Despite most leagues around the world taking a break during the FIFA international window, Major League Soccer played on to finish the first month of the 2015 season last week.
Four teams won their first matches, as Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, the New England Revolution and Chicago Fire got off the mark. The same number remain without a win, with the Montreal Impact, Philadelphia Union, Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers still searching.
At the same time, no teams with perfect records remain. A drab draw against the Seattle Sounders kept FC Dallas undefeated, but its three-game winning streak ended.
Here are some thoughts on the Week 4 slate of games to close out March:
What makes the Whitecaps dangerous?
Manager Carl Robinson’s tactical plan takes into account the team’s strengths but is practical enough to succeed in MLS: a disciplined defense with big men in the center, speedy wingers and supporting fullbacks and a complete forward in newcomer Octavio Rivero. With all this in mind, Vancouver’s most dangerous aspect is its speed in transition from defense to attack.
After regaining possession, the Whitecaps go forward quickly in an exciting style that showcases its choreography and repetition on the training ground.
It’s not likely that the Vancouver attack will fizzle as long as it can play this way, but it will be interesting to see what happens when it meets a team that holds numbers back and tries to play on the counterattack itself.
The Whitecaps likely have the tools to control the majority of possession, which they have not done yet this year except for a narrow advantage in their only loss, against Toronto FC on the first day of the season. They haven’t had to do that yet and likely won’t for at least three matches, until they play the San Jose Earthquakes in mid-April.
Excitement doesn’t always equal quality
The flip side to the Whitecaps’ style of play is the chaotic, back-and-forth slugfest that occurs when neither team really knows how to control a match. This is often the problem in leagues with more physical reputations, such as the majority of the Premier League and most teams in MLS.
Soccer at Baseball Stadiums
For every carefully plotted match such as Vancouver-Portland or the New York Red Bulls’ well-executed high-pressure system against the possession-oriented Columbus Crew, ugly games stand out as well.
Despite all four goals in a 16-minute span, Montreal’s 2-2 draw against Orlando City SC lacked true quality, except for Kaká pulling the strings in midfield.
South of Quebec, New York City FC and Kansas City battled via launched balls and long throws on a small field. Kansas City specifically prepared for Yankee Stadium’s constraints by training on a small field, and Matt Besler launched all four of SKC’s throw-ins in the attacking third into the penalty area, including on Ike Opara’s game-winning goal.
It might be an effective way to win, but such a style won’t win MLS many plaudits from fans of high-quality European leagues who are yet to embrace the American game.
MLS’s insistence on playing through FIFA dates is at least partly to blame
Injuries and international duty took their toll across all league matches in an unfortunate double-jeopardy situation. Saturday saw the first match in MLS history with zero shots on target from both teams as Dallas and Seattle played to a goalless draw with both missing key men.
Besides the senior national teams, both the under-20 and under-23 U.S. national teams are in camp, further depleting MLS rosters as they prepare for a World Cup and Olympic qualification.
It’s amazing the league continues to play through FIFA dates established well in advance, especially since there have been no league games in midweek so far and only three total are scheduled through April.
At least regular starters missing out means that overlooked young players get opportunities to play at the professional level, sometimes for the first time. Those chances would be even more valuable if they were earned and commenced while squads were at full strength, but at least rookies had a chance to plant a seed in their coaches’ minds that they are up to the task at the MLS level.
How is Harry Shipp uncapped at all levels?
The second-year Chicago Fire pro is one who should’ve been missing this week through international call-up, but he hasn’t received a call from the U.S. in any age group. The closest he has come to a serious accolade was at Notre Dame, when he was a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy.
He contended for Rookie of the Year honors in 2014 but fell short in voting again. Shipp’s diminutive 5-foot-9, 145-pound stature doesn’t make him stand out, but it also forced him to become a student of the game who works through problems with his brain rather than brute force.
As a result, he “sees the game a little differently than most,” as Chicago coach Frank Yallop put it after the Fire’s 1-0 win on Sunday. Shipp boasts a superior soccer IQ that has seen him become Chicago’s most valuable playmaker despite being in just his second season. He’s also a player who should be on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s radar.
Week 4 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
DEFENDERS: Chris Tierney (New England Revolution), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Alvas Powell (Portland Timbers)
MIDFIELDERS: Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kaká (Orlando City SC), Michel (FC Dallas), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Harry Shipp (Chicago Fire)
FORWARDS: Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
1. Vancouver Whitecaps
RECORD: 3-1-0 | This Week 2-1 vs. Portland
After an opening-week loss to Toronto, the Whitecaps have looked strong, especially with the speed at which they transition from defense to attack. Robert Earnshaw endeared himself to the home crowd with his late winner on his club debut.
2. FC Dallas
RECORD: 3-0-1 | This Week 0-0 vs. Seattle
It wasn’t a win, but holding out for a draw against Seattle to stay undefeated after Kellyn Acosta’s 18th-minute red card might be Dallas’ most impressive result of the season so far.
3. New York Red Bulls
RECORD: 2-0-1 | This Week 2-1 at Columbus
Mike Grella scored a Goal of the Year candidate to give the Red Bulls their second straight victory after putting Columbus under pressure on the ball all match.
4. Seattle Sounders
RECORD: 1-1-1 | This Week 0-0 at FC Dallas
Despite playing against 10 men for nearly the entire match, the depleted Sounders couldn’t even muster a shot on target, let alone a goal, against Dallas.
5. Los Angeles Galaxy
RECORD: 1-1-2 | This Week 0-1 at D.C.
Without two important attackers in Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes, LA couldn’t find a finishing touch, and a last-gasp effort doomed the Galaxy to a tough away loss.
6. San Jose Earthquakes
RECORD: 2-2-0 | This Week 1-2 at New England
Chris Wondolowski scored his third goal of the young season on a penalty as the Earthquakes fell in snowy New England.
7. Orlando City SC
RECORD: 1-1-2 | This Week 2-2 at Montreal
One of the teams hit hardest by international call-ups, the Lions squeaked out a draw after going down two early goals. Kaká and Pedro Ribeiro took turns providing for one another.
8. Real Salt Lake
RECORD: 1-0-2 | This Week 2-1 vs. Toronto FC
RSL needed bench players Jordan Allen and Jeff Attinella to secure it, but Javier Morales’ pinpoint assists created both goals in RSL’s first win of the season.
9. D.C. United
RECORD: 2-1-0 | This Week 1-0 vs. LA
Add Steve Birnbaum to the D.C. injury list, but even after losing him and having to burn a substitution in the first five minutes, United scrapped to its first win over the Galaxy since 2008 behind Chris Pontius's dramatic winner.
10. Columbus Crew
RECORD: 1-2-0 | This Week 1-2 vs. Red Bulls
Saturday’s chaotic match against the Red Bulls gave a precise, controlled team in Columbus fits all night, resulting in a frustrating home loss in which Federico Higuaín saw his second yellow card just before full time.
11. Houston Dynamo
RECORD: 1-1-2 | This Week 0-0 vs. Colorado
In another impressive moment for the 32-year-old workhorse midfielder, Ricardo Clark played through the pain of a ribcage fracture on Saturday and lasted 69 minutes before being substituted.
12. New York City FC
RECORD: 1-1-2 | This Week 0-1 vs. Sporting KC
David Villa’s injury exposed how reliant NYCFC is on its star striker, as the team created 10 goalscoring opportunities but mustered just three weak efforts on goal.
13. Toronto FC
RECORD: 1-2-0 | This Week 1-2 at Real Salt Lake
Conceding even later canceled out an 88th-minute equalizer from Jackson as Toronto lost without Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. TFC had a legitimate gripe at a disallowed goal earlier on, adding another referee slight to the team's collection.
14. Portland Timbers
RECORD: 0-1-3 | This Week 1-2 at Vancouver
The Timbers’ first loss at B.C. Place came on a familiar story for Caleb Porter’s men: dominate possession, fight through adversity with late-game heroics and still fall victim to defensive gaffes.
15. Sporting Kansas City
RECORD: 1-1-2 | This Week 1-0 at NYCFC
It’s not a pretty way to win, but Matt Besler’s long throws to Ike Opara will be dangerous all season, especially on the narrower fields in the league.
16. New England Revolution
RECORD: 1-2-1 | This Week 2-1 vs. San Jose
The Revs finally got their first goals and win of the season on a deflection-aided brace from Kelyn Rowe. Jermaine Jones's return to training is another boost for the reigning league runner-up.
17. Montreal Impact
RECORD: 0-1-2 | This Week 2-2 vs. Orlando
The Impact couldn’t get their first league win before returning to CONCACAF Champions League action, where they've had so much success in 2015. The semifinal second leg in Costa Rica beckons on April 7.
18. Chicago Fire
RECORD: 1-3-0 | This Week 1-0 vs. Philadelphia
Another superb match from Harry Shipp and the Fire’s strongest first half of the year lifted Chicago to its first win of the season. Adailton headed home the winner off Shipp's service.
19. Colorado Rapids
RECORD: 0-0-3 | This Week 0-0 at Houston
Make that three scoreless draws in three matches for the Rapids—and an almost pathological lack of production in the attacking third—as the 510-minute goalless streak continues.
20. Philadelphia Union
RECORD: 0-2-2 | This Week 0-1 at Chicago
The Union’s lackluster attack has still only scored in one game (a three-goal outburst at RSL) as Fred’s second-half red card buried Philadelphia’s comeback chances in Chicago.