With the advent of the 2012 season, we at Stumptown Footy want to try to provide a deeper level of analysis of the other matches going on in the league. But since we aren't exactly swimming in free time, we're going to take advantage of the new regional league structure and provide that extra level of analysis for only those matches which involve Western Conference sides. That way, as the season progresses, we'll be able to look back on a more complete record on our upcoming opponents and hopefully give our readers a little more familiarity with our direct competition.
Right now, we're calling this weekly feature "MLS Western Conference Weekly Recap," because we're not into the whole brevity thing. We're not married to the name, though, so alternative suggestions would certainly be welcome. And as always, any constructive criticism you'd like to offer about our analysis is also welcome, and encouraged.
This first weekend featured mostly inter-conference competition taking place in Western Conference stadiums. In all but two inter-conference match-ups the Western team finished ahead of the Eastern team in 2011 -- the exceptions being Chivas USA and the Timbers (and the 2012 Philadelphia Union is hardly the same team that placed 9th overall last year). To put it bluntly, First Kick Weekend was stacked in favor of the Western Conference. Weekends like this will be a rarity in 2012.
Timbers fans saw their team run all over a weak opponent in hostile conditions last night. This Saturday's competition in Dallas will be a much better indicator of just how improved the 2012 Timbers really are.
The first goal of the 2012 season looked an awful lot like the last goal of the 2011 season (Landon Donovan's winner against Houston). This time it featured Davide Chiumiento booting a long ball forward which Eric Hassli headed on to Sebastien Le Toux's feet behind the Montreal defense, allowing him to dribble forward and slot the finish just under the outstretched arm of Impact goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. Camilo Sanvezzo added another early in the second half, dribbling through two defenders before popping off a sliding shot.
Vancouver dominated the match from beginning and got a commanding start to the season, just as they did last year against Toronto FC. This year, however, there will be few doubts about the Whitecaps' potency on the attack, as a 4-1-4-1 formation looked almost like a 4-1-5 at times. Eric Hassli played on top of the formation, with four additional attack-minded players behind him. The strategy worked well enough against the Impact, who were playing their first ever MLS match, but when the Caps play teams with a more organized attacks, their defense may struggle to keep up.
Columbus almost looked to be playing a half-field scrimmage at times, allowing Colorado to have free reign on their half of the pitch and very rarely pushing more than a handful of players to the attack. It meant Colorado easily dominated possession and created the most chances. If the Crew meant to conserve their energy in the high altitude, it didn't appear to work; their slow recovery after a corner late in the first half led to Colorado's first goal, a header from Drew Moor. The Rapids' second goal came in the 89th minute as the tired Crew defense failed to present a challenge to Quincy Amarikwa's movement outside the area.
Like the Vancouver-Montreal game, this one looked like a mismatch. Oscar Pareja's much discussed 4-3-3 formation looked mostly like a 4-5-1 for nearly the entire match, with Omar Cummings acting as the lone striker. The crowded Rapids midfield had a lot of trouble feeding Cummings forward, and when they did Cummings never put much quality in the finish, highlighted by a squandered 1-on-1 chance against the keeper early in the first half.
Part of the Rapids' struggle to make that connection between the midfield and the striker resulted from Columbus' excessive presence in the defensive half, which, of course, made for an easy afternoon for the Colorado defense. The real test for the Rapids may not come until they play their first match against Western Conference competition, April 7th in Utah.
RSL put on a clinic in the waning minutes of the match on just how to go about scoring three against the LA Galaxy. After Edson Buddle put his head on the end of yet another gorgeous cross from David Beckham, RSL came back with two goals in quick succession. The first was an own goal from Sean Franklin off a speculative cross from the young rat-tailed Colombian Sebastian Velasquez. The second was a poke from Javier Morales after Ned Grabavoy found open space on the left flank when Beckham decided to shout at the referee rather than play defense. RSL sealed the deal with another run down the left flank, this one by Fabian Espindola.
To Los Angeles' credit, they dominated the entire first half, holding possession in the RSL half and pushing a relentless attack. RSL's goalkeeping duo of Nick Rimando and Cross Bar were heroic in keeping the ball out. LA had four shots on target out of 16 total attempts. But the downfall of their 4-3-3 formation is their defense. As Timbers fans saw last year, LA is all too willing to give their opponents that extra step of space, and without Omar Gonzalez they are missing their most disruptive force in the middle.
Meanwhile, RSL continues to be a solid team, and deep. They showed that they are perfectly willing to start their most difficult matches with the likes of Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales on the bench -- among the up and comers they started against LA were 18-year-old Luis Gil and 21-year-old Velasquez, and the youngins held their own. Kyle Beckerman, it should be said, has regained whatever he had lost after his late season suspension last year and did well to control the match on the RSL side of the ball. The defense, too, turned in an amazing performance, constantly pushing the Galaxy attackers to the periphery. As long as they can stay healthy and fit, RSL look every bit as dangerous as they did last year.
I might be the only one saying this, but New England look like an improved squad this year. But even as much as one might expect them to play better together, so many of them having played together for so many years, they still struggle to create chances together. The Rev's defense had their hands full of Steven Lenhart's curly locks, and they held their own pretty well, but for one bad pass in the midfield that led to Chris Wondolowski's goal off Shea Salinas' perfectly timed pass to beat the offside trap.
The Earthquakes' attack is going to be very straightforward this year, with Lenhart wrestling defenders while Wondo runs down balls played in by their very capable wingers. Marvin Chavez and Shea Salinas are both fast down the flanks and have the strength to handle their opposite numbers. Also worth noting is that Tottenham man Simon Dawkins did not start and played only 26 minutes of the match, which goes to show San Jose's improved depth, at least at this early point in the season. But again, San Jose's improved squad will get a more formidable test on March 31st, when they travel to Seattle for the first of their two matches there.
Leave it to the Goats to be the only Western Conference team to lose to an Eastern Conference team on First Kick weekend. Granted, they lost to the MLS Cup runners up, but they gave nothing but credence to the pundits who picked Chivas to finish ninth. If not for the amazing performance of keeper Dan Kennedy, who made eight incredible saves, Chivas would have been a lot worse off. As it was the winning goal for Houston came in stoppage time, when Andre Hainault collected a deflected shot from Adam Moffatt. This time neither the Chivas defense nor Kennedy knew anything about it.
Juan Pablo Angel, the team captain and most high profile player, looked like he was back playing for the Galaxy where he only scored three times in 22 games, rather than with team for whom he averaged almost a goal a game last year. Chivas' defense, anchored by the steady hand of Dan Kennedy, looked vulnerable at times, finally allowing the Houston goal in the 92'.
Going forward, the goats created several good chances, largely through the industry of their new French winger Laurent Courtois. Chivas often looked like the stronger team on the offensive side of the ball but were able to create only one close chance, an Angel volley that clattered off the post in the 40'. Overall, Chivas have the look of a team that does not have the firepower to compete in MLS this year.
Kenny Cooper scored a goal in a losing effort for the New York Red Bulls, and FC Dallas put on a show of strength followed closely by general disarray toward the game's end. Dallas scored the first two of the match, the first after Andrew Jacobson picked up a loose ball on the left flank off a Dallas set piece. He crossed the ball into Ugo Ihemelu, and two missed clearances later Zach Loyd finished. Then early in the second half a pass off the wing from Brek Shea found Blas Perez, who slotted just ahead of the offside trap to Ricardo Villar, who chipped it home.
FC Dallas had little trouble creating chances against the questionable NYRB back four that once again included former USL Timber Stephen Keel. The Panamanian journeyman Perez had both assists for Dallas and might have had at least one more if not for the fearless NYRB goalkeeper Ryan Meara. Shea was heavily involved in the attack as well for Dallas, although he often looked like less of a leader than his teammates want him to be in the midfield. Finally, defensively Dallas did very well to keep Juan Agudelo and Thierry Henry off the scoresheet, holding each of them to zero shots on goal.
FC Dallas is the Timbers' next opponent, March 17 in Dallas, where the heavenly chorus of the Timbers Army will be replaced by the hellish drone of vuvuzelas. The challenge for the Timbers defensively will be in bullying Perez out of the middle of the pitch, slowing the team's attacking movement, and limiting the amount of time Ricardo Villar & co have on the ball to create chances. Portland will dodge a bullet, though, with Brek Shea joining the USMNT U23 Camp ahead of their Olympic Qualifying campaign.
Offensively the Timbers will have their hands full with a very stout Dallas defense. They will have less time to create from possession on the wings than they had against Philly. The trick, as usual, will be to spring our speedy wings and Jorge Perlaza past the Dallas back line to find Kris Boyd in front of goal. Good thing that's Coach Spencer's game plan already.
Many thanks to Will Conwell for sitting through the entire Chivas match and contributing the analysis for that contest. That's another beer I owe ya, Will.