TAP Scrimmage: Playing Shorthanded

First things first… why are we scrimmaging on Wednesday instead of Tuesday this week? Excuse the tardiness, but like much of the country I was engrossed in the World Cup qualifying grudge match between the U.S. men’s national team and their Mexican rivals at Estadio Azteca yesterday and was busily previewing that contest instead of penning this weekly dose of MLS news and notes.

In the future, you will see this column appear on either Tuesday or Wednesday to better accommodate midweek coverage and ensure the greatest depth of analysis possible. Hence the rebranding as the TAP Scrimmage. (And I’m currently soliciting any and all suggestions for new sections to look at weekly. Have something you want to see analyzed each weekend that isn’t being covered here yet? Mention it in the comments below or @zbigalke on Twitter!)

It was a weekend sandwiched between a pair of crucial Hexagonal qualifiers for the Americans, and it was also a weekend where MLS rosters were depleted by qualifying fixtures around the globe. With a snowy victory in Colorado and just the second draw at the Azteca in USMNT history, the Yanks managed to secure four crucial points toward reaching Brazil next year. On every continent teams are fighting similar battles, struggling to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

THE PAST WEEK’S MLS MATCHES

SATURDAY/MARCH 23

    SUNDAY/MARCH 24

      And it is telling how pretty much every MLS roster was thinned by players leaving to compete for their countries. Everyone was rendered just a little more vulnerable with absences at one or another position on the pitch. That we were still blessed with a high level of play over the weekend is a testament to the depth of talent that has accumulated in the league.

      We are now essentially one month into 2013, this past weekend representing the fourth series of matches in the young season. For some teams March has been an unequivocal blessing, the chrysalis of springtime allowing teams to rejuvenate their expectations and stimulate the passions of their fans. For other teams that entered the season with lofty goals, the early part of the campaign has been an unmitigated nightmare.

      In other words, some teams feel more like Mexico or Costa Rica this week than the U.S. national team. Unlike the Hexagonal qualifiers, who have just seven matches remaining to book a ticket to next year’s spectacle in South America, there are still 30 matches remaining (or 31 for eight of the 19 clubs) for MLS squads to right the ship and claim one of the ten playoff berths. Yet dragging oneself too far into the cellar too early can easily spell doom for postseason dreams.

      Over the past two seasons, the twenty teams that qualified for playoff berths averaged between 6 and 7 points in the standings after four matches. Only Los Angeles last season and Seattle the year before that had 3 or fewer points after four matches, and only three teams (DC United last year, Kansas City and FC Dallas in 2011) have wriggled their way into the postseason with 4 points after four contests.

      Were that trend to hold, you are essentially looking at the playoff field already determined based on point totals. A couple of teams still have yet to play that fourth match, and thus things could shake up a bit, but teams like the Montreal Impact and FC Dallas are essentially guaranteed playoff berths. (The 2012 Colorado Rapids are the only team in recent years that has missed the postseason after winning at least three of its first four games.)

      Teams like the Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids are in dire straits, staring up at everyone else in their conference. By falling this far behind this quickly, they have dealt themselves a Sisyphean task as they scramble to recover position without falling further back. History and common sense argue that they are already out of the running before April has even arrived.

      But soccer is full of surprises… just look at the blizzard that engulfed the USA-Costa Rica match last Friday. Maddening frustration and overwhelming elation are almost always felt dichotomously on the same pitch, match after match, and this week was no exception — whether you were following the qualifiers, MLS coverage or both.

       

       

      TAP SCRIMMAGE STARTING XI

       

      TAP Tuesday Scrimmage – Week 3 MLS Starting XI (generated at footballformation.co.uk)

       

       

      This week provided the perfect opportunity to feature a formation that has slowly emerged among a few MLS teams, the 4-1-2-1-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond, as some will refer to it). The staggered midfield accommodates a couple of talents too spectacular to leave off this week’s TAP Scrimmage Starting XI.

      Mar 23, 2013; Frisco, TX, USA; FC Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz (18) dives and makes a save on Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) during the game at FC Dallas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

      It all starts at the back, where it was a tough pick for this week’s Starting XI goalkeeper. Matt Reis was the early favorite as he led New England to a draw against Sporting Kansas City, earning a clean sheet and extending his shutout streak to two games to start his 2013 campaign. Dan Kennedy was a stout presence as Chivas USA routed the Chicago Fire on the road, stopping seven shots on goal and allowing just one in the 4-1 victory at Toyota Park. But no story reverberated more than that of Chris Seitz, the man who played his first match after altruistically donating bone marrow to a complete stranger last September. This is no sentimental story, though, as Seitz was put to work (and by the club that drafted him back in 2007, no less) as he earned the clean sheet in a 2-0 FC Dallas shutout of Real Salt Lake.

      The back line features a quartet of players that chipped in on both sides of the pitch. On the flanks, acting Galaxy captain Todd Dunivant earns his spot on the left side this week after providing a two-way disruption against the Colorado Rapids in the 1-0 Los Angeles victory. Opposite him on the right is Josh Williams, the Columbus Crew right back that chipped in a goal against DC United and helped lock down their formidable attack for a 2-1 road win at RFK Stadium. In the middle, Matt Hedges and Nana Attakora earn the nod as the center backs on this week’s roster. Attakora was the anchor of San Jose’s efforts to shut down Seattle’s attack as they prevailed 1-0 at home; Hedges was the man who anchored the spine in front of Seitz in Dallas’ win.

      Mar 23, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo defender Warren Creavalle (5) kicks the ball during the second half against the Vancouver Whitecaps at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

      At the back of the diamond, once again appearing in the Starting XI, is Patrice Bernier. The Montreal midfielder continues to make a strong case as the early-season MVP, the catalyst that has steered this Lamborghini of an offense (complete with plenty of Italian firepower) to a perfect record after four weekends. He set up Marco Di Vaio yet again this weekend as the Impact defeated the Red Bulls. On the wings, Columbus’ Ben Speas and Houston’s Warren Creavalle earned their spots this week after they each scored the first goals of their respective MLS careers. In both cases, the goals proved to be the game winners for their teams, the two youths proving instrumental for their clubs in attacking the edges. At the top of the diamond, Chivas USA’s Edgar Mejia earns the nod. A box-to-box midfielder that provides fluid overlap with Bernier, Mejia’s goal and assist paced Chivas to a 4-1 demolition of Chicago on Sunday.

      Up top, Chris Wondolowski’s golazzo against Seattle gave the San Jose Earthquakes a 1-0 win at home. The strike, his first from the field of play, finally opened the scoring ledger proper for the two-time defending league leader in goalpoaching. Beside him, another Chivas star earns the nod as Juan Agudelo had a goal and an assist of his own in the scorching of the Fire at Toyota Park. Both seemed to use the lack of a call-up to the USMNT roster as fuel to motivate inspired performances on Saturday.

       

       

      TAP SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE

      The team at the top remains the same for yet another week, perfection anchoring the Impact to the top spot. We also find both LA teams creeping up in prominence, the Galaxy looking like just one of two contenders in the City of Angels. Let’s look at how the best of the best stack up in this week’s TAP Scrimmage Top Five:

      MORE POWER RANKINGS

      This season, TAP editor Doug Smith is part of the Power Rankings panel at SoccerPerspectives.com. You can check out their full ranking of MLS teams here as well as Doug’s personal weekly picks.

      1. MONTREAL IMPACT (4-0-0/+4) – Another week, another victory for the best team in MLS. On the road or at home, the Impact continue to outpace all challengers; Montreal already has more than 20% of the points that will likely guarantee a postseason berth, and no team has started 4-0-0 and missed the battle for the MLS Cup. The only question now is who will eventually deal the league leaders their first blemish on a so-far-perfect 2013 campaign.
      2. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (2-0-1/+5) – Other than a draw against city rival Chivas that seemed inexplicable at the time but makes more sense today, the Galaxy have been unflinchingly solid despite the absence of the two men who most epitomized the team over the past few seasons. Mike Magee continues to step up as the team’s offensive sparkplug, his four goals leading the league at this point.
      3. FC DALLAS (3-1-0/+2) – The Toros lead the Western Conference standings with 9 points after four matches, and they benefit from perhaps the best goalkeeper depth in the league. Regular starter Raul Fernandez, also the number-one in net for the Peruvian national team, was superbly spelled this weekend by Chris Seitz in his first game since donating bone marrow to a leukemia patient last autumn. The return bolsters an already strong position for Dallas.
      4. COLUMBUS CREW (2-1-1/+3) — The Crew could still be passed by Houston and Philadelphia, each of whom have a match in hand, in the Eastern standings. But Columbus has proven resilient so far this season, their only loss coming on the opposite side of the country against Vancouver. This weekend they went to RFK Stadium and shut down DC United, with whom they were tied in the standings entering the match, to move to second place in a loaded conference.
      5. CHIVAS USA (2-1-1/+2) — The other team in Los Angeles has enjoyed an infusion of loaned talent from their parent club in Guadalajara, and as a result the American incarnation of Chivas sits tied for second in the Western Conference alongside its city rival. After losing their home opener in embarrassing 3-0 fashion to the Crew, Chivas has been unbeaten and claimed seven surprising points with a win over Dallas, the draw against the Galaxy and last weekend’s mauling of Chicago on the road.

       

      STOPPAGE TIME

      March 22, 2013; Commerce City, CO, USA; General view of a snow covered soccer ball in the second half between Costa Rica against USA during the World Cup Qualifier at Dick

      I couldn’t help watching the USA-Costa Rica match last Friday and staring at the pictures of the snow-globe spectacle the next day, thinking about my own childhood. Growing up at the northern end of Jackson Hole, we few kids that attended the elementary school at the edge of Grand Teton National Park would regularly enjoy games of snow soccer during the long winters.

      Of course, we were wearing snow pants and were otherwise bundled up against the elements. Boundaries were easily delineated by the snowbanks on either side of the playground area that made it feel in some ways like indoor soccer. We would pull out a soccer ball from the recreational equipment on hand, set up a pair of orange traffic cones at either end of the long field, and play with as many per side as we could convince to kick around.

      Already we have enjoyed two snow games broadcast from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado — the USMNT victory over the Costa Ricans, and the prior home opener for the Colorado Rapids that was delayed a day by snowfall. Each time I couldn’t help smiling and drifting back to those first personal forays with snow soccer conditions. As players slipped and slid across the pitch, I couldn’t help thinking about those days more than two decades ago when we would boot a heavy frozen ball around a pure-white pitch. No matter the conditions, soccer is always a joy.

       

       

      SCOUTING AHEAD
      (The top three matches on my radar next weekend)

      1. SAN JOSE @ HOUSTON — The Earthquakes travel to face the franchise formerly known as the Earthquakes in a non-conference battle of teams that entered the season with high hopes. San Jose continues to look offensively anemic despite Chris Wondolowski’s goal last Saturday; they will have to heat up quickly against a Houston squad that is tied with both LA teams for the highest goals-per-game average in the league (2.0 goals/game).
      2. VANCOUVER @ CHIVAS USA — Will success draw a Chivas crowd to the Home Depot Center? Both of these clubs have proven resilient in the early part of the season and are looking to consolidate their position in the playoff picture. No team has been more erratic on the scoreboard than the home side, scoring 0, 3, 1 and 4 goals in each of their first four outings. Will hot Chivas or cold Chivas show up against the Whitecaps?
      3. MONTREAL @ KANSAS CITY– Sporting Kansas City has been the class of the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons. Montreal, a year removed from minor-league status, looks to further distance itself from the rest of the East as they head to Sporting Park. Is this the week that somebody finally scuffs up the as-yet-perfect record of the Impact?

       

      Tags: Ben Speas Chicago Fire Chivas Usa Chris Seitz Chris Wondolowski Colorado Rapids Columbus Crew Costa Rica Dc United Edgar Mejia Fc Dallas Hexagonal Houston Dynamo Josh Williams Juan Agudelo Los Angeles Galaxy Matt Hedges Mexico MLS Montreal Impact Nana Attakora New York Red Bulls Patrice Bernier Qualifier San Jose Earthquakes Seattle Sounders Sporting Kansas City Todd Dunivant USMNT Vancouver Whitecaps Warren Creavalle World Cup

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