This week, US Soccer Players columnists Dario Camacho, Jason Davis, Justin Shaffer, and Tony Edwards discuss Major League Soccer's problems in the CONCACAF Champions League, DC United's announcement that they'll be playing in a reduced-capacity RFK, and the League's commitment to protecting attacking players. This week in the CONCACAF Champions League, Seattle was comprehensively eliminated by Santos Laguna, while Toronto upset a listless Los Angeles Galaxy. Let's start with what went wrong for the Sounders.
Dario Camacho: We witnessed one thing common with Seattle in big games: lack of a killer instinct. Sure Santos is a very good team, but so is Seattle. I don't buy that excuse anymore that MLS can't compete with Mexican teams. Seattle winning at home against Santos was proof enough that they can compete. What I see from Seattle is an ugly pattern that goes back to their expansion year: that 9 out of 10 times, Seattle doesn't show up for the big game. Last year versus RSL they came out flat and lost 3-0. Almost came back on the return leg, but couldn't put it away.
Two years ago, they were beaten pretty convincingly by LA in the first round. The only thing they seem to win is Open Cup, which is not the same thing as CCL or MLS playoffs.
Jason Davis: Seattle ran up against a much better team, end of story. We like to think the gap between MLS and Mexican clubs is closing; it might have narrowed a bit in the last few years, but the contrast in the amount of top-end talent on a good Mexican club and that of an MLS team is still stark. Maybe not 6-1 stark (Seattle's defense went on vacation and forgot to tell anyone), but stark nonetheless. The best we can say about the MLS/Mexico dynamic is that MLS teams are good enough to compete in Mexico on their best day as long as the Mexican side is not enjoying the same themselves.
Justin Shaffer: There are many bloggers and writers throwing out the standard line about how the Sounders are just starting their season while Santos is in mid-season form. The reality is that this is what a low salary cap gets you, a league built for parity within itself, not with the rest of the world.
There were some pretty clear differences in quality in this game. Santos coach Benjamin Galindo attacked Seattle where it is weakest, using width and speed to strike fast up the middle and down Seattle鈥檚 left-flank.
And for all of Seattle鈥檚 attacking qualities, they still don鈥檛 have a clinical finisher. There are two different Fredy Monteros. Last week Maestro Montero showed up against Santos. This week, we got Lazy Montero; looking disinterested and generally out of sorts throughout the game.
Camacho: On defense, it clearly shows how badly they need a revamp at LB. Gonzalez was smoked all night and most of Santos' goals came from his side.
But what happened to the Galaxy then? Now that their 'grand plan' to win four competitions is in tatters after one week, is the bloom off the Galaxy and Bruce Arena already?
Davis: LA's defense is much worse than I imagined. Neither Boyens or Meyer are good enough to cover for the loss of Gonzalez. The Galaxy certainly lost that game more than TFC won it, both because LA had enough chances to pull it out, and because so many of Bruce Arena's guys just had really bad days. The Galaxy haven't yet looked ready to play this year, and that's certainly troubling, and brings Arena's approach in the pre-season into question.
Camacho: Lets not forget that Toronto is an improved product and they have the pieces now to start making some noise. Can they beat Santos? No, but they will give them a hard time. I think the hard play of Frings will be a huge disruptor for the Santos attack. Plata and Johnson up top can be a nuisance, but its the mid field that probably will undo TFC. The best tactic Toronto can employ is be physical. Get into Santos' head and pinch them on the counter.
Davis: Let's also not forget that LA had every chance to find a good center back to step in for Gonzalez and chose instead to go with the cheap options. If the choices were re-sign Buddle or bring in a center back, it looks like Bruce made the wrong choice.
Edwards: Last time we did this, I anointed the Galaxy champions in waiting. I still stand by that mostly because of Arena's track record and the sheer number of chances LA created. Much of the game, it looked like LA was in a different league from Toronto, in terms of patience and ball distribution.
DC United鈥檚 seating capacity at RFK is now limited to less than 20K. What kind of message is MLS sending when, with a few exceptions, the legacy clubs aren't drawing.
Shaffer: Each situation is different. You can鈥檛 compare DC鈥檚 situation to the issues Columbus is facing. Sure, there are some lessons they can learn from one another and best practices that all of these teams could take from the better drawing clubs. A team like DC United has put together a competitive and appealing product but they have a pretty difficult stadium situation. If MLS had expanded to Seattle back in the days of the Kingdome, they would also have had trouble drawing fans. DC also has a difficult market, with a portion of the more affluent population being transplants or part-time residents.
DCU averaged 15k fans per game in 2011, so artificially reducing capacity with tarps in the upper deck is the prudent decision. Seattle tarps off the upper deck at Century Link and has used that as an opportunity to generate sponsorship revenue, so there鈥檚 one way DC United could benefit from the larger stadium.
Edwards: Here in the Bay Area, Lew Wolff's Oakland Athletics tarp off the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum, taking capacity from well over 50K to around 33-35K. And despite now nice it is to be reminded of the A's World Series Championships and retired numbers, it looks like crap and sends a terrible message.
Davis: It doesn't matter how good United is, they're never going to fill up RFK. Better to limit supply by tarping off the upper deck (with the added bonus of a possible sponsor) than to stick a few hundred away fans up there by themselves. If closing the upper deck saves on maintenance costs, all the better. If D.C. can sell out, 19k will still have them in the top handful of clubs for attendance. Ultimately, I think it's a good move. The same goes for Chivas USA.
Edwards: I'm not sure I buy that limited supply works in cases like DC and Chivas USA. As Justin says, if DC put out a competitive team, it might be different.
With the referee calling more than 40 fouls in the Vancouver versus Montreal game, are we seeing a commitment by the referees to protect attacking players in the early season?
Shaffer: It鈥檚 too early to tell at this point. We saw a lot of poorly timed challenges and general sloppiness throughout a number of the games on the first weekend, but that鈥檚 to be expected at this early juncture.
Edwards: I hope its just that Justin, but I'm less optimistic about Montreal's approach. Maybe when Corradi is fit, he'll help.
Davis: The number of fouls in Vancouver-Montreal is encouraging, even if it's a one-off sample, because it shows referees are willing to call fouls even if it affects the flow of the game. If MLS and US Soccer are serious about making the American/Canadian game more enjoyable to watch, there will have to be a hard line drawn. It will be ugly for awhile, and clubs might not like it, but eventually players will adjust.
Let's ask that a different way then, are more teams really committed to playing attacking soccer?
Davis: Attacking soccer is a great thing, as long as it works. Because this is MLS, it will be easy for any team that claims a commitment to attacking soccer to fall back on the physical play.
Edwards: I heard all the right things from Frank Yallop this off season, but then this week he is whining about Steven Lenhart being 鈥渢argeted鈥?by the referees. Yallop is only trying to get an advantage for his team, but it doesn't exactly scream 'we're going to keep the ball on the ground.'
Shaffer: There are certainly a number of teams that look to be setup to attack. Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, LA, Toronto, and Sporting KC all appear to be teams that have far more quality in attack than on defense. Houston and Real Salt Lake look to be more balanced with stronger defenses and some good attacking quality. That should ensure those teams don鈥檛 play a lot of bunker ball. To see more consistent attacking play throughout the league, we need a commitment from the referees and MLS front office to appropriately identify and punish those players who use thuggish methods to cover for their individual lack of quality.