Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 22:
1. Freddy Adu's MLS debut, Part Deux: No worries, young Freddy. Maybe you'll get 'em next week.
The mercurial young striker debuted for a second time in MLS on Saturday, just a day after signing up with the Philadelphia Union (for the first time) and coach Peter Nowak (for the second time).
There wasn't a lot to assess from this one, his first MLS match since 2007. Adu had just one training session with his new club, so his 62 minutes in a 2-2 draw with Dallas were nondescript. Plus, the Union offense can be forgiven for its wandering state at the moment, now reorganizing after the Adu news and after target striker Carlos Ruiz's midseason departure.
Adu appeared to have a semi-free role, starting on the left but drifting liberally inside to work behind strikers Sebastien Le Toux and Veljko Paunovic. But we'll need to grade him out as incomplete; he just didn't have much to say in a contest where Dallas' mental errors in the back arranged two penalty kicks for the home side.
"He's going to get more dangerous," Nowak told CSNPhilly.com. "We have to figure out the tactical part, we have to see where he fits in our system. For the first time, it was good to have him [on the field]."
It's on Nowak now to set the chess board just so for optimum offense, no easy task with because there are ample moving parts. Justin Mapp has enjoyed fruitful matches as a playmaker working from the outside in, but that's probably Adu's role now. Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney have mostly been bringing all their young promise off the bench -- but Ruiz's departure may open new windows. Meanwhile, the Le Toux mystery just runs on and on, as the man who hit for 14 goals last year keeps looking for his first non-PK strike of 2011.
2. MVP oddities ahead: Most Valuable Player races tend to be fairly predictable. Scan the list of leading scorers and top assist men. Circle the names from successful sides. Then factor in "brand awareness." That is, assign greater heft to the stars. Then you have a good idea of who's who in the MVP race.
Only, there may be a run on less conventional candidate in 2011. For instance, has there ever been a man on his third team in one season considered for MVP? Dwayne De Rosario may be the first, in such amazing form at the moment. Never mind that he arrived at RFK Stadium just seven matches back; he has six goals and three assists for United, which is 3-1-3 in that time.
Thierry Henry was getting ample MVP love around All-Star time and he's still doing his part for the otherwise wayward Red Bulls. His 12th goal of the season on Saturday was another world-class dandy. But what if New York doesn't make the playoffs, an increasing possibility considering the stench of mediocrity that has settled so unpleasantly over Red Bull Arena? Can the French DP's sparkle factor mitigate a playoff failure in the MVP race?
Along those lines, what if Eric Hassli goes on a big tear for Vancouver? He's currently third in goals with 10 and seems to have a few more in him. (On the other hand, Hassli would need to behave, and that's hardly a guarantee.)
Brek Shea scored again over the weekend, and his bright night in the U.S. shirt will add another gold star to the FC Dallas man's season. Shea is just 21 years old and would probably be the youngest, serious candidate ever considered should it come to pass. In fact, winners and official finalists tend to come from the "older side of town," if you know what we mean.
Not all the potential MVP candidates are odd ducks. Landon Donovan (second in league goals with 11) and David Beckham (tied for the league assist lead with 10) may yet file a claim. And it's safe to say their side, the Galaxy, will make the playoffs.
3. Low standards in New York; this is "bouncing back?": The Red Bull's slow spiral into mediocrity has been as compelling as it is mystifying. The issue around Red Bull Arena isn't offense -- even if the choice to ship away Dwayne De Rosario is looking worse by the minute. Thierry Henry has a league-leading 12 goals while Joel Lindpere keeps supplying timely strikes from his midfield post.
But that defense stinks. New York's 35 goals allowed is easily tops among the featured playoff contenders. Chicago beat the back line twice in Saturday's 2-2 draw and the Red Bulls are winless in their last six league matches (three losses, three ties).
So what's wrong? The jinx in goal isn't helping; designated stabilizer Frank Rost is hurt now. The lack of a midfield destroyer is a real liability. And then there's this: One of the club's high-priced DPs doesn't appear to be pulling his DP weight at the moment. Rafa Marquez suddenly looks older and stretched, perhaps worn from a busy summer. He was out of position on both Chicago goals Saturday. Nor did left back Roy Miller look good Saturday. And if we're being honest, U.S. international center back Tim Ream isn't having a great sophomore season, although it's not an awful one. His technical ability is fine, but his communication, his ability to read and react and his overall concentration have taken a baby step backward.
Coach Hans Backe was philosophical, choosing to stroke the team's apparently fragile psyche for a nice "bounce back" after getting bulldozed 3-0 last week at Real Salt Lake. Lindpere had similar thoughts, happy to be "playing better" as he said.
So, this is what it's come to at Red Bull Arena? A team with three DPs, an up-armored side that was picked pretty much unanimously to rule the East now considers a tie with Chicago as "bouncing back?" Chicago has a league low two wins for goodness sakes! At least Henry, for one, is calling it like it is.
"We are where we deserve to be," Henry said. "That's all I can tell you. If we keep on tying games and giving goals away, you deserve to be where you are. It's as simple as that."
4. Stages of grief in San Jose: In a year when too many players, coaches and officials are whining about "always being hard done by referees" and "never getting the breaks or the calls from officials," Earthquakes' coach Frank Yallop took his conspiratorial insinuations to the next level. He flat out said they are getting "screwed."
Fines are surely on the way. In the bigger picture, it's a little sad watching what's going on in San Jose, where the Earthquakes can't win -- and seem to be going through something like the seven stages of grief. Yallop is a good man by pretty much all estimations, and he's had success in years past in MLS, but things are going badly wrong at Buck Shaw. So, new rule: you have lost you're right to scream "We keep gettin' robbed!" and such when your team hasn't won in a club-record 11 games.
It all bubbled to the surface Saturday when Colorado took its turn punching the 'Quakes in the face. With the 2-1 loss, San Jose's record at home fell to an awful 3-4-7. In terms of points per game at home, San Jose's 1.14 is 17th in the 18-team league. Only Chicago is worse.
But there was Yallop, pressure clearly mounting, venting and blaming match officials. "It's ridiculous," Yallop said. "We're just getting screwed all the time. I'm not happy about it. It ruined the [expletive] game ... I'm sick of standing here, trying to explain it, when it's out of my hands what's going on. We did well enough to win the game. The referee decided differently, and here we are. I'm trying to explain a loss which shouldn't be."
Only, he's wrong. To hear him say it, San Jose was hammering the champs before Sam Cronin was ejected in the 50th minute. Was it an obvious red-card offense? Not at all. But Cronin did lunge in with both feet, which is always dicey, providing the referee with what we'll call the "opportunity to err." In fact, so did Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson in the 15th minute, and he got only a yellow. (By the way, players all around MLS don't seem to know the laws of the game. They commit obvious infractions, sometimes dangerously so, and then do that pantomime thing that says "I got the ball!" as if that excuses them from a tackle that could break someone's leg. If coaches aren't talking to their players about the rules, that's their fault.)
Which brings us back to Yallop and the Earthquakes. Cronin's ejection wasn't the worst call by officials in Week 22. Not anywhere close, in fact. Everyone in MLS gets, as Yallop put it so indignantly, "screwed" a time or two by referee error. San Jose clearly didn't get the breaks in this one, but it mostly balances out over a season. It does, that is, unless you're 14 games into a home schedule with just 17 goals to show for it. That's not an officiating problem.
In one way, Yallop is right. Some things aren't going San Jose's way in 2011 -- it's just not what he thinks. It's Chris Wondolowski. In truth, the Earthquakes' direct-approach offense wasn't any better last year. It's just that "Wonder Wondo" was having an other-worldly season, with almost everything he directed toward goal finding a way through as if by heavenly decree. This year, not so much.
Wondolowski missed chances Saturday in the 55th and 74th minute and again in stoppage time. One or two of them probably would have gone in last year. And then the story would be different. Then we wouldn't be talking about jobs in danger and impending fines. So keep watching. News will come out of San Jose one way or the other. And probably soon.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA)
Defenders: Richard Eckersley (Toronto) Julius James (Columbus), Michael Umana (Chivas USA), Drew Moor (Colorado).
Midfielders: Dane Richards (New York), Adam Moffat (Houston), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado), Chris Pontius (D.C. United).
Forward: Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United), Maicon Santos (Dallas).