>Friday Lunch Special: Matt talks about the MLS Opener

Posted: March 26, 2010 in mls
Tags: , , ,

>Game Recap

Despite much early uncertainty about whether or not Major League Soccer would hold its 15th season, the MLS 2010 opener went off without a hitch as 2009 expansion side Seattle Sounders hosted their incumbent, the Philadelphia Union.

The game started off with an early (1st minute) yellow to Danny Califf for an off the ball altercation with Fredy “Learn How to Spell Your Name” Montero. Way to go, ESPN, for showing the replay. I had to rewind the feed to catch a glimpse of what happened and that camera angle was even poor. Sometimes I question the production quality of MLS broadcasts. Montero’s ensuing free kick (and follow up) hit the wall, crisis averted.

But anyway, for the first ten minutes or so, Philly appeared to have the upper hand as Seattle rarely ventured out of its own half. The momentum swung in Seattle’s favor when a clever combination play in the 12th minute between Montero and Steve Zakuani on Seattle’s left flank allowed Zakuani to find time and space inside the penalty area to cut the ball back toward Brad Evans, who stuck it first time through the crowd and Chris Seitz’ legs. Union seemed to struggle to maintain their early composure as Seattle began to counter much more effectively with the one goal advantage. Seattle could have doubled its lead several minutes later if former San Jose Earthquakes castaway Roger Levesque hadn’t skied his shot.

In the 24th minute, Toni “Don’t You Know That’s How Girls Spell That Name” Stahl received a yellow card in his professional debut, leaving both Union centerbacks in danger of a send off pending a poor challenge. That was precisely what happened to the inexperienced Stahl sixteen minutes later as a knee up the butt of Fredy Montero warranted the second yellow and a trip to the locker room. This left Union with the daunting task of overcoming an early deficit as well as maintaining possession a man down.

This task was made more difficult four minutes later as a just barely onside Montero acrobatically dove to head Osvaldo Alonso’s off target half volley into the near post as Seitz watched helplessly. Not much more happened as the first half came to a close.

In the second half, Seattle seemed comfortable holding onto the ball (and their lead) and letting Philly chase. The score could have easily been 3 or 4-0 but for poor finishing from Montero and the substitute Sanna Nyassi. Of note was the entry (if not the actual play) of US U-17 star Jack McInerny, former UCLA one year wonder Amobi Okugo, and speedster Michael Fucito, who are all presumably the MLS stars of the future. In fact, all of Philly’s first round draft picks featured in this game, suggesting that Peter Nowak is indeed focusing on youth and building his team for the long run.

Positives (Not in any particular order)

1. The play of Roger Torres. Torres, one of MLS’ new Colombian players, is on loan from America de Cali in Colombia’s domestic league. During the game, he showed the ability to maintain possession, often drifting into the center of the field despite being deployed on the right side. His movement may have been attested to Danny Mwanga being played at center midfield even though his college success was as a speedy forward. Torres is also only 5’5” but was able to hold off much bigger players and ride the challenges from Seattle’s physical midfield and back line. I am excited to see him progress as Philly progresses throughout the season, especially considering that he is only 18 years old (and according to ESPN, the youngest player in a season opener since 2007, one of the most worthless stats ever).

2. Steve Zakuani. Despite my brother’s feelings, I am convinced that Zakuani was one of the best players in the game tonight. He consistently used his pace to stretch Philly’s defense and absolutely terrorized David Myrie. Zakuani is a player who can either get behind the defense with his speed or can cut inside from the left and shoot. In that sense, he’s similar to Columbus’ Robbie Rogers; both players are unpredictable and multi-dimensional. I also think his touch isn’t poor, but maybe he does rely on his pace too much at times.

3. Osvaldo Alonso has developed into a consistent performer in the last year. He began 2009 as a Cuban refugee, in the mold of Chivas USA’s Maykel Galindo but unlike Galindo is the spine of his team. Alonso battled for every ball but also used his passing ability to maintain possession for Seattle and link between the back four and the front five. Alonso is the heart and soul of Seattle; any naysayers must simply watch a clip of him getting injured last year and crying as he was forced from the field not because of pain but because he could not contribute to his team.

Negatives (Also not in order)

1. Danny Mwanga’s play started strong with the 18 year old completing some sharp passes in the attacking third. However, he soon faded out of the game as Philly lost the possession battle, and was subbed at halftime, which is (almost) the worst insult a professional player can receive (the worst being subbed out of a game you were subbed into). Perhaps his tepid play can be attributed to being played out of position or to the numerous inexperience surrounding him; either way, hopefully Nowak will figure out how to play Mwanga where he can be successful.

2. Roger Levesque. I mean, c’mon, how long have you been playing? If San Jose circa 2004 rejected you, then you suck. Suspect finishing and touch suggest to me that Nyassi must have had some sort of injury preventing him from starting.

3. Jack McInerny was a good solid player at the youth and U-17 national level, but in his limted minutes tonight, he didn’t seem to have much of an impact. One thing of note is that he’s only 5’8” but played mostly as a target forward for the US U-17s, so the big question is whether or not he can a) re-learn to win the ball in MLS like a target forward would or b) adapt to the much more physical game by changing his style of play. I personally doubt he’ll have much of an impact unless he has a sudden growth spurt as it is much harder to go from target to creative or speedy forward as it is vice-versa, but we’ll have to see how he develops under Nowak. One thing I did see that impressed me was his sense to drop into space in the midfield on a botched Union counter and ask for the ball, which resulted in Philly maintaining possession instead of forcing the ball to their advanced yet contained midfielders and forward (Alejandro Moreno, who continues to impress me with his work rate).

Conclusion

We already know that Seattle plays a very European brand of soccer, controlling the tempo by possessing the ball and using quick precise passing and movement to overwhelm opponents on the counter. However, what we didn’t know (but learned) is that Philly has the ability to play the same attractive, if impotent, type of soccer. The Union seemed to lack the dangerous finishing pass into Seattle’s defensive third as well as that sense for goal. Look for Fred to make those defense splitting passes in his return to play next weekend against his former team IF (and it’s a big if) he can find time and space against Clyde Simms and Carey Talley (?). For the upteenth year in a row, I have been impressed with Sigi Schmid’s team building skills and am excited to see what MLS season-almost-not brings.

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