Sporting Kansas City makes a statement, Rafa Marquez grabs headlines for the wrong reasons again and more snap judgments from Saturday's MLS action:
In a mouthwatering matchup of opposing styles, tactics and strengths, Sporting KC bested Real Salt Lake 1-0 (its fourth such win this season) to improve to 6-0-0 and claim early pole position in the race for the Supporters' Shield.
There was nothing flashy to Sporting KC's victory. It was just more of the same from the most dominating, enforcing team in MLS through the first six weeks of the season. Consider Sporting KC extended its streak of not conceding a shot- on-goal to 335 minutes (a Nat Borchers' header in second-half stoppage time made Jimmy Nielsen earn his keep for the first time in nearly four games -- he has had to make eight saves all season and has five clean sheets!), and that is all that is necessary to understand just how clockwork-esque the club's success has become.
That's not to say RSL did not show up. The visitors controlled about 55 percent of the game's possession, defended well and ultimately conceded one-too-many set pieces that led to the game-winning goal. The possession advantage was offset by Sporting KC's never-ending pressure, which stifled RSL and completely prevented it from connecting for a dangerous sequence going forward. Overall, RSL was held to 73 percent passing accuracy -- five percent less than its previous worst showing this season -- and that ultimately proved to be the difference, with everyone from defenders and midfielders to forward Kei Kamara scrambling all over the field to ensure RSL did not have time to settle and pass.
What remains to be seen is how long Sporting KC can maintain this pace, considering much of its success is predicated on its ability to apply high pressure for 90 minutes. The club has yet to have a midweek game and has had proper time to rest in between every one of its matches. That will change this week, with a Wednesday match at Vancouver, followed by a match next Saturday in Portland. While facing RSL was the club's biggest single-game challenge, combating the rigors of the MLS schedule is the next hurdle for the league's undisputed top dog.
Where to start with his actions late in the first half of the New York Red Bulls' wild 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes?
There's the blatant bear hug and tackle inside of Shea Salinas inside the box that went completely unnoticed by referee Ricardo Salazar and should have yielded a penalty. There's the fact the tackle forced Salinas to the ground and fractured the winger's clavicle. Then there's the intentional kick out to Salinas' face after both fell to the ground and Marquez was propped on top of him. Altogether, it was just a despicable showing from one of the highest-paid players in MLS and one of the faces of the league.
Marquez has come under plenty of fire for various reasons in his tenure in MLS, most notably last season for causing a locker room rift, and in a game in which he managed to stand out for the wrong reasons, his incident was far from the only one in this match that will garner attention from the MLS Disciplinary Committee. It was definitely the most violent, flagrant and egregious, though, and one that should merit a hefty league-mandated suspension. For a New York club already perilously thin up the middle with center back Wilman Conde injured again and midfielder Teemu Tainio on the shelf as well, Marquez' actions could not have come at a worse time.
Sure, the player was booed mercilessly by the Emerald City Supporters every time he touched the ball, but that was to be expected. Aside from that, the match was free of any major incidents and went just about as well as it could have from an overall sporting point of view. Never did it seem as if Mullan was a marked man, and Mullan himself actually had a pretty influential game in the 1-0 Seattle win, with his apparent first-half goal getting waved off for his being just a step offside as more than 38,000 fans at CenturyLink Field held their collective breath while fearing the worst. Both Mullan and Zakuani have dealt with the fallout over the past year and will forever be linked in MLS lore because of the leg-snapping challenge. The way in which both have responded in recent days and weeks, though -- Zakuani pleading for fans to move on and focus their energy on supporting the Sounders and Mullan beginning to open up more publicly after dealing with his own psychological hardship from the tackle -- has been an example of true professionalism that should be commended.
The Union's 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew should have been all about goalkeeper Zac MacMath continuing to bounce back from a shaky start to his first season as a starter and about the club winning as much of a must-have game as there is this early in the season despite being short-handed defensively.
While those are certainly viable talking points, a glaring footnote was the manner in which Peter Nowak surprisingly yanked Freddy Adu off just after the hour mark despite the U.S. Under-23 captain having his best game of the young season.
Adu was none too pleased to be taken off -- justifiably so -- after sending in one cross that led to the Union's converted penalty shot and another pinpoint ball that Keon Daniel headed over the bar. The substitution could not have been for fitness reasons, as Adu was well rested after the U.S. Olympic qualifying campaign. It was not really for tactical reasons either, as Adu's replacement, Josue Martinez, assumed Adu's place in the attack. As such, Adu walked off the field rather slowly with a bewildered look on his face, gave Nowak a tenuous handshake while avoiding eye contact and took his seat on the bench.
To Adu's credit, he was all smiles in his postgame interview on NBC Sports Network, said all the right things about the team's victory and did not acknowledge his obvious frustrations at all. That said, it is worth watching how this situation develops going forward, as Adu's creativity is vital to the Union's attack, and his relationship with Nowak is central to that creativity rising to the surface.
Adu and Nowak's past rocky relationship when the two were with D.C. United years ago came into the spotlight after the club acquired him last summer, but the two had appeared to patch things up as each matured over the years and had developed a mutual respect for one another. Saturday's coaching decision by Nowak will put that newfound respect to the test.
Salihi's prolific scoring record in Europe speaks for itself and indicates that goals should be on the way, so maybe it just is a matter of him needing more than six games to adjust to MLS. He appears to be having a hard time meshing with his new teammates, though, and he struggled again in D.C.'s 2-1, come-from-behind victory in New England.
Salihi turned in 65 more lackluster minutes, completely scuffing a couple of good looks while making suspect decisions and failing to execute the connections expected of a top-class forward. In one 3-on-2 instance in the first half and Salihi on the ball, Danny Cruz begged for the ball in two separate dangerous spots, and both times Salihi failed to acknowledge his teammate's run and instead sent in a hopeful cross toward nobody in particular that was cleared easily.
The Albanian is going to be feeling the pressure with Maicon Santos scoring again and Chris Pontius entering the game off the bench as a forward and scoring the game-winning goal. Having already benched Salihi and fellow underperforming DP Branko Boskovic this season, coach Ben Olsen isn't above leaving two high-priced assets on the sideline and playing the hot hands, so Salihi had better round into the form that had Olsen saying immediately after his signing that, "We've been searching for the right No. 9 for this club for some time. We think we've found him."