Five thoughts and observations from a special Saturday in MLS ...
1. Saturday was a landmark day in MLS history -- So the first game at BBVA Compass Stadium won't win many votes for Game of the Year. It doesn't matter. Years from now, when looking back at the history and timeline of MLS there will be a handful of days that stick out as monumental ones in the league's history, and Saturday will be one of them.
Between the opening of the picturesque new stadium in Houston, a Canadian-record crowd of more than 60,000 on hand in Montreal to see the expansion Impact take on the star-studded, yet slumping Los Angeles Galaxy and another capacity crowd of more than 39,000 in Seattle for the key Western Conference clash between the Sounders and Real Salt Lake, few regular-season days in MLS history can carry the amount of anticipation, excitement, significance and fanfare than May 12, 2012, did.
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BBVA Compass Stadium, the 12th soccer-specific stadium in the league and one with the most urban setting of them all, looks magnificent. It is the latest gem an MLS franchise can call its own, and it is yet another symbol of the league's viability when plenty doubted that there would even be a 17th MLS season years ago. With Montreal moving to the renovated Stade Saputo next month, San Jose's soccer-specific stadium on the horizon and fierce talk of more league expansion, even more signs of league progress and landmark days are on the way. There was also plenty of symmetry that on such a watershed day the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas -- two franchises formerly owned by late U.S. Soccer and MLS pioneer Lamar Hunt and currently operated by his son, Clark -- played against each other at Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in the league.
2. Kitchen injury bad news for D.C. -- As if being the first opponent at Houston's new park wasn't enough of a hill to climb for D.C. United, losing defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen to an apparent right knee injury midway through the first half made things even tougher for the visiting side.
Brad Davis' left-footed, game-winning golazo from distance to seal Houston's 1-0 victory came together when Kitchen's replacement, Stephen King, did not step up to close out and Dwayne De Rosario was slow to track back and challenge Davis, whom he beat out for league MVP honors last season. Would Kitchen have made a difference in that scenario? It's hard to speculate that, but with the way Kitchen has transitioned into his full-time role in the midfield and considering how he has performed as an unsung hero while other goal-scoring parties have stolen the headlines, his presence was missed as the Dynamo seized control of the match midway in the second half and eventually capitalized on the lapse.
If Kitchen has to miss any substantial amount of time, that would throw a serious wrench into the team's plans. Holding midfield isn't the deepest of positions for D.C., as King and Marcelo Saragosa are next on the depth chart, and Brandon McDonald would be an option if the club was not already depleted at center back. Fortunately for D.C., though, the club has a three-week break during World Cup qualifiers following its upcoming three-game homestand, so if Kitchen needs to sit out, it is coming at the right juncture in the schedule.
3. Arena's bold moves fail to pay off -- One could look at the Galaxy's 1-1 draw with the Impact and say that a road point is a fine result, but not when the Galaxy have been so desperate for a turn in fortune, and not when Bruce Arena made substantial lineup moves with an eye on a three-point haul.
If not for the club being bailed out by a trademark David Beckham free kick, one that gave the 60,860 at Olympic Stadium a painful but memorable moment to take home, the Galaxy would be looking at their third consecutive loss by shutout. With those struggles in mind before the game and Edson Buddle dealing with an adductor strain that prevented him from playing, Arena shifted Landon Donovan from his place on the wing to a role up top alongside Robbie Keane to try to spark the club's attack, but that never really came to fruition. Arena also threw untested Dan Keat into the club's potpourri mix at central defense for his first-career start at the position, but that didn't work either, as on a simple ball over the top from Nelson Rivas, Keat lost track of Davy Arnaud and allowed the Montreal captain to coast in for an early goal.
Despite controlling 67 percent of the possession, the Galaxy weren't able to do much with that, settling for a predictable pattern that Montreal's defense dealt with relatively easily. On the other side of the spectrum, L.A. lost nearly 60 percent of duels for possession, a stat that confirms the lack of fight and urgency for a champion whose title defense is stuck in neutral. The Galaxy will visit the White House on Tuesday to be honored by President Barack Obama for their 2011 MLS Cup championship season. Perhaps that is the kind of jolt that the Galaxy need to get back to playing to their high-level potential, because everything else just is not working.
4. Nguyen gets his revenge -- "#awkward"
The tweet from Jay DeMerit's personal Twitter account just seconds after New England Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen commenced his one-man revenge show on DeMerit's Vancouver Whitecaps with his first of two goals was about as appropriate as it gets.
The back story goes as follows: Vancouver won an offseason weighted player lottery for Nguyen, a one-time U.S. international who fell off the radar after a career path that took him to the Netherlands, Denmark and Vietnam. Despite not being eligible for any other player lotteries the rest of the season for winning Nguyen's services, the Whitecaps cut him in the preseason and put him on waivers, where the Revolution happily claimed him.
One would have to think that Nguyen had Saturday's match circled on his personal schedule, because he came out like a man on a mission. He scored the equalizing goal off a failed clearance in the box just a minute after Vancouver opened the scoring early on, set up Saer Sene for the go-ahead goal and capped off the rout of the 'Caps with an absurd half volley from 25 yards that goalkeeper Joe Cannon could only stand and watch as if he were a baseball outfielder looking at a sure-thing home run.
While Nguyen's effort was special, the Whitecaps appeared to punt the result with an eye on Wednesday's first leg of the Canadian championship final instead. Manager Martin Rennie trotted out Carlyle Mitchell and Alain Rochat in central defense instead of the first-choice DeMerit and Martin Bonjour starting tandem to spread the club's minutes (and he also left veteran midfielder John Thorrington and striker Camilo behind). The result was a 4-1 score line, as sloppy a defensive effort the formidable Whitecaps have turned in all season and a feeding frenzy for one supremely motivated Nguyen.
5. Friedrich injury leaves Fire short-handed in the back -- The caveat when the Chicago Fire signed German international center back Arne Friedrich was that he could prove to be an impact signing IF he stayed healthy. Just a few games into his Fire career, that is already an issue manager Frank Klopas has to handle.
Friedrich, a World Cup veteran who missed nine months of competition with German club Wolfsburg last season with back problems, got his left leg caught under him when lunging for a ball under a downpour at Toyota Park that made for far from ideal conditions for an injury-prone player. Friedrich had to be helped to the locker room with the injury, and as a result, the Fire are now down their top two center backs, with veteran Cory Gibbs already out for up to five more months after tearing the meniscus in his right knee.
Moments after Friedrich's departure, Sporting Kansas City exploited a massive defensive gap in the area, with Bobby Convey finishing for his first goal in an Sporting KC uniform. The Fire were bailed out by a penalty, an absurd red-card-worthy elbow from Roger Espinoza that put SKC down a man and then an awful lapse in judgment by Kei Kamara that led to the game-winner in the 2-1 result, but Chicago has a pressing issue going forward. It is uncertain just exactly what Friedrich's injury is and how much time he will have to miss, but in the meantime, the responsibility falls on second-year defender Jalil Anibaba and rookie Austin Berry to hold down the fort in front of an unsteady-looking Sean Johnson in goal in order for the Fire to keep pace in the East.