The New York Red Bulls are the most scrutinized and dissected team in MLS -- and for good reason considering some of the antics that have gone on involving Red Bulls' players and personnel -- but credit is due when it is earned, and the Red Bulls have certainly done that over the last two weeks.
Riding rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara and patchwork defense in front of him, the Red Bulls pulled off the improbable feat of going into the Home Depot Center and knocking off the Los Angeles Galaxy, a team that tailored its lineup in a mid-week match in Seattle specifically with an eye ahead to this game. Normally billed as a matchup of star-studded teams, this version -- the only 2012 meeting between the two highest-spending clubs in MLS -- was anything but that. The Red Bulls' injuries have reduced the club to filling holes by any means necessary, while the Galaxy were able to feature as full-strength a lineup as they're capable of doing.
So how did the Red Bulls walk away with their second straight 1-0 result? By tactically positioning themselves to absorb the Galaxy's pressure and possession, maintaining organization, outworking the Galaxy and getting a welcome contribution from a dormant club MVP while exploiting L.A.'s weakness in central defense. Joel Lindpere's first-half contribution in the attacking end was all the Red Bulls needed, and Hans Backe's curious suggestion a few weeks ago that Lindpere shouldn't play central midfield -- let alone the false notion that he never had before -- should be buried for good considering Lindpere's influential showing in the center.
On the other side of things, when Bruce Arena left David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Todd Dunivant in Los Angeles for the Galaxy's mid-week match in Seattle, it was expected that they would come out firing against the Red Bulls, and while L.A. created some chances in the early going, over the balance of the match it did not seem like the hosts had any urgency to take matters into their own hands. Instead of trying to put repeated pressure on New York's makeshift back line, L.A. lacked creativity and opted for a pretty simple, direct style, repeatedly sending in hopeful crosses and long aerial balls and allowing the Red Bulls bevy of players behind the ball to position themselves for the clearance. Anything that did get by that line of defense was expertly dealt with by Meara, who has played beyond his years and has even attracted recent attention from the Ireland Under-21 national team.
While New York is building the foundation for a cohesiveness and growth, especially once the club's wounded starters begin returning, the questions keep piling up for the 3-5-1 Galaxy, and that's before presumably losing Landon Donovan for national team duty in a little more than a week and David Beckham for the Olympics later on this summer.
In the spirit of Saturday's Kentucky Derby, taking the New York-Montreal road clean sheet exacta would have netted you a nice financial haul.
New York's shutout of L.A. was certainly a surprise, but Montreal's stunning 2-0 win at Livestrong Sporting Park was something else entirely. Sporting Kansas City was coming off a bye week and playing at home against an expansion side. The Montreal Impact were fielding an experimental and reserve-laden lineup with three players making their first MLS starts, as the on-going Canadian championship called for Jesse Marsch to look up and down his roster for some unusual combinations. So naturally, a blowout by league-leading Sporting KC was in the cards.
That is, until play commenced on the field. Montreal was courageous in its effort, unfazed by the task of playing at LSP and matched Sporting KC's physical play with counterpunches of its own. A golazo from Brazilian midfielder Felipe and a favorable ruling on an iffy penalty call sealed the most surprising result of the season. They also allowed Montreal to make a statement that its Year 1 plan has been accelerated, especially with the potential summer arrival of Bologna striker Marco Di Vaio -- a former teammate of Impact striker Bernardo Corradi and center back Matteo Ferrari.
Saturday's results weren't all upside down, as Seattle's 1-0 victory over Philadelphia was rather comprehensive and thorough, but on the whole, the day was just a prime example of MLS parity and how no result in this league is truly a sure thing. Favorites beware.
Omar Salgado may have a place in the Vancouver Whitecaps' lineup after all, but it is not where most figured he'd be getting the most out of his skills.
Salgado featured on the left wing for the third-straight league game in Vancouver's last-gasp, 2-1 victory over the red-hot San Jose Earthquakes, and he continues to make strides that show his maturation and growth are right on track. Coming off the heels of a performance in the Canadian championship in which he set up two goals against NASL side FC Edmonton, Salgado was a major factor in Vancouver's retribution victory and his move out wide has put him en route to becoming the closest thing in MLS and the U.S. player pool to FC Dallas star Brek Shea -- a tall, athletic winger who is a matchup nightmare for opposing fullbacks.
The No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft barely played last season and was considered an afterthought despite lofty expectations following Vancouver's offseason in which the club hoarded forwards. Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie has helped Salgado, still just 18 and eligible for the next Under-20 cycle, reinvent his game, though, moving him from his usual center forward slot to the wing, where his 6-foot-4 frame causes problems, and his technical skills and finesse on the ball are able to shine.
His work rate going both forward in the attack and retreating backward to provide defensive cover have both been impressive and massive-stride runs like his 30-yard jaunt down the left flank Saturday make him a unique tool at Vancouver's disposal. Rennie's experiment has not only salvaged the beginning of Salgado's career in MLS and enabled him to receive meaningful minutes and exposure, but it has also expanded his knowledge and skill set in the process.
Speaking of players with high expectations, if D.C. United coach Ben Olsen was trying to light a fire under his high-paid, high-profile reserves, he might have just succeeded in doing so in United's 2-0 victory over Toronto FC.
On a day when Olsen made wholesale changes to his lineup, starting Andy Najar at right back, Daniel Woolard at center back, Lewis Neal in the midfield and omitting standout rookie Nick DeLeon altogether, Designated Players Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi still remained on the bench until emerging as halftime and second-half substitutes, respectively. While both have struggled to prove their worth on a team where lesser-heralded players have eagerly taken on their minutes, this week has marked a turning point for both players, with Salihi's being more vital to D.C.'s long-term success considering that Boskovic could be gone in a couple of months when the club must decide whether to pick up his contract option.
Boskovic's set-piece service played a big part in D.C.'s second-half surge against TFC, and Salihi scored for the second time in as many matches after a nine-game drought to open his MLS career. The quality of Salihi's two goals this week demonstrates a growing confidence in a player who sorely needed it. Fortunately for Salihi, his slow start has been swept away from the spotlight by the continued standout play of Maicon Santos and Chris Pontius, who have carried the load as D.C. continues its return to respectability.
It is only appropriate that the last note belongs to Toronto FC, who continue to redefine rock bottom.
With the loss to D.C., Toronto's 0-8-0 start is officially the worst in MLS history. Things are about as ugly as can be, and fans and players alike are down to their final nerve. When Torsten Frings was forced out of the loss to D.C. with a shoulder injury, he threw his captain's armband to the ground in disgust. When the dreaded final whistle blew, TFC fans resorted to what is becoming the usual postgame routine -- a chorus of boos.
Not that the Reds needed another lackluster performance to confirm what all have witnessed in the past couple of months, but the club, which has yet to have all three of its DPs on the field during a league game, continues to reach new lows. An even more drastic low can be reached on Wednesday: When the Impact come to BMO Field with a chance to end TFC's three-year reign as Canadian champions in the semifinals of the national tournament. If that happens and a major shakeup does not follow, then it's unclear just what it will take for a change in TFC's direction, because it can't get any worse than that.