One surprise so far this season has been the degree to which SuperDraft picks have been immediately involved in their teams. Few in Portland would have expected Andrew Jean-Baptiste, for example, to play at all in 2012, much less in three out of the first four matches of the season. He isn't just playing, he's playing well.
The same goes for Casey Townsend, the scorer of Chivas USA's only goal so far in 2012. At times he looks like Kalif Alhassan, playing stylishly on the ball and putting attractive shots on the frame, but against RSL he discovered that ugly goals count for just as much.
Tony Cascio is another example. He was Colorado's first round pick this year, and he gave New York's right wing all kinds of trouble on Sunday.
All told, of the 19 first round picks in 2012, 13 have made appearances for their first teams so far after only three weeks. Several of them are even playing central roles on their teams right now.
Few of them, though, have been under as much pressure as Andrew Jean-Baptiste. He will start his second match of the season on Saturday, and I daresay the team's chances against RSL rest heavily on him. So far he's handling the pressure well, but the upcoming matchup against one of MLS' strongest sides will be an important test.
But first, a recap of last weekend in MLS, after the jump.
Seattle beat Houston all the way back on Friday, on two flukey goals against the run of play. The first, a goal credited to David Estrada (his 4th), took a weird bounce off homophobe Colin Clark that redirected Estrada's wayward shot into an essentially empty net. The other goal was a PK after a Geoff Cameron foul in the box.
Seattle created very little on offense, the goals being their only two shots on target of the match (and one of them wasn't even a shot on target). The secret to their success against a team that dominated them in energy and physicality was the Aikido strategy -- they used their opponents' energy against them. They staged some well-positioned embellishments and turned a couple of mistimed challenges into yellow cards and, of course, a PK. In the end they didn't create any good chances, and we saw none of the magic from Estrada that we'd seen the previous week. Instead they were able to play defense nearly the entire match against a team that in spite of its two wins has struggled to score goals.
The Earthquakes traveled to cold and windy Toronto and crushed the Reds on two goals from Chris Wondolowski and one from Shea Salinas. Toronto FC was reeling from injuries to keeper Stefan Frei and designated player Torsten Frings, in addition to perhaps conserving some of their strength for this evening's CCL match against Santos Laguna.
San Jose dominated from the early goings, scoring their first goal just nine minutes in and routinely getting attackers around the Toronto defense, just as Seattle had done the week before. This in spite of Steven Lenhart's continued ineffectiveness - his main contribution to the match was running offside five times. Meanwhile the San Jose defense didn't have much to worry about against Toronto and held them to a single shot on the frame.
Real Salt Lake 0:1 Chivas USA
In the other shocker of the weekend, RSL lost at home to a team that had not even scored a goal yet this season. RSL scored on a set piece early on, but the goal was called off because the referee had not yet blown his whistle to restart play. In the 72nd minute rookie Casey Townsend did his best Chris Wondolowski impersonation, getting his head in the way of Nick Rimando's hands as he was attempting to collect a cross, then poking in the loose ball from close range.
Chivas got a poachy finish from lone striker Townsend, a boon for a team desperately missing the Juan Pablo Angel who did so well for them last year. But keep in mind that Chivas still has not allowed a goal from the run of play this year. Their defense, led by US International Heath Pearce, is proving to be one of the strongest in the league so far, as they prevented Fabian Espindola from making the kind of runs that cut up the NYRB defense a week before. If Chivas' season is going to hinge on the offense Angel and Townsend can create, Townsend's bit of inspiration is a small, but positive step.
RSL, meanwhile, did not play a bad game -- or shall I say, their performance wasn't much worse than their past performances. The goats were their first opponents of the year with a better than average defense and a solid keeper. RSL is a squad that takes good advantage of their opponents' mistakes, but, aside from Espindola, they haven't done as well to create their own chances yet this year. With Chivas removing him from the equation for much of the match, they didn't have a lot else going for them.
Could it be that, for all of Vancouver's offensive additions in the offseason, their strong suit is actually defense? Or is it just Joe Cannon, who has saved 11 shots while allowing no goals.
After putting zero shots on target and managing a draw against DC, they are alone in first place in the West despite scoring fewer goals than any of their conference rivals besides Chivas. It will be interesting to see what happens between unbeaten Vancouver and the as yet winless Philadelphia Union next week in Chester, PA.
Yes, Kenny Cooper scored two (although I maintain that both may have been own goals, but whatever, good for KFC), matching Thierry Henry's total, as NYRB sailed to their first victory of the season against the Rapids. Thierry Henry had a hand in all but one of New York's goals, demonstrating just how importance his performance is to the team's overall success. Colorado's one goal originated from a mistake from Rafa Marquez, making his first appearance of the year, allowing Omar Cummings to open his 2012 account.
New York found beating the Colorado defense just a little too easy in this match, but that may have resulted largely from Colorado pressing forward, trying to overcome the 2-0 deficit they conceded by the 6th minute. They were also trying to overcome the absences of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni and betrayed a gap in their center midfield depth. The big bright spot for Colorado was the performance of Tony Cascio, who constantly gave the NYRB defense problems on the wing. But Cascio and the Rapids continued to have trouble getting the ball in to Omar Cummings, even against one of MLS' weakest defenses.
SKC is the only team that has won all three games it has played, and they proved on Sunday that they could keep it up against Western competition as well. Coming back from a 25th minute Ricardo Villar goal, Kansas City scored late in each half, the first from Aurelien Collin and the winner by Kei Kamara, who finished with five shots on target out of 11 overall. Wow.
FC Dallas will be very happy that they won't be missing Brek Shea on account of the Olympics for the rest of this year. They have missed a key creator of scoring chances in his absence and have failed to provide an extra link between the midfield and Blas Perez, leaving that work on Villar's shoulders. Their defense, although they played relatively well, still needed Kevin Hartman to rescue them a few too many times. Look for them to trounce the feeble looking DC United on Friday night as they welcome back Shea.
There's no question RSL is going to be looking to erase any doubts that have sprung up since their loss to Chivas on Saturday. They will no doubt see Portland's lackadaisical play in the opening minutes against New England as a weakness to exploit, and Espindola will be licking his chops at the sight of the Timbers' fullbacks. Andrew Jean-Baptiste will need to set the tone early with his strength and speed and get into the RSL attackers' heads. And Jack Jewsbury will need to take command in the center and own the space in front of Kyle Beckerman.
Meanwhile, the Timbers will want to abandon their propensity for trying to get the ball into scoring position via the aerial cross from the wing, as Chris Schuler has a half a foot on Kris Boyd. They should probably try to create a more balanced attack anyway. It won't be impossible to score against RSL, but it will take quite a bit more decisiveness and creativity than they have shown so far. Fortunately for the Timbers, Boyd looks hungry and ready to put in a Kamara-like performance. Here's hoping he can do just that.