There was a fair amount of derision directed at Philadelphia Union coach Peter Nowak during an offseason in which it was hard to discern a real plan. Players were being acquired and let go, seemingly at random. One minute, he was worried about losing a goalkeeper who already lost his job; the next he was claiming that the decision to part ways with Michael Orozco-Fiscal was out of his hands; then the hard-nosed coach was acquiring the most notorious flopper in league history.
Well, four weeks into the season and fresh off a shutout of the New York Red Bulls that left the Union all alone the top of the Eastern Conference, it's starting to look like Nowak knew what he was doing all along. The Union played to a fourth-straight 1-0 decision and came out on top for the third time. That's three shutouts in four games a year after the team registered two shutouts all year and none until Sept. 11, 2010.
Much of the credit for that must go to several of the players Nowak brought in during the offseason. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon has given them a leader in the back, something the Union were in desperate need of a year ago. His presence, along with fellow Colombian import Carlos Valdes, has totally transformed a Union defense that is actually pretty similar to the one that allowed the 14th most goals (49) in the league during their inaugural season. Offensively, Carlos Ruiz has been just about everything he was advertised to be. He's only scored one goal, but it was a game-winner, and he's provided a constant threat to go along with Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Mwanga.
Against the Red Bulls, a team many of us expected to simply run away with the East, the Union absorbed the Red Bulls' pressure and scored a timely goal, this time off the foot of 19-year-old Roger Torres. On the decisive play, normally reliable Red Bulls defender Tim Ream put a ball right at the feet of Mwanga, who then fed Torres for a 1v1 opportunity, which he calmly finished.
It wasn't necessarily the prettiest way to win a match, but the Union hardly seem concerned about aesthetics. The Red Bulls had created the better opportunities throughout the match, hitting the woodwork twice. But they forced Mondragon into just one save despite 12 shots, which seems to be fitting into their early season storyline.
Despite an almost embarrassing amount of talent, at least for a MLS team, the Red Bulls have managed just one win through four matches. One possible explanation is the lack of stability coach Hans Backe has been forced to deal with. Whether its Thierry Henry's injuries, various players being called into national team duty or the recent addition of Dwayne De Rosario, key players have been coming and going at an alarming rate early in the season. Next week against the San Jose Earthquakes could be the first time this year that Backe will have started his first-choice lineup two games in a row.
Previously Winless; Now Grooving?
The Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas both entered the season with high expectations. But heading into this week, the two teams had combined for zero wins, despite playing four matches at home and facing some beatable competition. Neither had played particularly bad, but just weren't showing an ability to finish their chances.
With Week 4 now in the books, those concerns are quickly being put to rest. FC Dallas absolutely dismantled the reigning MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids, who had come into the game with wins in all three matches and boasting a league-best +6 goal difference. David Ferreira scored his first two goals of the season and Fabian Castillo continued to showed why the Toros made the 18-year-old the youngest ever Designated Player.
Castillo's speed and still were on full display, as he easily carved up what so far has been one of the best defenses in MLS. His perfect feed between two defenders to put Ferreira 1v1 with Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens was just the most obvious contribution he made.
In Seattle, they finally got three points to show for a solid effort. The win came against a fully respectable Chicago Fire team that many of us seem to have underrated at the start of the season. While the Sounders needed several big saves from goalkeeper Kasey Keller to preserve the victory, they continued to finish some of the opportunities they had been creating during their frustrating start.
The big revelations for them are O'Brian White and Mauro Rosales, both of whom had their second straight stellar games. White scored his second goal of the season on a hard-to-believe header from about 15 yards out that came off a feed from Rosales. White also had an assist on Steve Zakuani's goal, showcasing an ability that has really gone under appreciated.
Does RSL Have Two Top Teams?
Fresh off becoming the first MLS team to advance to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League after playing in Costa Rica against Saprissa on Wednesday, Real Salt Lake had to pay a visit to the undefeated New England Revolution on Saturday. Using mostly reserves, RSL still managed a decisive 2-0 victory, prompting the question: How good would RSL be if they had to field two teams every week?
Kyle Reynish was solid in goal, registering the shutout; defenders Chris Schuler and Rauwshan McKenzie did a good job of limiting the Revolution's opportunities; midfielder Collen Warner provided a pair of assists; and Paulo Jr. continued to show that he might be the best forward not getting regular playing time by scoring his second goal of the season. In all, seven of RSL's starters would have normally been coming off the bench while thoroughly outplaying an opponent on the road on short rest.
Designated Players Missing In Action
Of the 13 Designated Players whose teams played this week, just five started and six of them missed at least one of their team's games. Collectively, they played in just 40 percent of their teams' available minutes this week, scoring one goal and registering two assists. On the season, the league's 14 DPs have played in about 54 percent of the available minutes, with David Beckham, surprisingly enough, being the only one to have appeared in every one of his team's games.
The reasons these players have missed games have varied from injuries to national-team duty to red-card suspensions to plain benchings, but very few of these players have been as effective as their teams probably imagined they'd be.
Eric Hassli is probably the most frustrating of the bunch, something that was in full display this week. In Wednesday's match against the Revolution, he came on as a second-half substitute, quickly picked up a yellow card that could have very easily been a red, scored a goal on a penalty and then got ejected from the match for taking his shirt off during the celebration. The red card left the Whitecaps with just nine men and will meant he had to sit out his second game of the year on a red-card suspension. Hassli has three goals in the three games he's managed to play, but he's also been ejected from two of them. Hardly the kind of performance the Whitecaps were expecting from their highest paid player.
Quakes Find Another Diamond In The Rough
One of the big questions surround the San Jose Earthquakes this offseason was finding a secondary goal-scorer to complement Chris Wondolowski. With two goals in as many weeks, Simon Dawkins appears to be that player. The Tottenham Hotspurs product cleverly poked a ball past Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei, while fighting off two defenders to salvage a tie for San Jose. Since Wondolowski set a MLS record by scoring 12 straight goals for his team, the last three have now been scored by other players.
Four weeks into the season and the MLS attendance figures have been quite the roller-coaster. True to form, this week was a mixed bag with fewer than 9,000 showing up in San Jose and New England, but more than 19,000 turning out in Vancouver, Philadelphia, DC and Seattle. This year, MLS is averaging 17,808 fans per game, which would be a record if sustained for the year.
The most impressive of that bunch was the 26,622 that came to watch United tie the LA Galaxy. That was the second biggest non-Seattle crowd for a MLS game this season and a quick reminder of how great at atmosphere can be at dilapidated RFK Stadium. When Charlie Davies earned that questionable penalty in the 89th minute, you could feel the energy coursing through the stands and when he scored, the place looked like it was about to explode. There's no question that United need a permanent stadium solution, but it's clear there's still a very interested fanbase that is just looking for an excuse to support their team in the DC area.