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Not simply a 'Beckham league'
by Paul Gardner, March 31st, 2008 6:45AM

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Apart from the unfortunate Galaxy happenings in Denver, I would suppose that the MLS guys are reasonably satisfied with their opening weekend. While there was nothing wildly spectacular to report, there were no dreary games either -- and the home teams did well, always a good thing when the larger-than-usual opening day crowds have been lured to the game.

If I take the Real Salt Lake game as an example, it is because it shows how much better the quality of play in MLS is becoming. We had grown used to leaden, dull, physical games from Rice-Eccles stadium, made even worse by the artificial turf and the ugly football lines.

The turf and the markings haven't changed, but the soccer certainly has. Some 20,000 fans -- over 4,000 more than last year's average attendance -- saw clear evidence that Jason Kreis has the makings of a strong team here; the soccer was excellent, lively, end-to-end stuff, with plenty of chances for both Real and the Chicago Fire. Real just failed to run off with all the points because one of the league's new stars, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, came up with a superb tying goal in the 92nd minute.

In general, that sense of better quality soccer was to be felt in all six weekend games. Maybe it's too early to get excited about the traditionally rather pedestrian New England Revs, but their spirited 3-0 win over Houston was a welcome change from the rather uptight conventionality that has always characterized Steve Nicol's team, particularly at playoff time. Again, it is a couple of new players, the Gambian youngsters Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassey, with their speed and enthusiasm and on-the-ball skill who made the difference.

Kansas City, too, got what they wanted from their Designated Player Claudio Lopez. His goal that sealed a 2-0 win over D.C. United, combined both quick soccer thinking and a perfectly executed lob over goalkeeper Zach Wells. Admittedly, D.C. disappointed. But they played good soccer, so the two teams produced a high-caliber, eminently watchable game.

Another dramatic game came from Dallas and Chivas-USA. After a stylish first-half -- capped by a wonderfully taken goal from Juan Toja -- Dallas drooped to a much less satisfactory display in the second, as Chivas-USA upped the pressure. From Chivas -- that supposedly Mexican, or at least Hispanic, team -- we got what I suppose Preki would call effective soccer. Certainly it was physical -- Chivas out-fouled Dallas 20 to 10 -- but this seems to be the sort of soccer that Preki prefers. A pity, that.

Toronto? Well, as they have signed no new players of note, did anyone really expect them to be any better than they were last season? Against Columbus, it was more of the same, dire, desperate grind. New coach John Carver can do little without a bunch of new players -- and preferably not players from his native England. I'm not sure how to define the amazing enthusiasm of the Toronto fans for this very poor team. Commendable it certainly is, but they deserve better than the second-rate soccer they're getting.

Columbus should really have had no problem winning this one, but their newfound call for a tougher approach created problems.

Goalkeeper Will Hesmer has explained that the Columbus defense wants "animals, people who aren't going to be nice, who put you down on purpose." Defender Danny O'Rourke duly obliged by giving away a penalty kick with the crudest of fouls, but Hesmer came up big with the save.

And so to the latest problem for David Beckham and the Galaxy.

Outplayed by the Rapids, trounced 4-0, Abel Xavier red-carded. Excuses? Why, yes -- both Landon Donovan and David Beckham were tired after midweek games in Europe, and then there was the altitude. OK, neither player excelled. But are we saying the Galaxy simply crumble into a rather hopeless shambles if those two guys aren't in top form?

It looks like it. The Rapids played well, no mistake, with Englishman Terry Cooke evidently determined to show that he can cross the ball every bit as well as Beckham. But their star performer was Christian Gomez, which must be raising some doubts at D.C. about the wisdom of trading him away.

Opening weekend, then, brought a disastrous start for the Galaxy -- but a pretty good one for the MLS. A contradiction which has a very positive message: MLS is strong enough not to be seen as simply "the Beckham league."



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