1. Sounders making noise. The spotlight in MLS this season has been pointed in a number of directions: The league-best and historically poor starts by Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC, respectively; the resurgences in San Jose and D.C.; the continued struggles of the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy; the injury crisis that is propelling the New York Red Bulls instead of deflating them; the impressive Year 2 rise in Vancouver.
However, in Seattle, the Sounders are quietly going about their business en route to four straight wins and a franchise-best 6-1-1 start despite injuries to key players and lulls for star players.
Teams battling adversity have ready-made excuses for when things don't go their way, which makes what the Sounders have accomplished all the more impressive. Consider the setbacks Seattle has suffered. Influential wingers and Designated Players Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales missed time and Sigi Schmid had to shuffle his back line. Steve Zakuani is still on his comeback from a career-threatening leg injury. Eddie Johnson had to be reintegrated slowly after coming off some minor knocks. Kasey Keller's successor, Michael Gspurning, recently suffered a hip injury that has paved the way for second-year goalkeeper Bryan Meredith to be pressed into action. Fredy Montero suffered through a six-match scoring drought before his cathartic 35-yard strike this week against the Galaxy.
Yet here are the Sounders, who have conceded a league-stingiest three goals (a Ryan Johnson golazo, a questionable penalty kick against San Jose and a Marco Pappa Olimpico) despite the hurdles. The rotating cast of defenders has maintained a high level of stability in front of Gspurning and Meredith, Rosales' return has sparked the attack and Osvaldo Alonso continues to confirm his elite status by shielding the back line with his trademark tackling skill and endless work rate.
After wading through some adversity, luck is turning Seattle's way now. First, the Galaxy trotted out a B Team lineup for a midweek match at CenturyLink Field, one that the Sounders claimed with ease. Now, FC Dallas will be without Daniel Hernandez and Blas Perez for Wednesday's match after both were red carded in the first half of their loss to the Colorado Rapids Sunday night. Dallas could also be missing Brek Shea, after he was left out of Sunday's match with a fresh case of turf toe, and Montero, Johnson and Rosales are all healthy, in form and meshing together quite nicely. Nothing is a sure thing in MLS -- just ask Sporting Kansas City about how its weekend went -- but all signs point to another three points for the Rave Green.
As for translating this success over the course of the long haul, it is noteworthy that six of the club's eight games have come on the friendly confines and turf of the CLink, where sellout crowds continue to shoulder the load for MLS' average attendance numbers. The schedule has not been particularly brutal, either, so there is still plenty for the Sounders to prove. For a club looking to add silverware to the trophy case other than the three U.S. Open Cups they boast, though, things are right on track.
2. Portland continues to search for answers. While the Sounders are rolling along, the same cannot be said for their chief rival, the Portland Timbers. Aside from pointless Toronto FC, Portland is the most disappointing team in the league two months into the season. The club's opening-night spectacle against Philadelphia and conquest of Sporting Kansas City have been the only highlights in an otherwise dismal campaign in which the Timbers aren't anywhere near meeting their lofty expectations.
Offensively, something is lacking. The club has been shut out in consecutive games, and aside from the three-goal outburst in the season opener and the own goal against Sporting KC, the Timbers have only accounted for five goals in their seven other matches. Failing to get one by a Columbus Crew back line that was without center back stalwart Chad Marshall is pretty inexcusable, no matter how well Andy Gruenebaum fared in goal.
With the lack of scoring coming to the forefront, John Spencer shuffled his lineup at home against Columbus to no avail, slotting captain and midfield stalwart Jack Jewsbury at right back, starting Franck Songo'o on one wing and left back Rodney Wallace on the other side of the midfield to try to create a spark. With those moves not panning out, the pressure falls even more on Designated Player Kris Boyd, who has three goals but is not doing nearly enough to finish the chances he has had. Going by the numbers, the start of Boyd's Timbers career is remarkably similar to that of current New York Red Bulls forward Kenny Cooper, as both Boyd and Cooper had three goals through their first nine games as a member of the Timbers. After scoring his third goal, though, Cooper went 14 games without scoring again. Since scoring his third, Boyd has gone three matches without finding the back of the net, and while nobody is screaming panic on that degree just yet, the trickle-down effect it would create if Boyd could get into a consistent groove would certainly relieve the growing tension in the Rose City.
The other issue is that Jeld-Wen Field is not proving to be the fortress the Timbers need it to be considering the club's blown home games to Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake and Saturday's loss-feeling draw with Columbus. On the road, Portland is not proving to be any better than it was in its inaugural season, as the Timbers are one of just three teams yet to claim a road victory (Toronto FC and FC Dallas being the others). The inability to win on the road will come into question again after a 10-day break, with a match at brand new BBVA Compass Stadium against the Houston Dynamo, the team that Boyd spurned to sign with Portland -- and don't think for a second that the Dynamo faithful have forgotten that -- next on the docket.
3. This week's edition of the Referee Accountability Dept. Every week there are questionable and influential calls in MLS that don't go one way or should have gone another, but Week 9's controversial decisions seemed a bit more egregious than usual.
FC Dallas Stadium was not the host of this year's World Series of Poker, but you wouldn't know that by the pace in which cards were dealt by Mark Geiger in the first half of Sunday night's FCD-Rapids encounter. The second yellow he gave to Hernandez was fair, though it's unclear exactly what Hernandez said to earn his first booking for dissent just a few minutes prior. The real head-scratchers involved not handing down any discipline to Colorado left back Luis Zapata for a hard, reckless challenge from behind while not hesitating to give Perez a straight red for entering into a challenge for the ball with Drew Moor. Perez merited some level of discipline for going into the challenge with his studs up, but with Geiger just minutes removed from forcing Dallas to go short-handed, he should have put a bit more consideration into his decision before completely altering the direction of the game.
Geiger was not the only referee to be noticed more than he should have been this weekend, either. In Seattle, rookie Andy Rose, making his MLS debut, surely deserved a second yellow card for his first-half tackle on Freddy Adu. Had referee Ricardo Salazar not already booked Rose earlier in the match, his decision to let the tackle go most certainly would have been different. It could not have pleased the Union that Rose was integral in the Sounders' surge in the second half, hitting the crossbar with a header and nearly playing Mauro Rosales through for a goal before being subbed off at the hour mark. Seattle could have been reduced to 10 men on a second occasion, too, after Leo Gonzalez' malicious stomp on Sheanon Williams' foot -- one that is likely to be caught by the league's disciplinary committee but another clear decision that Salazar and his crew neglected to make.
At Rio Tinto Stadium, the New England Revolution's Fernando Cardenas was sent off by David Gantar for the final 10 minutes of New England's 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake for...well...it's still trying to be determined. The diminutive Colombian appeared to expose his cleat while extending his leg in a challenge for the ball with Jamison Olave, but he never made contact with the RSL center back and was instead that player who got stepped on. Gantar had sent off Will Johnson for a similar challenge -- one that Johnson actually connected on -- earlier in the match, but the decision to eject Cardenas was either a poor way of evening things out or just a flaw in judgment.
In Toronto, Reggie Lambe did his best Torsten Frings impersonation, clearly clearing a ball of the goal line with his arm without referee Mark Kadlecik or any of his assistants noticing. It did not ultimately matter, as D.C. broke through moments later on a wonderful strike by the in-form Chris Pontius, but had the handball been spotted, Lambe would have been sent off in addition to giving D.C. the penalty. MLS is at the forefront of the instant replay conversation and could experiment with goal-line technology as soon as this summer based on recent comments made by commissioner Don Garber. That potential replay, however, won't cover for some of the poor decision making that MLS coaches and players are forced to account for on a weekly basis.
4. MLS For USMNT. The U.S. national team's most important stretch of games under Jurgen Klinsmann is around the corner, and the roster for the upcoming camp, three friendlies and two World Cup qualifiers will likely be released this week. MLS should maintain its usual presence on the roster with a number of players meriting call-ups. Here are the top 10 MLS players ranked in order of likeliness of a call-up:
Landon Donovan, M, Los Angeles Galaxy -- As if there was any doubt. Nine months later, Donovan and Clint Dempsey finally will get to share the field together in the Klinsmann era.
Brek Shea, M, FC Dallas -- Klinsmann has better, more in-form left-sided options (i.e. Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley), but Shea has been as much of a regular under the U.S. boss than anybody else. If his recent turf toe injury lingers, though, he will miss out.
Kyle Beckerman, M, Real Salt Lake -- Despite having a deep stable of defensive midfielders, Klinsmann has shown an affinity for Beckerman, who has been one of the most valuable players in the first two months of the MLS season.
Nick Rimando, GK, Real Salt Lake -- The third goalkeeper spot would figure to be his. His consistent, top-level production coupled with the lack of a proven, abroad-based third option means that Rimando should accompany Tim Howard and Brad Guzan on the roster.
Chris Wondolowski, F, San Jose Earthquakes -- His torrid goal-scoring form -- 11 goals in 10 games -- cannot be overlooked. He belongs with the likes of Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez in the forward pool, no matter how many chances he has failed to capitalize on in a U.S. jersey.
Geoff Cameron, D, Houston Dynamo -- Cameron has endured an uneven, inconsistent season in the back for Houston, and the skilled, versatile player is likely on the bubble when it comes to selection this time around, especially considering Tim Ream's constant place in Bolton's lineup has brought him back into the mix.
Bill Hamid, GK, D.C. United -- Just now returning to his starting role after the Olympic qualifying fiasco and an ankle injury, Hamid has some work to do to reclaim the U.S. No. 2 goalkeeper role that Klinsmann bestowed upon him last fall.
Benny Feilhaber, M, New England Revolution -- Feilhaber possesses the traits and abilities that suit an international-caliber attacking midfielder, but he has gone mostly overlooked by Klinsmann and hasn't done enough on the field to force himself back into the picture.
Chris Pontius, M/F, D.C. United -- Few players are in better form than Pontius, who is getting it done mostly as a forward after being forced up top from his usual slot as a winger. It's easy to forget that he was called in by Klinsmann for September friendlies as an injury substitute, and he is playing his way back on to the radar, though he's a little ways down on the depth chart as of now.
Edson Buddle, F, Los Angeles Galaxy -- Klinsmann has leaned on Buddle in the past, but the striker looks far from 100 percent, when it comes to both fitness and form, and he has played himself out of the discussion for the time being.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Ryan Meara (New York Red Bulls)
Defenders: Josh Williams (Columbus Crew), Nelson Rivas (Montreal Impact), Alain Rochat (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Midfielders: Mauro Rosales (Seattle Sounders), Marco Pappa (Chicago Fire), Brian Mullan (Colorado Rapids), Felipe (Montreal Impact)
Forwards: Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)