Andrea Pirlo arrives to familiar chaos for New York City FC

Andrea Pirlo Italy

Another Yankee Stadium game, another eight goals – including yet another hat-trick from a visiting player who doesn’t end up on the winning side. And Andrea Pirlo made his debut. And Frank Lampard didn’t.

New York City FC’s season at home continues to be a story of one lurch forward, one lurch back, one lurch forward etc. The last time they played at Yankee Stadium they just about managed to retrieve the damage done by a Sebastian Giovinco hat trick to draw 4-4, and on Sunday afternoon they saw off an Orlando team who scored three goals through runaway rookie of the year leader Cyle Larin. Naturally, in between, they’d lost on the road to a freefalling New England team.

Pirlo stepped onto this rollercoaster on Sunday afternoon (and his mildly bemused expression at the end of this 5-3 game was reminiscent of David Beckham’s after his first 90 minutes in MLS back in 2007 – an equally wild 5-4 loss for LA Galaxy against New York Red Bulls). The Italian entered on the hour to a standing ovation and proceeded to offer a tantalizing glimpse of what may be yet to come as he immediately started looking for the ball from deep and twice provided passes to Kwadwo Poku that in turn led to assists on goals from the young Ghanaian.

David Villa scored twice – a typically efficient return for the Spanish striker these days – and after the game he was enthusing about Pirlo’s presence and how it would mean “no more long ball” for NYC FC – an understandable comment after the team’s early history had contained rather more pragmatism than artistry. And while the spaces New York found have to be partly seen in the context of Orlando playing with three at the back after both right backs went down, there was certainly enough to suggest that when Pirlo settles, New York’s approach play and movement will get exponentially more sophisticated.

And all this without Lampard – who yet again missed out on a New York debut, after his calf injury turned out to be worse than first feared. It will now keep him out of the All-Star game, which in a perverse way may turn out to be a kind of blessing for the Englishman – Don Garber’s selection of Lampard and Steven Gerrard as his discretionary picks for the game had been understandable in marketing terms, but was a clumsy move on merit, given that Lampard has not yet played a minute for his new team, let alone starred for them. He could do with getting to know his team-mates right now, including Pirlo, rather more than engaging with the froth of All-Star week. Lampard’s replacement, the Red Bull’s Dax McCarty, is a rather more politic selection by Garber, even if he won’t be selling any tickets to Wednesday night’s game.

Pirlo does sell tickets though, and he’ll probably sell a few more after his cameo on Sunday – then again, given the wild highlight reels coming out of Yankee Stadium these days, the tickets might soon start selling themselves. GP

DC are taking their slow starts to absurd extremes

DC United keep finding ways to get results.

Perhaps that statement should be rephrased to read, DC United keep having to find ways to get results.

Before Sunday’s game against Philadelphia Union, DC had only held a half-time lead three times in 22 games, yet top the Eastern Conference and remain in the Supporters Shield hunt.

In many ways it’s testimony to the cultural turnaround Ben Olsen has been able to enact at the club since the historically poor 2013 season that the current crop of players should have so consistently demonstrated their tenacity and self-belief. Yet there’s also a sense, as the statistical evidence about the nature of this team piles up, that their habit of putting themselves in difficult positions in games may catch up with them when the playoffs roll around.

And on Sunday night, yet again DC found themselves getting off to a poor start – one that was ludicrous even by their standards.

First Philadelphia Union’s CJ Sapong, who has begun to really find form as the season goes on, gave the Union the perfect start as he fired home, then a minute later Sebastian Le Toux’s low shot/pass trickled past a diving Andrew Dykstra as he appeared unsighted by Sapong’s run to the near post.

As for what happened next, DC could easily have been further behind – and spurned their first big opportunity to get back into the game with Fabian Espindola’s badly missed penalty.

But the comeback started in the 37th minute when Espindola’s old RSL team-mate and recent DC United signing, Alvaro Saborio, found space at the back post to turn home a low cross. Still DC went in at half-time trailing yet again, but when Nick DeLeon turned in Espindola’s parried shot in the 66th minute, yet another great escape looked on.

It wouldn’t be DC if they didn’t do it the hard way though, and by the time Espindola redeemed his earlier miss by heading the 79th minute winner from Chris Korb’s cross, they’d had to survive a shot from the lively Sapong crashing off the bar with Dykstra well-beaten. And given that this was a Union side who had earned what their coach Jim Curtin called the team’s “best ever” result by triumphing on penalties, with 10 men, in a humid Open Cup game in New York in midweek, the fact that DC were able to edge past them in the second half has to be seen a little in context.

But there were encouraging signs beyond the result. At RSL Saborio and Espindola could be a streaky strikeforce, but when they were on their game they were near unstoppable. With Saborio joining DC the secondary runners, Espindola included, have a lot more space to work with against stretched defenders trying to shut out Saborio. And with the playoff run-in beginning to loom, now seems the perfect time for them to gel again. As Ben Olsen was doubtless telling his team post-game, it’s never too early to start playing well. GP

Kei Kamara is the unnoticed MVP candidate

2015 in Major League Soccer has been Sebastian Giovinco’s year. And Steven Gerrard’s year. And Kaka’s year. And David Villa’s year too. Indeed, there has been renewed sparkle to North American soccer’s top-flight this season as the league moves boldly, and with a new era of headline acts, into its third phase. Yet one player is making his MVP bid without so much as a Designated Player contract: Kei Kamara.

The Sierra Leonean forward, back in MLS after a two-year jaunt in England at Norwich City and Middlesbrough, has been the driving force behind the Columbus Crew’s summertime surge, edging out Giovinco at the top of the league’s goals column - with 15 to his name from just 22 appearances this year. In truth, there’s a good case to be made that 2015 has in fact been Kamara’s year - underlined by his goalscoring performance in the Crew’s 3-3 draw against Toronto FC.

However, the 30-year-old’s campaign to date hasn’t quite garnered the acclaim it deserves. Of course, Columbus fans recognise what Kamara has done for their team, but as far as league-wide stars are concerned the former Sporting KC and San Jose striker isn’t considered one of them. He stands little chance of winning the MVP award, and even missed out on a place in the Fan XI for this week’s All-Star game.

“You’re either a US national team player or you’re a DP to be on there. I’m neither one of those,” Kamara said after his initial All-Star snub. “If I get called up, I’ll be lucky. But for me, I just want to keep playing for the club and keep scoring goals because that’s what I do.” The Columbus Crew forward was eventually included in the roster to face Tottenham on Wednesday as one of the coach’s picks, but his initial omission said a lot about how he is viewed within MLS circles.

This isn’t the first time Kamara has suffered such indignation though, with the then Kansas City Wizards forward protesting another All-Star game snub by lifting up his jersey upon scoring against Manchester United to reveal a message written underneath. There was to be no similar display in the enthralling draw against TFC, however.

Given Columbus’ frontline struggles last season, the addition of Kamara has proved to be a pivotal one for the fortunes of the entire franchise. Much has changed at Mapfre Stadium over the past two years or so, yet the biggest difference is perhaps not the new badge, or new owner, but that they can now upon statistically the best striker in the league. Kamara is more important to the Crew than any other player is to any other team - and isn’t that the true meaning of MVP? GR

FC Dallas will take some stopping

It’s at this point of the campaign that challengers become contenders. This is the time to string together regular season victories - with the Colorado Rapids, Sporting KC and the LA Galaxy all gathering momentum over the past month or so. But on current form, FC Dallas are the West’s team to be beat - having won each of their last five fixtures. The Texan outfit are one of the league’s streakiest teams, and they are currently on their streakiest streak since last century.

Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers took Oscar Pareja’s side four points clear at the top of the Western Conference and three clear of DC United in the Supporters’ Shield standings. FC Dallas are also now just one win short of tying the franchise’s longest-ever winning run, already claiming the longest run of any MLS side this season. The Texans are so good right now they are now counting their success in records rather than points.

“Every time we step on the field, we believe 100 percent that we’re going to win the game,” Ryan Hollingshead explained after the win over Portland. “And there was definitely a part of the season earlier in the season when we didn’t have that same feeling.”

The midfielder is right to point out FC Dallas’ winning start to the season, which saw them string together three straight wins to top the West from the off. Strong starts have become something of a pattern for the Frisco side, considering their winning start to the 2014 campaign too. But unlike last year, when FCD dropped away to eventually miss out on a play-off semi-final spot, Pareja’s team have this time managed to sustain their form - finding their groove again after an early-summer dip.

Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz and Michael Barrios have all hit rich veins of individual form in recent weeks, but the improvement in a certain midfielder provides an embodiment of FC Dallas’ as a whole. Kellyn Acosta lasted just 17 minutes of this season bow this year, seeing red in a goalless draw against the Seattle Sounders. Since then however, the midfielder has become a dependable component of Pareja’s side - really coming into his own in the recent wins over DC United and the Timbers, scoring in both games.

It’s not just that Pareja’s side are winning games, but that they are winning games so emphatically. FCD have now scored 13 goals in their last five games, finding the kind of attacking yield that was lacking so desperately just a few weeks ago - going three matches without scoring between 30 May and 14 June. FC Dallas’ upturn has been dramatic and rather intimidating if you’re one of the teams trying to stop them. GR

LA Galaxy must tighten up on the road

Bruce Arena has done this so many times before, it could be considered a deliberate ploy. Just like in seasons gone by - most notably 2012 - the LA Galaxy suffered a substandard start to the MLS season before picking up their form over the summer months - and one would assume, into the play-offs. If managers - like Tekken fighters - had special moves, this would be Arena’s.

But while the Carson club won four from five fixtures ahead of Saturday’s clash against the Houston Dynamo, a somewhat uncharacteristic pattern gives LA’s season so far an underlying taint. It came to the fore with the 3-0 defeat in the Texas heat, with the Galaxy’s away form now an open concern.

Indeed, Arena’s side have still to win on the road this season - losing six of the 11 games they have played away from StubHub Center. To be more precise, their winless streak away from home stretches all the way back to August 2014. What’s more, the LA Galaxy are losing those games heavily - with their 3-0 defeat to Houston coming less than a month since the 3-1 Cali Clasico loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, and two months since the 4-0 humbling at Orlando City. This is an issue that Arena must address.

Such defensive deficiency on the road will only be accentuated as the season enters the play-offs, with a degree of solidity away from home, over two legs, a prerequisite for any side hoping to make a deep run. On their most recent performance, that could prove a sizeable task. Houston, the Galaxy have a problem.

Of course, against the Dynamo LA were without Omar Gonzalez - who was still with the US national team for their third-place Gold Cup play-off against Panama - which may have been a factor in the manner of their defeat. At left-back, Robbie Rogers was missed too - with David Romney somewhat out of his depth up against goalscorer Leonel Miranda and Man of the Match Brad Davis. Although the 22-year-old’s display was decidedly sparkling when compared with that of his central defensive peers, Leonardo and AJ DeLaGarza.

Should the Galaxy fail to beat the Colorado Rapids later this week, or FC Dallas on 16August, a full year will have passed since LA’s last victory on the road. To ensure that such an anniversary is avoided Arena must reinforce his side defensively - and with Gonzalez and Rogers set to return to the fold soon that may happen naturally.

However, on the basis of precedent, that might not make much of a difference - for instance, both Gonzalez and Rogers started the 3-1 defeat to the Earthquakes on 28 June. The Galaxy have been MLS’s most balanced and settled side over the past four years or so - a trait which has taken them to three MLS Cups in that time. But whilst their summertime resurgence suggests they are the same team as ever, their defensive feebleness undermines that upturn.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Graham Parker and Graham Ruthven, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th July 2015 12.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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