International absences make an impact, but how much? Plus, Alhaji, Ola Kamara make their own headlines, while BWP and the Red Bulls are on an absolute roll.
A league filled with no small number of international-caliber players was all of a sudden left without many of those players this week. How the teams responded to the beginnings of another edition of MLS’ Summer Of International Absences went a long way toward determining the way things went in Week 13.
Of course, nobody in their right mind would argue that robbing a team of its best players for any significant stretch of time is productive. Not only does it affect the teams on the field, it deprives fans of a chance to see the stars the league markets so heavily, and increases the likelihood of “FIFA Flu”-like international injuries, which are frustrating for obvious reasons.
Of all the various ways MLS differs from other leagues around the world, perhaps none makes the league look more out-of-touch than continuing to play during international breaks. And while a two-week break during the Copa America group stage is an improvement of sorts, the fact that teams must still play at least one, often two games after players leave for camps shows there’s still a long way to go.
That negative, cynical, but ultimately more correct view on this predicament is one held by most observers of the league. But the truth of the matter as told in Week 13 was that really, international absences didn’t matter all that much in terms of affecting the form of a team.
Seattle, missing forwards Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez to Copa America camps, struggled to finish its chances in a loss at New England, but that loss is also Seattle’s third in a row. Toronto missed Michael Bradley to international duty, but Jozy Altidore was already sidelined with a hamstring problem and Italy’s Euro 2016 snub Sebastian Giovinco was added to the injury list just 22 minutes in to a 3-0 loss at New York Red Bulls.
Would Bradley alone have stopped Bradley Wright-Phillips’ 27-minute hat trick? Unlikely.
Portland missed Darlington Nagbe but continued its indifferent form with an away draw vs. Chicago. Colorado missed Jermaine Jones and Shkëlzen Gashi but stayed undefeated at home. Even the star-studded LA Galaxy, which lost 4-3 at Montreal, couldn’t blame its result on an international absence. Thanks to Giovani Dos Santos’ refusal to join Mexico, LA was only missing forward Gyasi Zardes. And regardless, its failing against Montreal was not on the attacking, but on the defensive end (where it has struggled all season anyway) and in goal, where Brian Rowe flubbed Didier Drogba's free-kick winner in stoppage time.
The only team that might have suffered directly from missing internationals was Sporting Kansas City. Sporting KC surrendered a late goal to D.C. United at least partially because of a miscommunication between goalkeeper Tim Melia and his back line on a set piece...the kind of thing that U.S. national team defender and club captain Matt Besler (or maybe defensive midfielder Soni Mustivar, away with Haiti’s national team) might have done something about. But even so, Sporting KC’s loss wasn’t out of character with its current form, with the club having lost seven of its last 12 and boasting a league-worst eight losses.
And yet despite that terrible run, SKC remains just three points out of a playoff spot in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. Even Chicago, still bottom of the league, could easily sneak into the playoffs with a couple good results.
Do international absences compromise the integrity of MLS? That’s in the eye of the beholder. But if Week 13 is anything to go by, they don’t seem to be affecting the actual competition much at all.
Offensive player of the week: Ola Kamara, Columbus Crew SC
This could have easily gone to Bradley Wright-Phillips for the second consecutive week, but I wanted to spread the love a bit and the Crew’s new Kamara is as worthy a recipient as any. Crew SC needs a goalscorer to step up to replace Kei Kamara’s production, and Ola looked like he may be able to do exactly that with a hat trick against the usually sound defense of Real Salt Lake.
Defensive player of the week: Aurelien Collin, New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls’ turnaround is one of the premier storylines of this middle part of the MLS season, and Collin’s acquisition in a trade with Orlando City is a big reason for it. Sure, the Red Bulls were facing a weakened Toronto team, but Collin’s veteran presence helped stifle the Canadian side even after Red Bulls went down to 10 men.