By Paul Gardner
Admittedly, it’s a bit early in the season to be talking about this year’s MLS Cup winner. But ... given that the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls are the two MLS clubs that have spent the most money, the two that get the most publicity, that they have a total of five Designated Players between them, and that the Galaxy is the current MLS champion ... given all of that, plus their splendid stadiums, it seems a reasonable conjecture that one of these two will be the next MLS champion.
In fact, adhering to the capitalist maxim that Rich Guys Finish First, things ought to work out so that the final features both teams. And what sort of a final would that be? On the evidence of each team’s first game ... dreadful.
Both teams lost, which is not the recommended way to start a season, but it was the manner of their losses that was much more dismal.
Both the Galaxy and the Bulls gave inchoate, at times chaotic, performances. Style? Flow? Rhythm? Purposeful possession? Incisive passing? Dangerous play in or around the opposing penalty area? Brief sightings, yes (notably, one lovely first-half sequence from the Galaxy), but these were forlorn little moments in the morass of mediocrity that engulfed them.
The Galaxy, we’re told, was tired and unlucky. Possibly. It was also inept and thoroughly disjointed. Landon Donovan, still the brightest star on the USA’s homegrown player horizon, produced flashes of brilliance, without ever looking as though he and his teammates were capable of any clever interplay. Robbie Keane? Another player who seemed to be trying to work things out on his own. I saw no sign of any understanding developing between him and Edson Buddle.
As for David Beckham, we got what we got last season -- an aging player, well past his best -- still capable of delivering a magic cross or two, but little else other than petulant arguing with the referee.
Defensively, the Galaxy looked naive -- no doubt the loss of Omar Gonzalez is going to hurt them -- but the Tommy Meyer-A.J. DeLaGarza combination tried here looked embarrassingly naive. Add in the obvious fact that Sean Franklin simply had a game to forget, and there you have it -- Bruce Arena has a lot of work to do before the Galaxy even looks like a team, never mind wins anything. Last season Arena’s Galaxy won 23 games -- 11 of them, not quite half, were by 1-0 scorelines, which reveals an enormous reliance on the defense to make a single goal stand up. The defense on view on Saturday will be lucky to make two or even three goals stand up -- it is to be hoped that Arena will choose to augment his team’s fire power rather than go the negative defensive route again.
Red Bull coach Hans Backe has already done some work on his team (much needed work -- after all, the Bulls were the No. 1 El Floppo last season). We saw some of it in action on Sunday, in the shape of a cumbersome Swede, Markus Holgersson, brought in to replace Tim Ream at center back. Whatever talents Holgersson may have, comfort on the ball is not one of them.
For the rest, this was largely the Red Bulls who screwed up so badly last season, and nothing has changed. Just where the brain of this team is supposed to be, who is supposed to be in charge, is a well kept secret. I suppose it ought to be Thierry Henry, but it needs saying that there are, in every game that Henry plays for the Red Bulls, lengthy periods when he appears to be not much interested in what’s going on around him. Which just might be OK if he were to produce three or four of those incredible Henry scoring moments that decorated his Arsenal career. So far, nothing.
For this outing, Backe did a clumsy U-turn and -- having largely ignored Juan Agudelo last year -- started him “alongside” Henry. I say “alongside” because there were precious few occasions when the two seemed to even recognize each other’s presence. One begins to wonder whether Henry can, or wants to, combine with his teammates.
But what sort of service can Henry expect from a bluest of blue-collar midfield pairing like that of Dax McCarty and Teemu Tainio? So, already, even without the services of the rustic Luke Rogers (detained in England with visa problems -- something the Red Bulls do not want to talk about), the Bulls look like what they were, so unsuccessfully, last year: a crude smash-and-grab gang.
It’s worth remembering that this is the team that, under the guidance of GM Erik Soler, got rid of Dwayne De Rosario so that it could bring in a goalkeeper -- as a Designated Player, if you please. The goalkeeper, one Frank Rost, did absolutely nothing for the team. Nothing. While DeRo went to D.C. United and became the league’s top scorer and its MVP. Way to go, Hans and Erik.
Backe has promised us a more physical team, so McCarty claiming a yellow card for a physical foul only five minutes into the game, followed by Tainio and Victor Palsson also seeing yellow for being physical can be viewed as some sort of success, I imagine.
A tactical note. The MLS guys now give us an interesting stat labeled “Open play crosses.” As I have maintained for years, and backed up my opinion with withering stats of my own, that crosses are just about the least successful path to goalscoring, it’s interesting to note that the Red Bulls had 22 crosses and 9 corners; their goal did not come from any of those. The Galaxy had similar totals -- 21 crosses and 7 corners. Their goal came from a long Beckham ball into the box, which I suppose could be classed as a cross, though I would prefer to class it as a long forward pass.
Aside from not being greatly effective, crosses have another failing: watching the ball being aimlessly pumped into “the mixer” and simply headed out by massed defenders can surely not be anyone’s idea of the beautiful game?
On that consideration alone, watching enjoyable soccer, a final between these two teams -- playing the sort of soccer they presented this past weekend -- would be a fiasco.
The silver lining is that the teams that beat them -- Dallas and Real Salt Lake -- both played much more attractive soccer. While employing many fewer crosses: Dallas 10, and RSL 14.
If we can assume that RSL’s Javier Morales and Dallas’ David Ferreira, both of whom were seriously injured by violent fouls last season, will not receive similar treatment this season (and I’m afraid we cannot assume that) then the idea of a Dallas vs. RSL final looks good.