Monday, September 8, 2008
Five things to note from MLS Week 24
Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are five things I found lying around:
1. The schedule mess. Important decisions should never be made in a vacuum. And so it is with Major League Soccer's current scheduling kerfuffle, one brought on by Major League Soccer's insistence of playing through international fixture dates.
There are lots of moving parts when it comes to scheduling, and the tricky enterprise deserves careful consideration. But who could blame fans in Toronto, paying good money to watch essentially a reserve squad, or who could blame teams desperately chasing Chivas USA for a playoff spot, if they don't want to hear about "careful consideration."
Chivas USA went to BMO and beat a Toronto team that was missing nine regulars due to a World Cup qualifier. Coach John Carver had to sign three players Friday just to field a team, which screams "bush league."
Here's the thing: For an MLS in infancy a few years ago, plowing through fixture dates made more sense. Given stadium availability issues, far less favorable TV contracts (which reduced flexibility), weather concerns of playing too early or too late in the calendar, etc., bucking the fixture dates was a policy that could be defended, at least.
But it's clearly time to evolve. Deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis addressed the issue last week, promising further study. There's also a new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated, and that could force policy change. Whatever the catalyst, a shift seems likely.
By this time next year, 11 of 15 teams will occupy facilities dedicated to soccer, which significantly reduced scheduling issues. (Actually, the bigger schedule troublemaker now is concerts, which are gobbling up more prime weekend dates. While it's important that clubs reach profitability -- and handsome windfalls from the concert biz are helping immensely in some markets -- soccer should retain the choice dates. So concert-schmoncert, as far as this argument goes.)
It was always uncomfortable to watch soccer cannibalize its audience by making fans choose between MLS matches and World Cup qualifiers. Now, as MLS expands and playoff berths become harder to collect, there are legitimate concerns of contaminating competitive matters. Two words: not good.
Whether it means playing more Wednesday dates, or extending the season's window from the current 31 weeks to 33 or 34 weeks, or trimming some of these stadiums' concert calendars, it's time to do so -- high time to get out of the habit of ignoring the international fixture dates.
2. A dose of perspective. Let's not get carried away with Saturday's result in Crew-ville, even if it was an absolute back-alley beating.
New England looked like a tired team, a punchless bunch with nothing left after such a hectic summer, one only a travel agent could love. New England will be fine so long as Steve Nicol's team can keep Shalrie Joseph, Michael Parkhurst and Matt Reis healthy.
Having said that, let's consider Columbus' breathtaking effort in Saturday's 4-0 win. It could have been much worse. The Crew put three off the crossbar before bending the net. With Guillermo Barros Schelotto at the top of his game, Eddie Gaven getting forward with supreme confidence and Robbie Rogers tormenting the Revs on his side, Columbus applied relentless pressure. Sigi Schmid knew New England would be road-weary and asked his players to press the tempo, to make the tired Revs suffer.
Considering the stunning 27-4 edge in shots and a 13-1 margin in shots on target, it's safe to say the Crew followed Schmid's instructions to the letter.
The evening removes all doubt about whether Schmid's men are legitimate title contenders. They're probably favorites at this point. It's true that the Crew don't have a lot of recent playoff experience. But a statement match like Saturday's goes far in mitigating postseason inexperience. If Schelotto stays fresh and healthy, the road to MLS Cup 2008 appears to go through Crew Stadium.
3. "26" in his sights. Take a second to understand what Schelotto is achieving with his fabulous assist total, which reached 18 over the weekend.
Columbus officials are researching whether he's the first to record multiple assists in four consecutive matches.
With seven matches remaining, the crafty Argentine is almost certain to become the second MLS player to reach 20 assists in a season. Carlos Valderrama holds the season record with 26. (Several others got stuck on 19 but never reached the milepost No. 20 to join Valderrama.)
But remember two things about Valderrama's totals: First, El Pibe set the record in 2000 during a 32-game season, two more than now (he played in all 32 Tampa Bay matches that year). And assists were doled out more liberally then; standards have been tightened since.
Bottom line: Schelotto is crafting something very special this year.
4. Gibbs is rebounding nicely. Cory Gibbs may not be enough by himself to reverse the situation in Colorado. (Don't be fooled by one road win; three of the selections in midfield by FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman had a combined five MLS starts.)
But it's nice to see the talented American defender, who languished for almost two seasons on Charlton's injury list back in MLS. And so far so good. He has been an immediate, steadying presence along the Rapids' back line.
Gibbs, four games into his Rapids stint, had not played a first-team match since getting a little time with ADO Den Haag in the spring of 2006. Still, he said he wasn't jittery and didn't feel like his timing suffered much from inaction. Gibbs already resembles the calm, classy and rangy defender that once made him a central part of Bruce Arena's national team plans.
Gibbs said he spends about a day and a half before matches prepping himself mentally, studying opponent tendencies and tapping the right frame of mind. He could even become a national team option once again -- although Bob Bradley seems reluctant to test players who have not been seen in the qualifier run-up.
5. A list you don't want to join. Chance Myers was a surprise pick as the No. 1 overall MLS draft pick in January. But Wizards coach Curt Onalfo thought the versatile UCLA product was his man, so he made a bold call. How's that working out for him? So far, not great.
Myers has yet to establish a regular place for Kansas City. That in itself isn't awful. Onalfo said all along that Myers was hardly a finished product.
More concerning are the bad moments in the back that lead to goals when Myers has gotten opportunities.
Most concerning is that twice this year his casual attitude can be blamed. In the Wizards' 3-1 loss Sunday at Houston, his lack of effort on Nate Jaqua's goal was shocking. Half of playing defense is sheer determination, and Myers had better start showing more of it, or he'll risk joining an embarrassingly long list of MLS top-pick flops.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.