What constitutes a rivalry and how do you manufacture one? Major League Soccer has probably pondered that question rather extensively over the past year or so, in preparation for this season’s induction of the New York derby.
New York finally has a ‘proper’ derby
Don Garber’s office wall is most likely a collage of Post-It notes on the subject by this point, plotting the establishment of the league’s latest rivalry. But it wasn’t until Sunday that Red Bulls v New York City FC felt like a real derby.
For the third time, the Red Bulls emerged on top – with goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Felipe Martins enough for Jesse Marsch’s men. NYC FC turned in their most competitive derby display yet, which may have proved a factor in the tempestuous atmosphere around Sunday’s class, but there was an added edge to a match which was decided by more than just goals.
There was a Jason Kreis temper tantrum following the Red Bulls’ opening goal – complaining that a foul had been committed in the build-up, pained penalty claims, taunting Tifos, a glancing punch from Damien Perrinelle on Jefferson Mena, a number of thunderous tackles and even a pair of ripped shorts. At the third attempt, New York was afforded a real derby – complete with grown men fighting outside the ground like a bunch of school kids.
Both derby games at Red Bull Arena and Yankee Stadium were spectacles, but there was still an element of novelty in their attraction. By Sunday however, that had faded somewhat – leaving behind the New York derby as a pure sporting contest – an engrossing one at that, played between two clubs with vastly differing form.
The visitors failed to make the most of their early pressure in Harrison and struggled to respond after falling behind, with Andrea Pirlo a particular disappointment. We should have sensed something was up with the Italian as soon as he misplaced his first four passes, getting caught in possession a number of times throughout. Indeed, this was Pirlo at his poorest and underlined how he is not always the best man to control midfield matters in such fast and furious circumstances.
David Villa also toiled, although that was largely down to his isolation as NYC FC’s lone striker - with Mix Diskerud, Frank Lampard and Tommy McNamara all ineffective in bridging the space between midfield and attack. Too often they were open to the Red Bulls’ counter-attack, and certainly not for the first time this season, were susceptible to individual errors at the back.
Of course, Sunday’s result did nothing to rebalance a scale which has been weighted fairly heavily in the Red Bulls’ favour this season, as NYC FC continue to await their first derby win. To draw an apology between this derby and another, the Red Bulls have quickly become the Manchester United of the 1990s – with NYC FC, quite appropriately, Manchester City. There is now a sense of genuine rivalry between the two clubs.
It’s difficult to define exactly what a proper derby is, but after the game Marsch came closest to defining it. “I saw two guys yelling at each other on Fifth Avenue the other day, one was wearing a Red Bulls shirt, the other had NYC FC colors. They didn’t even know I was there – but it was great,” Marsch said with smile. “I have never seen the city so alive with soccer. It has been awesome.”
Giovani Dos Santos is the player to complete the LA Galaxy
It was only when he was named in the starting line-up that Giovani Dos Santos’s impact on LA Galaxy became apparent. Of course, Bruce Arena already had the best team on paper in MLS before the Mexican’s arrival, but the former Barcelona and Spurs attacker is the final pin on the StubHub Center tactics board. He didn’t do too badly on the pitch either.
Dos Santos marked his MLS bow with a debut goal, scoring the Galaxy’s third goal in what became a somewhat routine 3-1 win over the Seattle Sounders. The Mexican has been heralded, perhaps a little hyperbolically, as one of the most important signings in MLS history, and he already appears set for a big role for his new team after just one appearance.
Robbie Keane still sets the precedent in Carson on how big-money, big-name signings can deliver big results, but the capture of Dos Santos represents a notable attacking upgrade for LA. Alongside Keane, the Galaxy have used Gyasi Zardes, Alan Gordon, Bradford Jamieson, Jose Villarreal, Edson Buddle and even Ignacio Maganto – with varying results. Zardes will keep his place as more of an orthodox winger, but Dos Santos can now count on an almost guaranteed position in tandem with Keane – especially after his shimmering bow against Seattle.
Arena’s side had scored 28 goals in just eight games preceding Dos Santos’ debut, so the need for a forward of the Mexican’s quality was hardly pressing, but that only helps to illustrate the unparalleled strength of the LA Galaxy right now. He makes them, by some distance, the most formidable outfit the North American game has to offer – as the Sounders found out to their cost.
Sure, the Galaxy have had their struggles this season, with the defending champions going five games without a win as recently as May. For long spells of the season it was almost as if LA were simply waiting for their post-Landon Donovan big-names to arrive, only kicking into gear with the 5-1 thumping of the Philadelphia Union on 21 June. Since then they have won five from six, finding the net with frightening ease.
Some might take the Galaxy’s upturn over the summer as typical of an Arena side, but the questions asked of his team earlier in the season were entirely valid. This sort of streak is unprecedented, even by LA’s standard, as is the current quality of their team. Is a Dos Santos-Keane strike force supported by Steven Gerrard, Sebastian Lletget, Juninho and Zardes the best frontline in MLS history? There’s a case to be made for it – and Dos Santos is the player who raises the Galaxy to such a level.
Chicago Fire’s DPs don’t do what DPs are supposed to do
While Major League Soccer has enjoyed an unprecedented summer of signings, with new Designed Players flooding the division quicker than NYC FC can churn out ‘No Pirlo, No Party’ t-shirts, the Chicago Fire have been left on the outside looking in. Slumped at the foot of the Eastern Conference, Frank Yallop’s side have been left behind on and off the field.
Of course, the Fire have tried their utmost to sign the big players to fit their big club ambition. This time last year they were an envelope away from completing a deal for Jermaine Jones, who went on to lead the New England Revolution to the MLS Cup final, and held the discovery rights on Didier Drogba before being blown out the water by Montreal Impact.
And so Chicago have had to make do with second-rate DPs. Neither David Accam nor Gilberto are good enough to start for most MLS teams, and yet the Fire have them on DP contracts. Yallop was afforded a glimpse of how players on big money can deliver big results in the surprise mid-week win over FC Dallas, but normal service resumed with the insipid 1-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers on Friday.
The signing of Shaun Maloney – a proven Premier League talent with plenty left in the tank – should have appeased those that claim the Fire don’t do enough to lure top-tier DPs to the club. And yet the Scot has been something of a disappointment for Yallop’s side so far. Maloney is an exceptional player, and has shown flashes of his ability over the course of his five-month spell in MLS, but injuries have hindered his season so far and there is the lingering sense that a return to England might prove too much of a temptation. Hull City’s offer for the former Wigan man didn’t result in a transfer, but it’s becoming difficult to envisage that Maloney will remain in Chicago for 2016.
After such a dismal season last year the Chicago Fire overhauled their DP roster in the off-season as Accam and Maloney arrived, with Gilberto also added in July. But all three players have proven to be misfits, making Yallop’s side an anomaly in 2015’s DP trend. Toronto FC are currently a team almost entirely sustained by Sebastian Giovinco, with Kaka, David Villa, Kei Kamara and Steven Gerrard all making an impression in their first MLS campaign.
But Chicago’s DPs don’t do what DPs are mean to do. They don’t influence games, don’t produce or even – and most damningly – improve the team. In a season that has been dominated by its big-name, headline-grabbing DPs the Fire have been left as little more than a footnote.
Herculez Gomez isn’t the deadline day signing Toronto FC needed
It’s rare that a transfer comes to pass, in the days of anonymous in-the-know Twitter agents and Seattle airport stake-outs, without so much as a pre-emptive rumour. But Herculez Gomez’s deadline day move to Toronto FC was a transfer market oddity: a genuine surprise. Nobody foresaw the US international’s arrival at BMO Field until it was announced by the club on Friday, as Greg Vanney added another attacking option to his already stacked squad.
Against Sporting KC, TFC could have used Gomez on the field – with the hosts finding the net just once from 12 shots on goal. But a defensive signing, rather than an attacking one would have been preferable. With defeat on Saturday, Vanney’s side have now conceded 10 goals in their last four league fixtures.
“We were just too slow. It’s like we were surprised by their pressure, which we knew was coming,” Vanney said after the weekend defeat. “That’s the Kansas City team that plays every weekend. A team that closes you down, presses you, puts you under pressure, tries to create turnovers and attacks you.”
The uncertainty in TFC’s play emanated from a lack of security at the back, and has done for much of a decidedly leaky summer. Only two teams (Columbus and Philadelphia) have conceded more goals than the Canadians this season, undermining their undeniable potency in attack. TFC’s scoring record for 2015 is rather impressive given the injuries, suspensions and international call-ups endured by the club over the summer – and Gomez will give them added depth up front – but the need for reinforcement is clearly most pressing at the back.
The addition of experienced French Ligue 1 defender Ahmed Kantari has done little to settle Toronto FC’s backline, with Vanney playing no fewer than seven different players at center-back this season. Eriq Zavaleta stepped in alongside Kantari against Sporting KC, with Vanney opting to drop Damien Perquis after a series of mistakes across the defensive line and Ashtone Morgan still struggling to overcome injury. Not that Zavaleta was much better than either, though.
But while Vanney certainly has sizeable defensive issues to revolve, TFC remain in relatively good shape heading into the final third of the campaign – and barring a late collapse, into the playoffs. Going into every game looking to simply outscore the opposition may not be sustainable in the long-term, but for the moment it is producing results, if not always victories.
TFC might also be looking ahead to next year with the signing of Gomez, given that both Luke Moore and Robbie Findley could be gone by the time the 2016 campaign. But given their MLS Cup ambitions this season they might have been better served saving their deadline day surprise for a defender – a player they actually need right now.
The Houston Dynamo are on a streak, and this time it might not be a false start
Dominic Kinnear is no longer at the helm, but the Houston Dynamo – as they have done many times over the past five years or so – are making a late charge for the playoffs. The Texans have stuttered for much of the campaign, but with Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes (Kinnear’s current team, incidentally) the Dynamo’s run was improved to three wins from five – edging them closer to the red line in the East.
Of course, Owen Coyle’s side have been here before this season. The 2-1 road win over Toronto FC back in May appeared to be something of a turning point, with the Dynamo subsequently stringing together three wins from five – but that was followed up by successive defeats to Portland and FC Dallas, as well as a disappointing home draw against the Fire. It underlined the fact that Houston are still adapting to life in the post-Kinnear era, with their patchy form undermining their playoff challenge.
But it was the manner of Houston’s win over Kinnear that was most impressive, with the 2-1 scoreline actually flattering San Jose. The Dynamo dictated and controlled the game, claiming 57% of possession and firing 11 shots on goals compared to the Quakes’ six. With more cutting edge in the final third from Brad Davis and Will Bruin, Coyle’s side would have finished the match with more than just two goals for their dominance.
So is this run of results any different to the enjoyed by Houston just a couple months ago? While wins over the New York Red Bulls and Portland were largely the result of random bursts of form by Bruin – who has toiled for much of the season – now their improvement is down to a sustained progression over the entire squad. Look at Alex for instance, who has taken to reserving his best performances for the biggest games – the 3-0 home win over the LA Galaxy and both wins over San Jose. DaMarcus Beasley scored his first goal for Houston on Saturday, but that only capped a strong run of form from the winger-turned-left-back - with the Dynamo now able to consistently call upon the veteran following his involvement in the Gold Cup.
Coyle and his team now face a three-game stretch on the road – against New England, Portland and the Colorado Rapids – that could prove a pivotal stint for the Houston Dynamo if they are indeed to make the play-offs. The win over San Jose and the manner of it suggests they might finally be done with false starts for the year.
This article was written by Graham Ruthven, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th August 2015 09.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010