he answered a number of questions about his play immediately.
Now comes the interesting part. With three of the other top center backs in the USA player pool (Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson) plying their trade in MLS for the rest of this season, Bocanegra's return to the league presents him a chance to be judged and evaluated on a common playing field along with those with whom he is competing for call-ups and international playing time. Instead of playing in the relative obscurity of the Spanish second division, Bocanegra's skill level can be fairly compared and contrasted with the rest of those in the top tier of the USA's center back depth chart.
The chances for the 34-year-old Bocanegra to return back to the national team set-up ahead of the World Cup (assuming the USA qualifies) are getting slimmer by the month, and being left out of the Gold Cup is thought to be a significant blow to his hopes. Like Landon Donovan, Bocanegra is not used to being under pressure to play his way back onto the international stage, but by taking a bit of a risk in coming home to California and signing up for the Chivas USA project, Bocanegra has given himself another shot at proving himself and reaching a place where the fanfare is considerably more boisterous. And if it does not pan out, then U.S. fans will readily be able to see the reasons why.
2. Galaxy kids end Vancouver's streak. The Vancouver Whitecaps have been nothing if not acquiescent to the LA Galaxy's young stars over the last couple of seasons.
Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes both scored the first goals of their career against Vancouver, Villarreal doing so last season and Zardes following suit this past May. Both toasted the Whitecaps again in a critical Western Conference showdown, filling big shoes in the process. With Robbie Keane nursing a hip injury and Landon Donovan away reclaiming his international reputation with the U.S. national team, Bruce Arena turned to his two rising stars to get results, and they rose to the challenge.
The 21-year-old Zardes, especially, continues to wow, as the Homegrown Player and rookie's third goal of the season was an act of individual brilliance. Just getting to and controlling a long ball from Todd Dunivant that appeared headed out for a goal kick was impressive in its own right, but to have the wherewithal to take a quick look, chip the ball around defender Brad Rusin in such a tight space and immediately pull the trigger showed instincts that few forwards, young or old, possess in MLS. Doing so in the second half of a tie game between teams jockeying for playoff positioning -- the Galaxy took a one-point lead on Vancouver for third place in the West with the 2-1 win while snapping the Whitecaps' six-game unbeaten run -- makes the feat all the more magnified.
Both Zardes and Villarreal are spry, inventive and instinctual, with a knack for showing up in the right spot, and with Donovan and Keane running the show when present, there is no constant pressure on them to perform as they get nurtured and brought along through growing pains in a fostering environment. In the meantime, though, they have proven that they can shoulder the load when turned to, and that is a luxury that not many teams are afforded.
3. Goncalves restores order. New England Revolution center back and captain Jose Goncalves is a candidate for MLS Defender of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, so to see him struggle so much in the light of his All-Star Game snub in the Revs' 2-1 midweek loss to the Colorado Rapids was quite stunning. He was routinely beaten to an atypical effect and capped his day with a game-deciding own goal and a rash challenge that earned a yellow card, proving to be far from the stalwart standout he had been in the first 18 games of the season. After his ensuing performance against Columbus over the weekend, though, feel free to add "ability to bounce back from catastrophe " to his skill set.
Goncalves restored order with his defensive showing and late offensive heroics off a set piece that lifted the Revs to a 2-0 victory over the Columbus Crew and kept the club right in the hunt for a top-five place in the Eastern Conference. Facing a rested Crew side that was coming off a bye week, Goncalves got back to doing what has become the norm: Shutting down opposing forwards, maintaining organization across the back and reading the game extremely well. His game-winning goal was a just reward for his rebound showing in defense, and the totality of his performance showed just how valuable he has been and can be to the resurgent Revolution.
4. Impact play down curious Schallibaum speculation. The Montreal Impact are a shell of the version that took the league by storm in the opening third of the season, but the fact that the club's recent form led to rampant speculation regarding the future of manager Marco Schallibaum was shortsighted and, quite frankly, asinine.
Given that Jesse Marsch was unceremoniously shown the door after a rather successful opening campaign perhaps lent a bit more credence to the rumors about Schallibaum's demise, but they never really passed the smell test. It all stemmed from reports in South America that former MLS coach Juan Carlos Osorio was set to replace Schallibaum on the Impact bench -- a notion that made little sense based on everything on the surface. Despite a recent dip in form, Montreal is still in control of its own destiny in terms of taking the reins in the Eastern Conference, as it trails first-place Sporting Kansas City by four points with two games in hand. The club won the Canadian championship and will play in the CONCACAF Champions League, where it is the favorite to win its group.
To Montreal's credit, the club -- and Schallibaum -- played down everything immediately, and not every team would have acted so boldly. Often times teams will allow speculation, no matter how unreasonable it may seem, to linger while only offering a "no comment" that just adds fuel to any fire. The Impact addressed the situation in a press conference and had team owner Joey Saputo issue a comment on his personal Twitter account as well.
Schallibaum went out and guided his side to a 0-0 draw against FC Dallas over the weekend, as a sense of normalcy settled in for both the recently maligned Impact defense and the club as a whole after a bizarre few moments in the spotlight.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Donovan Ricketts (Portland Timbers)
Defenders: Drew Moor (Colorado Rapids), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Andrew Jean-Baptiste (Portland Timbers), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders)
Midfielders: Joel Lindpere (Chicago Fire), Justin Mapp (Montreal Impact), Nick LaBrocca (Colorado Rapids)
Forwards: Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake)
|Week 21 MLS Power Rankings|