1. Welcome home, Houston. The Houston Dynamo have already made themselves right at home in their new digs.
The opening of BBVA Compass Stadium went about as well as the Dynamo could have hoped, with club pillar Brad Davis scoring the stadium's first goal and Houston coming away with three points and putting an end to a five-game winless streak. As a result, home teams are now 6-1-2 over the last three years in games in which expansion teams are either playing their first home game, opening a new stadium or when established franchises are opening a new park (Only the Portland Timbers were able to squeak out a win under such circumstances, spoiling the Vancouver Whitecaps' opener of BC Place last year).
In addition to the new-stadium bump, the game also confirmed another one of Houston's home-field advantages: The heat. Geoff Cameron told the Houston Chronicle before the stadium opening that with the way it was constructed, air flow through the field is at a premium, even likening it to playing in an oven. Current D.C. and former Dynamo winger Danny Cruz commented on the Houston heat during the week's buildup to the match saying that, "It's always an advantage [for Houston]. Teams that come from the East Coast and go to Houston and play in that heat, we always looked at it, when I was there, that we had an advantage. By the 60th minute everyone's dead, but we're fine and used to it. We train in it at 10 a.m., 11 every day. I know that will be an advantage to them."
Evidence on the field showed that Cruz was just about spot on. Houston seized control of the match at about the hour mark, and Davis got his winner in the 67th minute, when D.C. players were slow to close down Davis. After the match, D.C. coaches Ben Olsen and Pat Onstad acknowledged the problems D.C. had laboring through the heat (for what it's worth, the mid-80-degree day wasn't even that bad by Houston summer standards), corroborating Cameron and Cruz' remarks.
With that advantage and Houston taking its play up a level from where it had been in recent weeks, there's plenty of reason to believe that the top portion of the Eastern Conference standings will have a hint of orange to it after Houston catches up on all of its games in hand. The Dynamo have a better starting point than Sporting Kansas City did in 2011 following its season-opening road trip, and the tight and friendly confines of BBVA Compass Stadium have already played into Houston's favor. And then there's this: The Dynamo only have consecutive road games one time the rest of this season, and that is not until a September trip to Kansas City and Philadelphia.
2. Much ado about Adu. Freddy Adu had about as bipolar a half of soccer as possible Saturday. In the midst of playing his best game of the season for the Philadelphia Union, and arguably his best game since coming back to MLS last summer, Adu was abruptly sent off with his second yellow card at the end of the first half against the New York Red Bulls for appearing to dive and embellish in the box when there was no contact. On the surface, referee Jorge Gonzalez made the right -- and gutsy -- call to eject Adu.
That might not be the worst of it for Adu, though. The MLS Disciplinary Committee could easily suspend Adu an additional game for his early scissor challenge from behind on Roy Miller and an additional game on top of that for diving in the box. The precedent has already been set for both. Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio was suspended a game for diving in the box against San Jose last year, and a number of suspensions have been doled out for challenges from behind just like the unnecessary one Adu entered into on Saturday. One could easily argue that Adu's tackle endangered the safety of his opponent, which has become the MLS DC's subjective rubric for issuing discipline.
If the disciplinary committee looks at the video and agrees with Gonzalez, then the Union could be without their attacking spark for up to three more games (initial red card suspension, plus additional discipline). Adu himself claimed postmatch that he did not intend to dive but was instead bracing for contact that never came and fell off balance That is the last thing that Adu and the league's new Team Turmoil need right now.
3. Red Bulls charge into first in the East. Distractions, adversity and on- and off-field issues might be toppling the Union, but they are nothing new for the New York Red Bulls. But while those circumstances might have crumbled the historically-tortured Red Bulls in the past -- heck, they did last year -- they are somehow propelling the club to new heights in 2012.
Despite countless injuries to key players and relying on an untested back line and a rookie goalkeeper, the Red Bulls have won four straight games for the first time since the MetroStars days of 2003. After all the deserved plaudits Sporting Kansas City received for its 7-0-0 start, the Red Bulls have capitalized on SKC's recent mini collapse and have managed to take over first place in the Eastern Conference. That the Red Bulls are in first two months of the season would not be that big of a shock if Thierry Henry were healthy, Rafa Marquez were not embracing his role as league villain and all of the expected starters were fit and pulling their weight. But with Henry out, Marquez just returning from suspension, integral centerback Wilman Conde showcasing his proneness to injury, Joel Lindpere just recently restoring his place in the lineup and a hodgepodge back line meshing with the help of a reinvented Dax McCarty at defensive midfield, things have come together in the most improbable of ways for Hans Backe's troops.
Saturday's win over Philadelphia was no masterpiece, especially considering how stretched the 10-man Union made the Red Bulls during a highly entertaining second half, but one perfectly placed Marquez pass and sly Kenny Cooper finish capped off another instance of the club showing resolve and fight when the going gets tough. The circus surrounding the Red Bulls is not anywhere close to being over, not with persistent reports linking AC Milan defender Alessandro Nesta to the club and not with Conde facing potential discipline after reportedly being arrested over the weekend for getting into a physical altercation with a police officer. If the past few weeks have taught us anything, though, it is that this team appears to be impervious to distractions and adverse conditions and is starting to forge its own identity despite them.
4. RSL rises to top of league mountain. The carousel of hot teams out West keeps turning, and right now it's old reliable Real Salt Lake's turn to take pole position.
RSL is off to the best start in franchise history (8-3-2) after a statement win in Seattle, snapping the Sounders' five-game winning streak in a game where the lingering message was that . The club's notoriously stingy defense was at its best this week, notching two road shutouts in front of two goalkeepers, with the main constant being Jamison Olave's dominating presence in the center. Blanking the Chicago Fire is one thing, but the fact that RSL was able to hold a team hitting its stride like the Fredy Montero-led Sounders without a shot on goal at home speaks volumes about how suffocating the club can be.
Each of the top three teams in the West -- RSL, San Jose and Seattle -- have had hiccups at some point this season. RSL fell at San Jose. The Earthquakes have slipped up recently in Vancouver and had to fight for a desperate tie at home against Chivas USA. For all of Seattle's success, the Sounders have matching 1-0 home losses to San Jose and Salt Lake. Those moments of vulnerability coupled with all three teams' potential for greatness will make it extremely enjoyable to watch this conference race play out, especially considering the unbalanced schedule means that each team has three games against one another. The penultimate game of RSL's season, for example, is a rematch with the Sounders at CenturyLink Field.
In the meantime, RSL sits atop the Supporters' Shield standings and will have a pretty stress-free few weeks ahead before some summer congestion hits. The league leaders only have one more league match over the next month, with a bye week and the international break giving the club time for all of its banged-up players, including the freshly injured Javier Morales and Chris Wingert, to heal.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Ryan Meara (New York Red Bulls)
Defenders: Sebastian Miranda (Columbus Crew), Matteo Ferrari (Montreal Impact), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake)
Midfielders: Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake)
Forwards: Kenny Cooper (New York Red Bulls), Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders)