Orlando race to the top of the standings – and Kaka’s back
It’s a good time to be a soccer fan in Orlando. The Lions are top of the East after a positive, and unbeaten, start to the season, and they travel to Philadelphia on Friday night with a chance to extend their lead before the rest of gets busy on Saturday. Oh, and Kaka’s back from injury – and he’s still brilliant.
The Brazilian was superb against the Timbers last week: two assists, a strike of his own, and a generous offer to allow Kevin Molino to score his debut MLS goal after the T&T midfielder was fouled in the box. “He gave it to me,” Molino said. “And he said: ‘We believe in you.’” Kaka’s display was perhaps only topped by Brek Shea’s belter from the left side: the reverse pass from Kaka was gorgeous, but Shea’s shot was even better. (.) The only downside to Orlando’s 4-1 victory was a retrospective ban for Shea for his nasty tackle on Dairon Asprilla, which should have earned a straight red card at the time. Originally Shea was shown a yellow, but that was overturned by the disciplinary committee on review.
Shea is missing, therefore, for the trip to Philly, and Cyle Larin is likely to miss out, too, in what represents a dual blow for Orlando. Shea’s promising early season form has prompted talk of a recall to the national team, and Larin has three goals already this season, continuing his stellar form from last campaign, when he finished with 17 league goals in the best ever scoring performance by a rookie. However, there’s no cause for concern, for Orlando have a ready-made replacement in attack: Julio Baptista.
Yes, that’s right. Remember him? The Brazilian was last seen playing for Cruzeiro in the Brazilian Serie A, but Orlando picked him up for nothing after he was let go in December. He’s played for some European royalty – not many others can boast stints at Sevilla, Real Madrid, Roma and Arsenal – but injuries have slowed him down, and his best days are behind him at 34. Still, his pedigree is not in question, and the hope for Orlando is that Baptista’s experience will help the rest of the team’s youngsters generally and Larin in particular. It could be a shrewd signing – and a goal to take Orlando clear would have them dancing in the streets of Disney World.
Red cards aplenty but don’t blame the refs
The season’s barely a month old, but the age-old gripes about MLS referees have emerged again. Last weekend saw a slew of red cards and a raft of complaints: Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch called New England’s decision to play on and score while Kemar Lawrence was down injured “shameful”, and Bruce Arena admitted that Matías Laba’s red for Vancouver against his team had “ruined” the game. Strong words indeed.
It is true that MLS has seen an almost unprecedented number of sendings off this season. Sixteen red cards issued though the first 42 games equals the second-highest expulsion rate in the past 15 years, and has prompted many armchair criticis to opine that MLS referees are too card-happy and officious, too wedded to the rulebook and unable to judge the context of the game.
But looking back on last weekend, were there any reds that were truly contentious? Felipe Martins wasn’t happy with his straight red against New England, but his studs were up on Kelyn Rowe, and it’s difficult to dispute that it was reckless. Laba’s was tough to judge, but again, he did lunge studs-up on Mike Magee. Benoît Cheyrou’s tackle on Colorado’s Eric Miller probably deserved red, not yellow, and his second booking for an aerial challenge on Bobby Burling looked like an incorrect call to make up for the original error, although the officials got there in the end.
No one wants to see red cards, it’s true, and officiousness probably ranks just below the other seven in the deadly sins stakes. But if MLS wants to allow its creative players to prosper without being kicked to high heaven, refs must be given the power to punish crude fouls. Maybe it’s time instead to cut out the bad tackling – and time to give the refs a break.
Portland travel south for Sunday evening’s televised clash
The Timbers aren’t worrying. The MLS champions are winless since the opening day, and that 4-1 defeat by Orlando on Friday was not something they want to get into the habit of receiving. Only Seattle sit below them in the Western Conference, but coach Caleb Porter isn’t fazed. “We’ve been in this position before,” Porter said after his side’s Florida flop. “Everybody in the league is in this position in some point in the season. A couple of results can change things quickly.”
Quite so. MLS, rather like the English championship, is often bunched around the middle, and teams can suddenly spurt forth with a string of victories. Take last season: Portland started slowly this time 12 months ago, but found their form at just the right time. Such is the format of MLS, with its six-week playoff series following a gruelling regular season, that, really, it’s about peaking in October. April defeats are not usually worth getting worked up about.
However, Portland have a testing game on Sunday evening, a late-night blockbuster to be shown live on Fox Sports 1. They visit the StubHub Center in Carson, and 27,000 or so should be in attendance to see the weekend’s most eye-catching contest – and hopefully Giovani dos Santos make his comeback from injury. The little Mexican hobbled out of LA’s season opener against DC with a thigh strain, and his creative thrust is always welcome in a league that can be stodgy.
Last year this fixture produced goals: a 2-2 in March, a 5-0 to LA in June when five different players notched, and a 5-2 to Portland in October at the point in the season when LA’s wheels seemed to fall off. This year, Galaxy have not be able to score away from home, but they’ve been dominant in Carson, crushing DC 4-1 and then beating San Jose 3-1 in the California Clasico. Mike Magee has enjoyed his return to LA, and Robbie Keane continues to be ultra reliable, but Fanendo Adi has three goals already for the Timbers, and Diego Valeri has the class to make a difference – witness his lovely disguised pass for Jack McInerney’s consolation goal against Orlando. Don’t write Portland off just yet.
Two new coaches clash again
A month ago, on opening day, Patrick Vieira got off to a winning start in his rookie season: his New York City team beat Chicago Fire 4-3 at Toyota Park. There was much to enjoy about that game, including a lovely 20-yard curler from Tommy McNamara, but it meant while Vieira was celebrating, new Chicago coach Veljko Paunovic would have to wait for his first win in MLS.
Thankfully for Paunovic, he didn’t have to wait too long. A couple of impressive draws against Orlando and Columbus were followed by a 1-0 victory over Philadelphia last week in conditions that were, shall we say, testing – and Paunovic, who coincidentally enjoyed a short stint in Philly as a player, was off the mark as a coach.
“That first half, honestly, was absolutely brutal,” said Fire goalie Matt Lampson. “It was probably the harshest conditions I’ve ever played in.” The wind and snow hindered both sides’ attempts to play good football, and Chicago were helped by the dismissal of Union’s Warren Creavalle just after half-time, but Kennedy Igboananike’s winner was well struck – and his celebratory back-flip was even better. “This win means a lot for me and everyone in the locker room,” Paunovic said. “We will have more confidence now and that’s very, very important. We beat a very good team. This win helps us to grow.”
On Sunday the Fire get the chance for revenge: in an odd quirk of the calendar, Vieira and Paunovic meet again, this time at Yankee Stadium. Both sides remain a work in progress – New York have to find the balance between their tsars and serfs, and for Chicago, anything is an improvement on last season’s last-placed finish. Another seven-goal thriller is perhaps a bit much to ask, but spirits are high in both teams, and the quality exists to prosper on the tiny Yankee pitch.