Kaká starred in his season debut for Orlando City, but a rules controversy and some lackluster play after the FIFA international window stood out even more, writes Liviu Bird.

By Liviu Bird
April 04, 2016

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It was FIFA hangover week in Major League Soccer, but not necessarily because the league continues to play through the international windows. It doesn’t help the league that it insists on scheduling games in that time frame, which only looks more ridiculous as more international players join the league. Week 5, though, only followed three games in a shortened prior week, which is much fewer than the full slate that MLS used to play during FIFA dates.

Most teams, already fighting early season rust and the relaxed nature that comes with early games when so many teams get into the playoffs, struggled to get back into any sort of rhythm after a week without a game.

Over the past couple weeks, 78 players from across MLS joined their national teams, most in CONCACAF. FC Dallas, tied for the most from a single team with seven, surprisingly won its game during the FIFA window handily over D.C. United, 3-0, but it struggled on Saturday to claw back in a 1-1 draw against Columbus Crew SC.

The starting lineup stayed fairly steady between weeks for Dallas, with only Kellyn Acosta rejoining the team and going straight into the XI, along with one other non-international change. Still, Dallas’ let-down in the second game was part of the larger post-FIFA effect that plagued MLS.

Fewer individuals stood out, and a general sluggishness permeated most matches. With Robbie Keane out following a knee injury discovered when he was with the Republic of Ireland, the LA Galaxy increased its hope that United States international Gyasi Zardes would be the team’s big producer.

Instead, the attack sputtered to a goalless draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps despite the Galaxy dominating the game. Head coach Bruce Arena was, as you might expect, not shy about his opinion on the international window following the game.

“Zardes played two international matches this last week,” he said. “The players are being run into the ground. Generally, what happens with these players is that if you start them, they're dead in the second half. The travel for the players internationally is way too much. Even though most of the league respects the international fixtures and the window, it's still very demanding on players to come back to their team and play a club game a couple of days later.”

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That might be the true challenge of the FIFA dates with regard to leagues sometimes located across an ocean or at least a few hours’ flight from where its players play for their countries. Clint Dempsey scored for the Seattle Sounders as they defeated the Montréal Impact, 1-0, for their first win of the season, arguably invigorated by his goal in midweek for the U.S. against Guatemala and his importance to his country.

But other than Dempsey and Tesho Akindele, who came off the bench to score the equalizer for Dallas against Columbus, no players could really muster the type of important performance that their clubs come to rely on each week.

Justin Meram scored for Columbus—but he didn't play for Iraq this past window. Trinidad and Tobago's Kevin Molino started and scored a late penalty for Orlando City SC in its 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers, but it was Kaká who really shined for the Lions and had already sealed the result by that point.

It wasn’t an issue just in MLS, as Barcelona lost El Clásico, 2-1, to Real Madrid after a good number of its players traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to and from South America for CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.

Taking time off for the international window is undoubtedly important for any league. Playing through them only further undermines an MLS regular season that often seems unimportant until late fall, especially because the league takes FIFA breaks during the playoffs.

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Another answer might be to take an extended break, so rather than playing on the weekend, MLS could have played a full slate of games on Monday and Tuesday before continuing with the next weekend of play.

But then you run into the scheduling concerns that the league has voiced multiple times about decreased attendance and television viewership on non-weekend days.

Whatever the solution, it’s a headache that won’t be going away any time soon. MLS keeps drawing in more players from abroad and world travel becomes simpler, even as the toll it takes on the human body doesn’t decrease at anywhere near the same rate.

Here are a few more thoughts on the past week-plus in MLS:

Coach’s Corner: Protocol when an opponent goes down injured

The New York Red Bulls must have felt like they were the butt of a cruel April Fool’s joke as they conceded the only goal of the game against the New England Revolution on Friday. The goal provided MLS’s most controversial moment of the week, as Red Bulls center back Kemar Lawrence went down on the play, keeping Juan Agudelo onside as he ran onto a through ball. Agudelo slid the ball across to Diego Fagúndez for the finish.

Lawrence went down while New England had the ball in its own half of the field, not during Agudelo’s break toward goal, which led to a fair amount of surprise that referee Mark Geiger—of course, it had to be Geiger—didn’t blow the whistle.

“It’s shameful, for me,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said after the game. “It was clear as day that he was down on the ground, and not just one player saw him, but their whole team saw him.”

However, as Geiger explained in a written statement, the referee is under no obligation to blow the whistle for an injury. Law 5 of the FIFA Laws of the Game states that in the event of an injury, “play is allowed to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in the opinion of the referee, only slightly injured.” Otherwise, “play is stopped if, in the opinion of the referee, a player is seriously injured.”

“At the time, the injury did not appear serious,” Geiger said. “Therefore, play was allowed to continue.”

As far as the written rules say, anyway.

Teams will often kick the ball out of play for an injured opponent to receive treatment, even if the referee doesn’t blow the whistle. Of course, this is at the discretion of the team and depends on the moment of the game and whether the players believe the opponent is actually injured or perhaps trying to waste time.

Lawrence clearly wasn’t wasting time, as he was substituted immediately upon leaving the field. Marsch said Lawrence “felt his knee pop a little bit,” which could mean any number of serious or non-serious injuries.

Revs coach Jay Heaps showed no mercy, though.

“I’m never going to stop [the players] from playing to the whistle,” Heaps said. “I think there are injuries that the referee has to stop, or you have to kick out of bounds. When the game’s on and Juan Agudelo gets a ball over the top and he’s onside in the 18, he’s got to play that on, and I expect the other team to play it on.”

This is one of soccer’s great gray areas, and one in which there might not be any one correct answer. Agudelo can’t really be faulted for taking advantage of the opportunity in front of him—but the Red Bulls could very well be aggrieved as well. Their anger might be better directed at Geiger, though, than their opponents.

Attacking Player of the Week: Kaká, Orlando City

Kaká stood out in a week without many solid individual performances, but his play against Portland in his season debut probably would have drawn attention regardless of the circumstances. He scored once and assisted twice in a commanding win, having a hand in each of the first three goals to make it 3-0.

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His first assist came in the 13th minute, as he curled a free kick toward the near post for Seb Hines to head home.

In the 32nd, he completed a little one-touch layoff for Brek Shea to hit a shot inside the back post. Finally, Kaká scored in the 48th minute to seal the deal, winning clean possession in midfield before continuing his run and ghosting in from the left side to hit a one-touch finish.

He could have had a second goal, but he handed the ball over to Molino on the 76th-minute penalty kick to allow the Trinidad international to finish off the play that saw him taken down in the box. Overall, it was a savvy performance from the experienced former FIFA World Player of the Year, even if it looked simple.

An honorable mention goes to Maxi Urruti, who scored against D.C. during the international window before nearly scoring the equalizer on Saturday against Columbus, his shot off the post bouncing to Akindele to tap in. On the opposite end, Meram scored and provided the Crew’s biggest attacking threat all night, cutting inside from the left wing rather than staying wide to put in crosses.

Defensive Player of the Week: Chris Seitz, FC Dallas

Despite conceding an early goal on a corner kick from close range, which he just couldn’t get a hand to above his head, Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz was likely the man of the match against Columbus on Saturday. He kept his team in the game with a series of saves until it was able to put away an equalizer.

Seitz got a rare string of two starts in a row with Jesse González away on international duty, playing well enough in the win over D.C. to get the nod again on Saturday. His final stat line shows five saves from Saturday’s performance, including a couple from close range.

Crew SC was relentless in the attack after taking the lead, and Seitz’s best save of the night came in the 50th minute on Kei Kamara. The forward put a hard shot too close to Seitz, making it probably a simpler stop than it could have been, but it still required the reactions to get down and make the save.

Honorable mentions in the defensive category go to Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted, who put in two solid games and earned two clean sheets between a win during the FIFA window and a goalless draw against LA, and Impact center back Víctor Cabrera for his six-interception, five-recovery, 92% passing performance in a losing effort against Seattle.

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