1. Best week ever: It seems almost inconceivable that Real Salt Lake's week could get any sweeter. Last Tuesday, Jason Kreis' well-constructed side became the first MLS club to make a CONCACAF Champions League final. It's a huge moment for the league and the club, now one series away from a spot in the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup.
It might have been a minor downer to follow all that by getting punched in the face in a weekend match at New England, losing momentum in the league chase. Still, Kreis surmised that resting a bunch of starters was best.
So seven regulars were on the bench at kickoff. By night's end, Real Salt Lake's posse of reserves had outperformed the home team, keeping shape and discipline and playing smart as border collies in a 2-0 win. All the damage was done by the time Shalrie Joseph (71st minute) and Pat Phalen (85th) were tossed for New England.
"We put the challenge on them to rise to this occasion -- to step out and step up and make a statement for themselves," Kreis said about his backups. "Not only for us, but for everybody in the league of what kind of players they are. We see them every single day at training, and we have a whole lot of belief in them. ... I think they made a big statement for themselves and for our club."
Have Kreis and Co. built one of the deepest rosters in MLS history? You can probably check the box on that one.
2. The PK at RFK ... was it or wasn't it? We may as well include a running headline on MLS officiating in this weekly space.
The weekend's sore spot was at RFK Stadium, where Charlie Davies looked for the penalty kick, drew the PK and then converted the PK to claim the late equalizer against the infuriated Galaxy. He won the spot shot for minimal contact from L.A.'s Omar Gonzalez. There was contact, and referee Abbey Okulaja was more or less correct for pointing to the spot. The problem is that so many defenders regularly get away with the very same thing, so it's hard to blame the Galaxy for feeling hard done.
When laws are applied unevenly, controversy and bad feelings are never far away. The postgame comments from Galaxy coach Bruce Arena were interesting -- in a "does he really think that?" kind of way.
"Unfortunately, it's becoming a pattern [with MLS officiating]," he told The Washington Post. "It hasn't been good. Hopefully it will get better because it's impacting a lot of games."
Presumably that was a bit of the ol' Arena sarcasm, because nothing is "becoming" a pattern; MLS officiating has been poor for years.
On the other hand, Arena and every other MLS coach must always remember: Weak, inconsistent and indecisive stuff from the men in the middle always works both ways. Yes, the late PK was a little soft. But let's talk about David Beckham's brutal, scissors-type challenge on United's Josh Wolff. That's a red card. Or should have been. Okulaja's inconsistency worked in Galaxy favor here. Otherwise, Beckham would be in the stands for Wednesday's match in Toronto, as well.
3. Defensive choices at Chivas USA: Robin Fraser has already forgotten more about defense than most of us will ever know. We'd all be wise to pay attention to the Chivas USA coach's choices -- and he's making some interesting ones along the back line.
Fraser's top objective is to get the team tight and right in organization and possession -- and then worry about scoring goals later. So the Chivas USA defense today, just four weeks into the season, has already shown serious improvement over the loosey-goosey back line we saw to open Fraser's debut campaign in charge.
Michael Lahoud just turned in his second solid performance at right back. Lahoud was a promising young central midfielder upon his 2009 rookie arrival. He moved to the outside last year. But you know how things are at Chivas USA: Coaches come and go, players come and players tend to get lost as the organization wanders.
It was intriguing, then, when Lahoud popped up at right back two weeks ago, debuting brightly against Toronto's Alen Stevanovic, a promising young winger who made nine Serie A appearances last year. Then last weekend, when Lahoud threw the same kind of blanket over Columbus' Robbie Rogers -- who is fighting for his professional life at the moment -- this really got interesting. Lahoud is getting forward, too, by the way.
He replaced Heath Pearce at right back. Pearce has manned left back, right back and even midfield positions in his career -- but never center back. Until now, that is. Pearce has played there twice and hasn't done a thing wrong yet.
Alongside him Saturday was Zarek Valentin, 19, another of the Akron products now taking over the MLS world. If Fraser says he is good enough to start in MLS as a center back, well, he probably is.
Jimmy Conrad will have something to say about all this when his concussion-related symptoms clear. For now? The Chivas USA offense may be dull as a PBS pledge drive, but the defense is coming along fine.
4. Byproducts of the 34-game season: With 34 games this year (four more than last year), coaches seem freer to experiment. The consequences of trials gone wrong just aren't as severe given the extra matches.
While Fraser sorts out his back line, Aron Winter is doing the same at Toronto, where Danleigh Borman appears to be a nice fit at left back after coming over from New York.
In Dallas, the search continues for Brek Shea's top spot. He was at left back in a 3-0 win over Colorado, looking far more comfortable there than previously in the middle, where he has more opportunity for errors along the learning curve.
In New England, coach Steve Nicol hasn't settled on his forwards for a new 4-3-3. Down the coast, Ben Olsen keeps trying to sort out the midfield mix at D.C. United. He'll also have to keep assessing the Charlie Davies situation; so far he's coming off the bench. (Davies may also become the first MLS man to penalty-kick his way into a season scoring title; he leads the league in goals with four, as three have come from the 12-yard spot.)
In between Boston and D.C., Red Bulls coach Hans Backe has some tinkering ahead, too, because something just isn't right with Thierry Henry.
It was all Red Bull in terms of possession Saturday in Philadelphia. And Backe's boys have that part right, with tidy passing and spacing over the first two-thirds of the field. (Tim Ream's huge boo-boo the other night notwithstanding.) On the other hand, the Red Bulls' offense is plodding, in desperate need of some razzmatazz.
Dwayne De Rosario's starting debut couldn't jazz up the mix, as he mishit a couple of juicy opportunities. But mostly it's about Henry. He is tracking back and looking for the ball in different spots. But Henry's timing and ability to read his teammates is off. He seems unable to combine, which is curious, because there are some dandy players around him. There's just something lacking -- and it's Backe's job to experiment until they all find a better way.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Toronto FC)
Defenders: Michael Lahoud (Chivas USA), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Bobby Boswell (Houston), Danleigh Borman (Toronto FC).
Midfielders: Mauro Rosales (Seattle), Davis Ferreira (FC Dallas), Simon Dawkins (San Jose), Collen Warner (Real Salt Lake), Brad Davis (Houston).
Forward: O'Brian White (Seattle).