In what is becoming a rather disturbing trend, MLS lost another one of its most marketable players this weekend when Javier Morales broke his ankle on a tackle from behind by Chivas USA forward Marco Mondaini. The injury was reminiscent of the ones suffered by Steve Zakuani and David Ferreira two weeks ago in that the players suffered serious injuries on a somewhat questionable tackle.
Unlike the tackled that felled Ferreira, though, this was an obvious foul and done with far more cynicism. While Jonathon Leathers actually won the ball from Ferreira, Mondaini did not really have any chance and was clearly trying to foul Morales as he dribbled just outside the penalty area.
The tackle was also dissimilar from Brian Mullan's take down of Zakuani in that it was far less violent, although equally gruesome. While Mullan's tackle was done more as a message, Mondaini was simply trying to disrupt the attack.
RSL coach Jason Kreis had this to say about the tackle in post-game comments: "To be honest, I didn’t think it was the most flagrant of fouls. It was from behind, which we’re trying to get out of the game. It’s in the attacking third and Javi was clearly getting ready to shoot. I understand the urgency of the situation from the defender trying to make the play and I really don’t think it was that egregious."
What really complicates this matter is that Mullan was just recently fined $5,000 and suspended 10 games for committing a foul that many see as very much a part of the game. There have been those that have suggested that Mondaini should be suspended even longer than Mullan, although that seems unlikely. A ban of six to eight games, mainly because of the past precedent, seems to be a likely outcome.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the issue of where this leaves Real Salt Lake. After a blazing start that saw them win their first four MLS games and advance to the CONCACAF Champions League final, the Royals have looked considerably more common in recent weeks. Truth be told, they haven't really looked dominant since their 4-1 dismantling of the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 26. Since then, they've needed a stoppage-time goal to beat the Colorado Rapids, lost their road leg to Saprissa, used mostly reserves in a 2-0 win against New England, were outplayed in a tie at Monterrey, lost at home in the CCL finals, lost to the Portland Timbers and beat nine-man Chivas USA 1-0. For most teams, that's really not a horrible run, but RSL is not most teams.
Ever since RSL won the MLS Cup in 2009, they've been arguably the most impressive team in the league. They haven't won any silverware since then, but no one has doubted their skill level and they've had unquestioned success across multiple competitions. Perhaps the biggest part of that success was Morales, their play-making central midfielder who seemed to come up with the big goals or game-breaking assists whenever they needed it most.
Replacing Morales, who also happens to be RSL's highest-paid player, will be no easy task. Various players have filled in for him at various times, but no one is going to confuse Jean Alexandre, Ned Grabavoy or Collen Warner for Javier Morales. All are quality players, and have even flashed signs of being very good, but none of them have the dynamism of Morales.
RSL still has to be considered one of the top teams in the league, but their standing as the unquestioned kings is at least on hiatus. Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey have assembled a team that is as deep as any in MLS, a defense that is still as good as any on the continent and created an ethos that is built to withstand the loss of any one player. But all of that will be put to the test in a way it hasn't before. If RSL can overcome the loss of Morales, it will just be the latest testament to organization that has been built in Utah.
Just when MLS need a pick-me-up...
With news of Morales' injury striking up the woe-is-us machine from MLS supporters, the league really did need a feel-good moment. Luckily, the New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy were up to the task during their nationally televised encounter on Saturday night. The first half, especially, was some of the best soccer MLS has seen this year with both teams creating chances and generally putting on a first-class show.
The highlight of the match was almost certainly Tim Ream's amazing goal-line save of a Landon Donovan shot. Donovan had been sent free on a perfectly placed pass from David Beckham, beat Red Bulls goalkeeper Bouna Condoul and sent the ball goalward from about the edge of the penalty area. But Ream, who's not exactly known for his speed, was able to catch the ball from behind and managed to make a sliding stop to send the ball out of bounds. By all rights, the play should probably win "Save of the Year," but because Ream is not a goalkeeper it probably won't even be considered for "Save of the Week."
The game also featured another goal from Thierry Henry, who now leads the league in total points (four goals, three assists), as well as some spectacular play from Beckham and Donovan and impressive goalkeeping from Condoul and Donovan Ricketts. Basically, it was the kind of match everyone has been hoping to see these two teams play ever since they started spending gobs of money on Designated Players. As an added bonus, the match also created enough animosity that Luke Rodgers and Donovan have been having a bit of a slap fight over Twitter, which can only help fuel a rivalry that MLS has been dying for ever since the league started.
Houston, do we have a problem?
After their six-match unbeaten streak was snapped, at home no less, the Houston Dynamo had a chance to make amends with a game at Toronto FC. So what did they do? They promptly became the first team to lose to Toronto FC since Week 2.
Were the Dynamo just doing it with smoke and mirrors? I have a hard time going that far, as they built their unbeaten streak on strong fundamentals like out shooting their opponents, playing solid defense and getting timely goals. None of that should have magically disappeared in one week.
Still, these two losses raise some legitimate questions about a team that is coming off their first playoff-less campaign since coming to Houston. Tally Hall may, in fact, be turning into an elite goalkeeper, but this is just his first year as a full-time starter. Will Bruin could end up being a great striker, but he is a rookie. Sergio Koke is a massive talent, but he's also never played in North America. These are all issues that are not going away and give valid reason to question the Dynamo's 2011 chances.
The glass-door fortress
The Portland Timbers are tough to take too seriously as long as they can't even salvage points on the road -- just one in four matches -- but they are looking downright scary at Jeld-Wen Field. A week after dispatching RSL, the Timbers followed that up with a take down of the Philadelphia Union. The 1-0 victory was a classic case of feeding the Union some of their own medicine. It certainly wasn't pretty, and the national audience for the debut of Soccer Night In America could have been excused for being bored to death, but it's the kind of win that showed a new kind of versatility for the Timbers.
John Spencer's side has shown they can score and that they are at their best when they get to run up and down the field, but the Union forced them into a more conservative approach. The Timbers seemed perfectly happy to bide their time until the 71st minute when center back Mamadou Danso put away a Jack Jewsbury free kick.
The win brings the Timbers home record to 4-0-0. It seems a little much to consider them real contenders, especially considering their -2 goal-difference, but no one is going to want to play this team in Portland.
It's hard to get too excited about the Columbus Crew. They don't have any big names. They don't really have any exciting players. They don't score many goals and when they do, it's almost never in the run of play. But, they are owners of the MLS's longest active unbeaten streak after tying the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. The Crew have scored just seven goals during their seven-game run, but once again managed to pull out a result. The penalty they scored against the Sounders was their fourth of the young season, but they outplayed their opponent and probably deserved the win. In a season filled with this much parity, getting results can't be ignored.