Dempsey's first Sounders start overshadowed by Dynamo's Barnes
Yes, there was plenty of attention focused across the pond as the English Premier League season got underway, but MLS provided a reminder of its appeal later in the day with some spectacular goals and important matches.
Game of the day
Houston Dynamo 3, Seattle Sounders 1
HOUSTON - After all the hype, a versatile former Fulham attacker with a penchant for the spectacular started and stole the show at BBVA Compass Stadium. No, not that one.
It would be too trite to say that Clint Dempsey's return to Texas was overshadowed by Giles Barnes' two-goal contribution to a 3-1 Dynamo victory on Saturday night, because such is the spotlight on the U.S. captain that everything he does and says this season will be dissected in detail. As well as everything he does not do.
But Dempsey was quiet in Houston and Barnes was loud, giving the home side an early lead after good work by Will Bruin gave him the chance to score into an unguarded net, then adding another goal from nearly 30 yards with the kind of blast more associated with his teammate, Adam Moffat.
Seattle was without the suspended Eddie Johnson or the injured Obafemi Martins. Also, Brad Evans was only a substitute after his midweek stint with the national team for the win over Bosnia-Herzegovina. After coming off the bench in last Saturday's 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, this was Dempsey's first start back in MLS since he joined the Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur.
Dempsey hails from the Texas town of Nacogdoches, a two-and-one-half hour drive from Houston. Around 40 of his family and friends were here to cheer him on, but they had little to get excited about. He often seemed on the cusp of fashioning a promising opportunity but the ball never quite broke for him and the Dynamo defense was clearly taking Dempsey Watch seriously.
Even early on, Dempsey dropped deep into midfield in order to slip his marker, find room and receive the ball, which gave him the occasional chance to try a direct dribble or a penetrating pass, but that more often than not kept him too far away from the penalty area to offer a genuine threat.
He is not yet fully match fit, but he certainly wasn't Seattle's problem. In fact, his two shots in the first half were his side's only two attempts on goal in an opening 45 minutes dominated by Houston. If it looked in the first period as if the Dynamo were charging through the Sounders midfield like it wasn't there - well, that's because very often it wasn't. Seattle was sometimes shambolic when Houston had possession, and often subdued.
Barnes' second goal was a case in point, as a cluster of Seattle players treated the 25-year-old Englishman as if they suspected he had a contagious disease. They afforded him the space to dribble forward and unfurl a terrific shot past Michael Gspurning, who looked rusty on his return from injury.
With better finishing, the game would have been over as a contest long before Shalrie Joseph's 65th-minute header made it 2-1 and Seattle started to threaten an equalizer. But Bruin made sure of the points from close range nine minutes later.
With NBC Sports emphasizing that all 380 Premier League games are live on television or the internet, it is unfortunate for MLS that its live matches are scheduled far in advance. So national viewers were served up the goalless draw between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union, rather than Dempsey's first start in his home state.
But next Sunday a full house at CenturyLink Field will witness what should be the 30-year-old's home debut on ESPN2 when Seattle hosts the Portland Timbers. It promises to be one of the games of the season and Seattle will surely look less dysfunctional against its great rivals. All in all, it can count itself lucky that relatively few people saw this match.
Player of the day
Robbie Keane, Los Angeles Galaxy
Consider this: Keane has ten goals and nine assists in MLS this year, making him the most productive offensive player in the league this season - yet he has missed ten of the Galaxy's games. The Ireland striker claimed a 30-minute hat-trick on Saturday night in a 4-2 win over Real Salt Lake at the Stub Hub Center, each one an expert finish.
Bruce Arena's side is maddeningly inconsistent but can be relied upon to raise its standards in the key matches. And this was one, with the Galaxy finding itself 1-0 down to the Western Conference leader in the second half. But along came Keane, in the 56th, 67th and 86th minutes - doing what elite athletes do, harnessing the inspirational power of pressure. It was like watching a tennis player in a Grand Slam who is down break point then suddenly rains down ace after ace.
At 33, Keane remains extremely nimble, and has the experience to remain calm in front of goal. He's still at a point in his career where his legs are quick enough to keep up with his brain. He also scored a hat trick in May against Seattle, while the equally irrepressible Landon Donovan notched three goals for L.A. last week against F.C. Dallas.
The Galaxy's other goal against RSL came from the newly-minted Designated Player, Omar Gonzalez - his first MLS strike since last year's MLS Cup win over Houston. On an evening when Carlo Cudicini lost his place in goal to new signing Jaime Penedo, the focus was firmly on the Galaxy's lethal forward line. Keane was the biggest difference-maker for Arena's team down the stretch last year, and this was an MVP-caliber performance.
Stat of the day
11 - games without a Jack McInerney goal for the Philadelphia Union
The striker exited the field at Red Bull Arena in the 66th minute looking crestfallen on a night that extended his barren spell for the club to eight MLS matches. He also missed three fixtures last month while on Gold Cup duty with the U.S. after being called in to the squad for the first time thanks to a run of 10 goals in his first 13 games this season.
McInerney is struggling - and the Union should be delighted. Those eleven games have brought the Union 19 points, an average of 1.7 points per game. The previous 14 matches also produced 19 points - 1.4 points per game. McInerney may not be finding the net like he did earlier in the season, but the team is compensating handsomely.
Special credit goes to Conor Casey, who has seven goals in his past eleven appearances and Sebastien Le Toux, who leads the league in assists, with 12.
The Frenchman hit the bar in the second half during the goalless draw against the Red Bulls, while McInerney worked hard but scuffed his one good chance shortly before the hour.
A win for the visitor would have sent them to the top of the Eastern Conference. So when the 20-year-old regains his confidence and touch, as he surely will, imagine how dangerous the Union could be. By proving it is far more than just the sum of Jack Mac's goal tally, Philadelphia is suggesting it is a legitimate contender rather than what it seemed to be earlier in the campaign: an average side carried by a youngster's scorching-hot streak.
Goal of the day
Juan Agudelo, New England Revolution
Stoke City must be salivating. Agudelo has agreed to join the Premier League club in January and this was a special goal from the 20-year-old.
Put in behind the defense by Chris Tierney's high long pass, the striker let the ball bounce once then lobbed Sean Johnson with a slow, looping effort that was adjudged to have crossed the line before it was cleared under the crossbar by Bakary Soumare.
Instead of playing it safe and trying to sidefoot the ball over the goalkeeper, Agudelo risked accuracy in the pursuit of artistry by impudently flicking it beyond Johnson with the outside of his right boot.
On a day stacked with outstanding goals, such as Barnes's second and Marco Di Vaio's pair in the Montreal Impact's win over D.C. United, none matched Agudelo's for audacity and originality.
It was a welcome bit of beauty in a game otherwise notable for ugly incidents, with Soumare and Saer Sene sent off for their part in a post-game fracas after the final whistle and Chicago head coach Frank Klopas ejected for confronting the referee.
The tension was a product of the match's significance. New England's 2-0 win lifts it to sixth place in the Eastern Conference above the playoff contenders but the Fire are now five points adrift of Houston, which is fifth.