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Monday, April 26, 2010
Young midfielders spark Fire, Chivas USA

Jeff Carlisle

The most successful midfields in MLS usually have a veteran, stabilizing presence in the center of the park. In Columbus, you have the consistent play of Brian Carroll, while Kyle Beckerman typically mans the controls for Real Salt Lake.

Up until this season, that was the case for both the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, but a combination of offseason departures, injury and sketchy form led both clubs to field decidedly young central pairings Saturday. And rather than fall victim to the duos' inexperience, both teams were the recipients of precocious performances that practically screamed, "No experience necessary."

In Chicago, the central spots are typically the domain of veterans Logan Pause and John Thorrington, but with both players sidelined by injuries, coach Carlos de los Cobos turned to Baggio Husidic and Peter Lowry for the third consecutive game. Entering the match, the two had a combined career total of just 20 league starts, yet both players got on the score sheet and helped the Fire carry the day in terms of possession, especially in the first half, leading the home side to a 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo.

Of course, Lowry and Husidic look like grizzled veterans compared to what transpired out in Los Angeles. While not quite in crisis mode, an uneasy feeling was beginning to settle around Chivas USA as manager Martin Vasquez attempted to kick-start an offense that had gone missing for much of this season.

In a bid to free up attacking hub Sacha Kljestan, Vasquez settled on the novel concept of using rookies Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski -- who just so happened to be college teammates at Akron -- in dual holding roles. The cohesion between the two was evident as they helped the home side keep the ball while also providing the defensive cover needed to allow Kljestan to focus only on attack. The composed and efficient performances by both rookies helped key the Goats' 3-2 victory over San Jose, one that included a sumptuous strike from Kljestan that was set up by Gavin.

The extent to which either side persists with its current midfield setup will be interesting to see going forward. Both Pause and Thorrington are expected to return to the lineup as soon as their fitness allows, but if Lowry and Husidic continue to perform like they did Saturday, they could make the decision a bit less straightforward for de los Cobos.

As for Gavin and Zemanski, the immediate future is a bit more secure since Vasquez's month-long search to find the right balance in midfield has finally paid off. It will be telling to see how the duo fares against sides that press higher up the field than San Jose, which (it must be said) looked oddly passive on the night. The return to health of veteran Marcelo Saragosa also could change the midfield dynamic for the Goats, but at minimum, the two rookies appear to have helped Vasquez -- at least for the moment -- solve the problem of how to get Kljestan back to his attacking best.

The Colorado conundrum: Just by virtue of playing at high altitude, it stands to reason that the Colorado Rapids have one of the biggest home-field advantages in MLS. Yet so far, Gary Smith's outfit has looked more impressive on the road than at home. The Rapids deservedly claimed all three points against New England on Saturday by defeating the Revs 2-1 for their second road win. As for the two home games, Colorado has claimed four of a possible six points but has looked about as fluid as quick-drying cement in the process.

So what was the difference? At least in terms of Saturday's result, the Rapids' midfield carried the day, with Omar Cummings drifting into wider positions than normal and the mercurial Mehdi Ballouchy delivering a sharp performance that saw him score once and hit the post with an attempted bicycle kick. The movements of both players added more of an unpredictable element to the Rapids' attack, and when combined with the steel of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni, the latter of whom scored the game-winner on a vicious 25-yard drive, you have a recipe for road success.

Houston, knee deep: In recent weeks, Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear looked to have gotten his arms around the issue of replacing departed midfielders Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. Lovel Palmer was starting to look like Clark 2.0, while Geoff Cameron was beginning to find ways to impact the game through his athleticism and ability to make late runs into the box.

But the sight of Cameron suffering what appears to be a very serious knee injury against Chicago has all the makings of a massive setback for Houston. If the third-year veteran does face a lengthy spell on the sidelines, it looks like Adrian Serioux will be forced to slide into the middle on a long-term basis. While such a swap doesn't represent a drop in quality in terms of defense, the domino effect in terms of the attack is considerable, with even more of the creative burden falling on Brad Davis.

Candid Kamara: Not a week goes by without some strike being touted as a goal of the year candidate. Yet when it comes to the miss of the year, you can go ahead and close the polls, because no one will top the chance blown by Kansas City's Kei Kamara against Los Angeles.

After Davy Arnaud's 16th-minute shot caromed off the post and hugged the goal line, Kamara was left with the simplest of tap-ins from less than a yard. Instead, he fanned on his shot attempt and ended up punching the ball into the net as he fell to the ground. Perhaps even more incredible than the miss was the sight of Kamara actually pleading his case to referee Hilario Grajeda to allow the goal to stand. Grajeda had none of it, and the blown opportunity proved critical as the Wizards could only manage a 0-0 tie against the Galaxy.

Kamara did come to his senses afterward, however. The Kansas City forward later tweeted, "Shocker performance by me, worst miss of my career. Sorry Boys."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.




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