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.
Colorado’s 1-1 draw with Philadelphia will feel like a loss, only because the team allowed a late equalizer from Brian Carroll right after scoring what seemed to be a winner. However, the Rapids are still undefeated at home to start the season, and they still lead the league in points and points per game.
Philly came from behind to earn a point away from home twice this week, extending its unbeaten run to seven games (two wins and five draws). That’s undeniably good, even if the equalizing goal scorers were especially weird. On Wednesday at Orlando it was defender Ken Tribbett, who was playing USL ball earlier this year. On Saturday at Colorado it was Brian Carroll, who hadn’t scored in the previous two seasons.
The Galaxy’s nine-match undefeated streak ended in highly disappointing fashion, as goalkeeper Brian Rowe’s late mistake gifted Didier Drogba a last-second goal in a 4-3 loss to Montreal. And while Rowe will rightly take heat for the loss, LA’s whole defense continues to be an issue. The Galaxy have only kept one clean sheet all year, and that was on April 2.
The Red Bulls’ 3-0 home win over a weakened Toronto FC featured a Bradley Wright-Phillips hat trick within the opening 27 minutes, but the shutout might be more impressive. Especially since NYRB played the entire second half down a man after Gonzalo Veron picked up a red card. After losing six of its opening seven games with Bradley Wright-Phillips being held scoreless, the Red Bulls have only lost once in its last seven and BWP is one off the Golden Boot lead.
Dallas struggled to create much against a stout San Jose defense in a 0-0 draw, but any point away from home is good, especially for a side that has struggled as much away as Dallas has. The biggest positive from this game might be the return of central defender Matt Hedges, who started and played the full 90 minutes after missing seven games due to a knee injury.
A 4-3 loss to Columbus weirdly flatters Real Salt Lake, which was outplayed most of the game before finding two late goals that made things interesting. Like most teams in MLS, Real Salt Lake’s biggest problem at the moment seems to be finding consistency. The team has gone six games without two consecutive positive results.
Even without Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes would have expected to generate way more offensive pop than they did in Saturday’s drab 0-0 draw with FC Dallas. By the same token, keeping a shutout against an FC Dallas squad capable of scoring goals in bunches is its own notable achievement. They drop in these rankings due mostly to the improved form of teams that were once below them.
A win at the last-place Chicago Fire would have been a massive help to Portland, especially considering the tight race in the Western Conference and the faltering form of the teams in front of them. That said, a 1-1 draw away from home will do, especially with a home game looming on Wednesday.
However it came, the Impact’s 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy was a much-needed one. The Canadian side had gone six games without a win, with for of those results being draws. Now, with Drogba scoring again and Ignacio Piatti rounding into form, the Impact have a chance to build some momentum in its Canadian Championship match vs. Toronto FC.
A 1-1 home draw against Houston maintains the Whitecaps’ undefeated record at home and brings to a close a hectic beginning to its season. Octavio Rivero scoring will be a pleasant sight, as the Uruguayan has struggled to get on the field after a dry spell to start the season.
Injuries and international absences are starting to hit Toronto FC at exactly the wrong time. Already missing Jozy Altidore, Toronto went into Saturday’s 3-0 loss at New York Red Bulls without captain Michael Bradley (international duty), and lost reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco to a non-contact adductor injury in the first half. The Copa America break is coming at the right time for the Reds, who need to regroup and hope Giovinco can heal.
For the first time in a long time, Columbus is beginning to resemble the team that made a run to the MLS Cup final last season. A few weeks ago, the Crew traded a striker named Kamara after a dispute over his potential first hat trick. This week, a new striker named Kamara, Ola, scored a hat trick with his first three goals in a Crew uniform. It’s like this Crew season was scripted by M.C. Escher.
On it’s own, a 1-0 win at Sporting Kansas City may not be quite the achievement it was in previous seasons. But when you consider that D.C. faced numerous weather-related travel delays just getting into Kansas City, then an extended delay at halftime, the win becomes much more impressive. New signing Alhaji Kamara made an instant impact, scoring the winner and setting an MLS record for fastest goal in a debut (33 seconds).
The Sounders were hit with an especially bogus PK call in the first half of their 2-1 loss at the New England Revolution, but the team never mounted a meaningful challenge to New England afterward and was punished with a late goal. Seattle has lost three straight and is starting to fall perilously behind its peers in the West.
The scorelines may be the same but the feelings they create could not be more different. Orlando’s first 2-2 draw of the week came at home to a Philly team that came back and got a late equalizer, causing the Lions fans to boo its team off the field. Its second took place at Yankee Stadium, where Orlando was the side that came back from 2-0 down to draw, causing NYCFC fans to imitate the Orlando’s. Which of the two 2-2s is true to what they do?
The Revolution benefited from an especially harsh PK call in a 2-1 home win over Seattle, but after the calls that have gone against them this year it might be the soccer gods doing them a solid. Femi Hollinger-Janzen scored the winner, giving the rookie two goals in his past three games.
After parting ways with head coach Owen Coyle over the week, Houston put forth an admirable performance in its 1-1 draw at Vancouver. DaMarcus Beasley looked a lot like his younger self as he scored his team’s only goal. This is a team with no shortage of talent on paper, and it will be interesting to see what a new boss will be able to get out of them.
If only for mental reasons, NYCFC desperately needed a solid result against Orlando City this week. A result that showed some ability to rebound after a 7-0 embarrassment to Red Bulls last week. Instead, NYCFC collapsed at home again, blowing a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 with Orlando City, with the comeback coming after David Villa's slip and atrocious penalty kick miss. The hits just keep on coming for Patrick Vieira’s side, which can’t stop giving up late goals at home.
A 1-1 draw against the defending champion Portland Timbers is nothing to sniff at, especially not when prized Ghanaian striker David Accam got on the scoresheet and went the full 90 minutes. If Accam and Kennedy Igboananike are able to build chemistry up top, the Fire may have reason to hope for a mid-season surge.
In a game that was pushed back then halted for about an hour over halftime due to inclement weather, Sporting Kansas City conceded a late goal to lose 1-0 at home to D.C. United. The loss is just another in a brutal run for SKC, which has picked up a mere six out of 36 possible points since it opened the season on a three-game win streak.