Maybe the Eastern Conference Isn’t So Bad… Or Is It?

[NB 1 This is the first of what we hope will become a popular weekly column about MLS.  There are many places you can go to get a rote review of the weekend, along with who won and lost.  Our goal for this column is to put the entire weekend in perspective, as well as highlight some of the best stuff on the pitch, in the locker room, and from the incredible wealth of soccer writing out there.  The only thing we are lacking is a name for this column… if you have any suggestions, share them below]

[NB 2 Join us tonight for the post-game reaction of the US v. El Salvador U-23 match.  Will the U.S. qualify for the semifinals?  Or will their Olympic dreams end tonight?]

The East Claims Victory, but Is the Conference Gap Closing?

Much has been made of the absolute inequality between the two MLS conferences coming into this weekend, and the numbers are staggering: going into Friday’s spotlight match Houston was the only team that could claim a victory over a Western Conference team (they actually have 2)!  That said, there were some signs of Eastern Conference pride being restored Saturday and Sunday:

  • New England and their unconventional lineup shocked the visiting Timbers 1-0 on Saturday
  • Winless DC flew into 2-0 Vancouver and escaped with a well-played 0-0 draw.
  • Sunday saw two Western Conference playoff contenders go down with Sporting KC beating FC Dallas 2-1 and New York thumping Colorado 4-1.
So the ship is righting itself, correct, and maybe the East isn’t quite so bad?  The story is somewhat different when you dive into the numbers behind those victories:
  • Both FC Dallas (Brek Shea, David Ferreira, Fabian Castillo) and Colorado (Pablo Mastroeni, Jeff Larentowicz) were missing key players, which affected their lineups and their playing style.
  • Houston, the aforementioned West beaters, lost fairly convincingly to Seattle on Friday night.  Both may finish in the same spot in their conferences.
  • Up and coming San Jose went into Toronto, the last CCL team in MLS, and crushed them 3-0.  Toronto granted has injuries, but the game was at home.
So what can we draw from the weekend?  The West is still the best conference, but the East will begin to even out the lopsided record eventually.  Whether this means the MLS Cup champ is a lock for a West team or the East will have a less grueling MLS Cup qualifying (or both) remains to be seen.
Player of the Weekend

That Thierry Henry guy is pretty good.  Offense gets viewers, and it also gets Henry the first Player of the Weekend mention for this column.  The forward scored twice and added two assists in the Red Bulls’ 4-1 romp yesterday.  The first goal was simply converting a Ross LaBauex pass in the third minute.  Early in the second half, he beat a poor Colorado offsides trap on a free kick and put New York up 3-0.  With the Juan Agudelo injury and the Luke Rodgers situation playing out, NY needs Henry to stay healthy and productive to keep the offense going.

Honorable Mention Player of the Weekend

Patrick Ianni played some excellent defense for the Sounders on Friday, clearing out crosses and sticking to Brian Ching.  His defense was a big reason the Sounders didn’t allow a goal.  On the other side of the pitch, it was his attempt at a header that Geoff Cameron undercut, leading to the penalty that made the match 2-0.  Applause for well-rounded play.

Colin Clark Situation Will Set Precedent for League

As if the Dynamo loss on Friday wasn’t bad enough, Colin Clark is bringing unwanted media attention for all the wrong reasons.  In the seventh minute, Clark came to the sidelines for a throw-in and, when the ball was rolled to him instead of thrown, he used a gay slur towards the ball boy.  Joshua Mayers of the Seattle Times is all over the story, and if you saw the match you can hear the slur being used during the broadcast (NBC later stated that the producers missed the word and would have issued an on-air apology if they would have caught it).

Now the league has to step in and take action.  I think we can all agree using such a word on a ball boy is very wrong and especially when used on a member of the matchday crew.  Clark has gone through all of the apologies, but the league has a decision to make.  Fans of the Premier League know that league and U.K. government have been cracking down on such actions swiftly and decisively, but our laws on using such language are different than our overseas colleagues.  The NBA levied harsh fines when Kobe Bryant and others players used the slur on the court during a basketball game.  Should MLS be progressive and not only fine Clark but issue a suspension?

There are a number of factors that will go into play here (the macho American sports culture, freedom of speech, context of remark, passion of the players, the fact it was on live TV) but the fact is Clark was absolutely wrong for what he did and he needs to be punished immediately to send a message that such language is unacceptable in MLS by anyone.  Colin Clark makes a lot less money than Kobe Bryant, so a hefty fine would make a much bigger impact than it would in the NBA.  But regardless of the penalty, what is done this week will set a standard for the league from which it must abide the next time something like this happens (and I’d bet it will).

Coaching Move of the Weekend

Congratulations to new New England coach Jay Heaps for not only his first win but a shrewd coaching move to hold off the visiting Timbers.  Shalrie Joseph has been moved forwards and backwards by his coaches but Heaps actually played him as a centerback in this game next to A.J. Soares.  The move allowed MLS veteran Clyde Simms to play as a holding midfielder, giving the Revs a strong defensive middle of the pitch.  Will it work again if they try it again?  Who knows, but it worked Saturday.

Quote of the Weekend Part 1

Any backtracking, or apologizing, or the age-old “I have gay friends” line (which thankfully Clark hasn’t used yet) isn’t going to change that. Brian Mullan can at least claim temporary insanity for injuring Steve Zakuani, it’s much harder for Clark to plead that when that word was the first one that came to his mind under the (seemingly not-so-serious) circumstances.

Ray Curren, “Colin Clark Should Be Suspended, But Hopefully Also A Teachable Moment”

Head scratcher of the weekend

Going back to the Colorado match, new coach Oscar Pareja shows his inexperience by sticking with his 4-3-3 despite losing two starting midfielders.  While on some days that won’t come back to haunt you, it looks like it did this weekend.

Quote of the Weekend Part 2

So it turns out that having a mediocre midfield in a 4-3-3 formation is a pretty bad idea.

Chris White, “New York Red Bulls 4, Colorado Rapids 1”, Burgundy Wave

Video of the weekend

Power Ranking

10. Vancouver Whitecaps: Disappointing home draw can’t overshadow a good start.  This team could be a contender for a playoff spot all the way to the end of the season.

9. Chicago Fire:  After only two games we don’t know much about Chicago except they’ve beaten a struggling Philly and drawn a fired-up Montreal side.

8. Houston Dynamo: The loss to Seattle takes some wind out of Houston’s sails but as we’ve seen so far this season, Houston when playing well is a good team.

7. Portland Timbers: Tough loss on the road to a team people tend to forget, but they need to start winning these types of games to remain a legitimate playoff contender.

6. Colorado Rapids: Injuries hurt, but we knew depth could be a problem for this team.  And it looks to be true.

5.  San Jose Earthquakes:  San Jose is doing what good teams do – beat teams that are lower in the standings than them.  The Houston loss looks worse now, but this team is currently flying high.

4.  Los Angeles Galaxy: They’ve only played two games and bowed out of the CCL, but as they showed DC when they are healthy and motivated, they’re dominant.

3.  Real Salt Lake: Ugly loss to Chivas doesn’t hide the fact that they have already beaten the #4 and (if we went past 10) #11 team on this list.

2. Sporting Kansas City: Yes they beat a Dallas team missing some key pieces, but they have looked dominant so far on the year.  Winning the Supporters Shield by playing mostly the East is not a crazy idea right now.

1.  Seattle Sounders:  Ugly CCL loss aside, they’ve thumped a pre-injury Toronto side and one of the best teams in the East.  David Estrada is turning into an amazing signing.

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