Week Two of the MLS season is somewhat overshadowed by the USA-Argentina friendly at the New Meadowlands Stadium, not to mention the smothering coverage of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco pretending to be interested in soccer.
Scheduling conflicts have drained some of the allure of the Real Salt Lake-Los Angeles Galaxy this weekend, as both teams will be missing top players because of international duty.
All manner of criticism and ridicule is being heaped on MLS officials for staging such an important game on one of the international fixture dates not blacked out for league play. Since the precise workings of scheduling are not public knowledge, we can’t know if the league could have flipped the games of June 4 – when the USA plays world champion Spain – for those being played this weekend.
There’s a Galaxy-D.C. United game at home Depot Center June 3, which could be played without Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies, and who knows how many other players might be named by their national team coaches. By expanding the schedule to 34 games, league officials practically guaranteed there would be more weekend conflicts and until most teams can draw midweek attendances that come close to their weekend gates the problem won’t go away.
There’s no shortage of intriguing matchups for Saturday, but a pair of teams anxious to get their seasons back on course meet Friday at Qwest Field, where Seattle hosts Houston (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel).
A year and a half ago, they met in the MLS conference semifinals. The expansion Sounders came out on the short end by a razor-slim margin, 1-0 on aggregate, on a Dynamo goal in extra time. By winning the U.S. Open Cup and making the playoffs the 2009 season was deemed a resounding success.
Yet a run of ties early in the season had triggered criticism by some local media members steeped in other sports where ties seldom, if ever, occurred. The Sounders rode out that rocky patch and broke the league’s average attendance record of 28,916 set by the Galaxy in the league’s inaugural 1996 season with a 30,897 average.
Last year, after slogging through the mire of the Freddie Ljungberg Fiasco and being weakened by injuries, Seattle finished by winning 10 of its last 15 games and smashed its own attendance record with 36,173 fans per game, nearly 69 percent more than the runner-up Galaxy. But despite repeating as Open Cup champion, it fell in the first round of the playoffs again, this time to LA, and in its two games so far in 2011 it has lost both and failed to score.
Their recent track record with a few high-profile attackers hasn’t been stellar, and thus Seattle and Houston are easy targets. Last year, Seattle traded Ljungberg when he demanded talks be initiated on a new contract; this year, hulking forward Blaise Nkufo argued with head coach Sigi Schmid over his role in the team and was terminated. The other post-World Cup DP signing, midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, has under-performed, and last week Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales came into the squad. In his debut he replaced Fernandez and took his spot at right mid in a 1-0 loss to New York.
Houston announced its first -- and so far only – Designated Player in 2009, and Mexican attacker Luis Angel Landin seldom showed any enthusiasm or prowess before departing last summer. That same year, it traded Chris Wondolowski to San Jose, and all he did was win the Golden Boot with 18 goals last season. In exchange, Houston got Cam Weaver, who has played only 23 games (six goals) since the trade in June 2009.
The Dynamo missed the playoffs in 2010, the first time since 2000 – when it played as San Jose – it failed to qualify for the postseason. Three weeks ago, Houston re-signed forward Dominic Oduro to a new contract; last weekend, he missed a sitter in a 1-0 home loss to Philadelphia, and earlier this week was traded to Chicago for another speedy forward, Calen Carr.
Both teams should be healthier on the attacking fronts than they were last Saturday. Seattle hopes to send out Steve Zakuani and Nate Jaqua, Brian Ching is expected to play for the Dynamo. Thus it’s unlikely both teams will continue their seasons scoreless.
Of the two head coaches, there’s far more pressure in Seattle on Schmid, who in preseason stated that winning the title in his third season in charge – as he had done in 2008 was Columbus – is essential. For this Friday night special, the Sounders are at home, FSC is broadcasting it live, and there will be urgency on the field and in the stands.
A team playing just its third of 34 games can’t be tossed into the “must-win” crucible, but don’t tell that to the players, coaches, fans and team officials at Qwest Field. This game will have a real feel, that of commitment and pressure and potentially dire consequences of defeat, which is how it should be even if the stakes are hardly extreme.
Critics of MLS often point, rightly, to a lack of passion and intensity in most regular-season games. That won’t be the case for this one. It’s a game that fans of the league and the game in this country, not just of the teams, need to watch.
In its own way, Seattle-Houston is just as important as USA-Argentina, if not nearly as sexy. On this Friday night, it’s the only game in town.