MLS: 8 Things We Learned from the Weekend Games

Peter BrownellContributor IMarch 11, 2013

MLS: 8 Things We Learned from the Weekend Games

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    Week 2 of MLS is in the books, and it did not help tip the scales in terms of which conference is superior, the East or the West.

    Of the six games played between teams from opposite conferences, there was an even spilt in terms of wins and losses—three wins for each respective coast. 

    There were no ties this week; each game provided a winner. The highest-scoring team was Chivas USA. The Goats netted three times in their 3-1 victory over FC Dallas. This was also the only game won by more than a one-goal margin.

    Toronto FC's Robert Earnshaw was the leading scorer for the weekend. His brace helped secure the Reds' first three points of the season.

    The results leave two Canadian sides atop the standings. The Vancouver Whitecaps shifted into the top spot in the West with six points, as did the Montreal Impact in the East.

    Overall, it was a fun weekend that helped shed some light on the state of the league. Here are eight takeaways from the second week of MLS.

Toronto Is No Longer an Easy Win

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    Toronto FC shocked the league this weekend by beating a team many believe to be contenders for the MLS Cup, Sporting Kansas City, 2-1 in Canada.

    The Reds were prudent in victory, taking advantage of an early defensive miscommunication between  Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin. Calm finishing from an appropriately awarded penalty kick provided Toronto the full three points.

    This win marked Toronto's first in 15 league games, dating back to 2012, and follows its opening weekend loss in Vancouver in which it put in a solid, competitive 90 minutes.

    Things are wildly different so far this year for debutant head coach Ryan Nelsen. The defense is more secure, and the gaps that consistently doomed the team last season are not nearly as regular. Danny Califf and Darren O'Dea pair nicely next to one another.

    Rookie Kyle Bekker is fitting in with ease.

    Robert Earnshaw may not have been on the ball too much (26 touches per Opta Chalkboard), but he did what strikers are paid for: finish when called upon. His two goals were professionally taken.

    The days of Toronto being a guaranteed three points for its opponents are long gone. The Reds will be competitive all season long.

Chicago Fire Need to Figure Out an Identity

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    Two games, two losses and no goals for the new-look Chicago Fire.

    Chicago made some big changes in one of the most important areas of the pitch, the center of the midfield. Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere are both reliable, hard-working players, but their partnership lacks a bit of a creative punch so far.

    After getting blown out by Los Angeles in Week 1, the Fire were better this weekend, holding the lion's share of possession and creating more offensively. Their tactics, however, still do not seem entirely clear at this point in the season.

    Do they want to focus on width with their burners, Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka? Is Chris Rolfe the creative genius they should play through and run off? Where do they want to connect Sherjill MacDonald with the rest of the offense?

    All of the teams that have had the most success in MLS lately have had a distinct and clear method of playing. Head coach Frank Klopas needs to make his tactics utterly apparent going forward. Quickly. 

    The East is looking mighty dangerous this season.

The Vancouver Whitecaps Are a Western Conference Favorite

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    The Vancouver Whitecaps have six points out of a possible six so far in this very young MLS season.

    Last year, the Whitecaps were known for a staunch defensive back line featuring two of the league's best defenders, Young-Pyo Lee and Jay DeMerit. This year, it is the offense that might be the most critical in  their success.

    Daigo Kobayashi put the league on notice with his early strike. What an absolute gem! He clearly has the shooting range of former Seattle Sounder Fredy Montero.

    While Kenny Miller's goal may not have been as spectacular, his effort in stripping Glauber and his anticipation in predicting a poor turn are worth noting. Overall, this was a goal created from hard work.

    The variance in these goal types may be the crux of why Vancouver will be so dangerous going forward. The Whitecaps can win in different ways: either with electric talent or a "hard hat"-style performance.

    Also, no DeMerit? No problem, clearly, as Brad Rusin filled in admirably at center back for the injured captain.

The Montreal Impact Are an Eastern Conference Favorite

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    Pragmatism seems the name of the game for second-year MLS side the Montreal Impact.

    It is working, too, as the group find themselves alone atop the Eastern Conference.

    While the Impact have a new coach in Marco Schallibaum, the lineup itself is not so different from last season, which has proved to be a positive so far this year.

    The three-man central midfield connected nicely at times during their debut season, and it is gelling again so far in the Impact's first two road wins. What's most impressive is that each individual is clearly aware of his role.

    Patrice Bernier picks up second balls in front of the back line and distributes simply but effectively. Brazilian Felipe Martins is a true "drink-stirrer" with a silky touch and a carelessness that allows him the freedom to try to thread inventive and risky passes. Davy Arnaud is the workhorse, run-maker and team leader.

    Italian legend Alessandro Nesta continues to learn the pace of the league and seems more comfortable than he was last year to lead what could be a stingy defense all season long.

    With two road wins and six points, it should be nothing but smiles for Schallibaum and the Montreal Impact.

Colorado Has Very Little Offense

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    The days of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings scoring boatloads of goals for the Colorado Rapids are long gone.

    The Rapids shredded their bread-and-butter strike partnership this offseason. So far, there is no apparent replacement. Head coach Oscar Pareja seems desperate to stick with a more offensively minded 4-3-3 formation. His ideas sound nice in theory.

    In practice, they have yet to pay dividends. 

    Blame injuries, perhaps, but what the team is working with currently simply is not working.

    The Rapids' passing flow is clearly disjointed. So far, they have only managed one goal in two games. The midfielders and strikers are free to interchange positions, which is clear, but their movement lacks purpose. It looks more as if they are running around to different spots on the field because the players think moving around is something they should be doing, rather than moving with ideas and danger.

    Forwards Atiba Harris, Deshorn Brown and Kevin Harbottle have not connected nearly enough, and the midfield service has not done them any favors either.

    It does not get any easier for the Colorado Rapids in their next match, as they hit the road to face rivals Real Salt Lake and one of the best goalkeepers in the league, Nick Rimando.

Juan Agudelo Is Still Dangerous

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    Juan Agudelo showed why so many American fans believed he was the next great American striker on Sunday. His game-tying goal for Chivas USA against FC Dallas was an exquisite display of dexterous skill.

    The teenager's goal was the first of this season's campaign and the perfect example of the type of skill he is capable of producing.

    With Chivas USA down a goal and primed for another disappointing home loss, Agudelo found a gap in the Dallas back line between left center back Matt Hedges and left full-back Michel.

    Meanwhile, Chivas USA back Walter Vilchez served up an innocuous ball in the direction of the young American.

    Agudelo's touch off his thigh was far enough in front of him to get him into the 18-yard box, and his Cruyff turn was executed brilliantly in a tight spot: the perfect move to create space and shake off Hedges, something instinctual and difficult to execute under such high pressure.

    The finish was divine too—a left-footed, perfectly placed strike with his laces into the bottom left side of the net.

    Chivas USA and USMNT fans alike will drool over goals like that if Agudelo can keep it up this MLS season.

High Pressure on Backs Can Pay Off in MLS

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    Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chivas USA proved that high pressure can lead to easy goals in MLS.

    There is a constant debate about where teams should set their defensive line of pressure and if and when they should try to win the ball in the opposing team's defensive third. On one hand, committing numbers forward can leave a midfield and defense exposed. It can also tire out offensive players unnecessarily.

    On the other, it can lead to goals that take very little work, build or creativity.

    Robert Earnshaw perfectly read and intercepted Matt Besler's poor back pass. It provided a quick and easy early lead in Toronto's victory over Sporting Kansas City.

    Kenny Miller's game-winner for Vancouver was the result of the high pressure he applied on Glauber, who was not aware that Miller was barreling towards him. Miller handily dispossessed Glauber and was rewarded with a big chance on goal.

    Oswaldo Minda's hustle awarded him a golden opportunity following a poor first touch from FC Dallas defender George John. Minda coolly buried his chance. 

    Three errors in the defensive part of the pitch. Three goals manufactured from very little soccer. Three individuals working hard to make life difficult for defenders.

    One win each for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC and Chivas USA: High pressure might be the way to go in MLS.

New York Has Issues Everywhere

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    The New York Red Bulls' latest second-half collapse will certainly be a tough pill for head coach Mike Petke to swallow, particularly when he examines the tape of the match in detail. Simply stated, New York has trouble in nearly every area of the field.

    With the exception of Jamison Olave, the Red Bulls back line had another shaky affair against the San Jose Earthquakes. They were once again doomed by some terrible mental mistakes.

    In addition to Roy Miller's avoidable handball that led to the game-winning penalty kick, the Costa Rican also encroached and allowed Chris Wondolowski two penalty attempts. Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles saved the initial try, but Wondolowski buried his second shot.

    The midfield lacked a true playmaker with Juninho sidelined due to injury. Tim Cahill seems lost on the offensive side of the ball, mostly used only during aerial duels. Dax McCarty works very hard but has not added much going forward just yet. There were workmanlike efforts from outside midfielders Johnny Steele and Eric Alexander but not much in terms of dangerous creation.

    Overall, a pedestrian midfield effort on the day.

    While Thierry Henry is class, his tendency to drift in and out of games is apparent against physical defenses. Often looking disinterested or lacking affect, Henry has been mostly subdued in New York's first two games. Fabian Espindola beat players on occasion but harbored almost no connection with the midfield or Henry.

    Like its first game of the season, New York once again obtained a lead. Instead of keeping possession in the second half to try to kill the game, the Red Bulls panicked and shifted to a full-on "boot-and-run" style. This tactic does not suit them.

    They will need to make some adjustments, and fast, or this will be a long season in New York. Again.