Monday Hangover: Life is good at the top

New York, Los Angeles reign supreme—and deservedly so

Juan Pablo Angel DC

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There was a moment during New York’s 2-0 victory over D.C. United on Saturday afternoon when it looked like the Red Bulls were about to capitulate. United had besieged the New York goal all afternoon, and early in the second half, Bouna Coundoul was forced into yet another trapeze-artist save, tipping a Clyde Simms shot wide.

The play had developed out of a miscommunication at the back and a poor clearance from Roy Miller that went straight to Simms. After the chance was thwarted, Coundoul and the Red Bulls defense all looked at each other questioningly: “What was that all about?” their eyes and body language asked (Watch it here).

But for the first time in many years with this underachieving, overpromising New York franchise, there was no panic, no “uh-oh,” no “well, here we go again.” Instead, rookie Tim Ream and veteran Mike Petke discussed where the breakdown occurred, Miller acknowledged his mistake, and Coundoul got up and prepared to defend the corner kick. Amazingly, this New York side actually looked like they belonged at the top of the table.

Conventional wisdom is Clintonesquely waffly on the relative benefits of being the king. Sometimes, it’s a burden to bear, what with tending to all those serfs and being the target of every Tom, Dick and Lancelot with a coat of arms and a goblet of ambition. Other times, lording over a dominion eases the way.

For the two MLS clubs donning the conference thrones right now, New York and the LA Galaxy, it’s definitely the latter.

The LA Galaxy, kings of MLS currently, reigning over the Western Conference has actually gotten easier as time has gone on. With each game—each win—the undefeated Galaxy seem more and more confident.

In Saturday’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, they played with the kind of casual arrogance pros have when they join a pick-up game. MLS leading scorer Edson Buddle looks so at ease, he could be wearing Hefner’s smoking jacket out there. The defense is playing like a second midfield, bombing forward—hello, Mr. DeLaGarza—while still getting the job done at the back.

It’s flowing, majestic, and unbeatable to this point. And just think: The Galaxy have been doing it all with Landon Donovan still in neutral. Imagine what it will look like when he shifts into high gear.

Meanwhile, New York are anything but majestic. They look more like the rogue cousin who suddenly winds up the heir apparent. It’s “ugly,” certainly compared to the Galaxy’s fluid style. It’s based on power up top, a compact box-to-box central midfield pairing, the unpredictability of Dane Richards, and the organized lines of the defense. Plus, of course, Coundoul’s acrobatic saves.

And yet, the effect is the same. Despite New York’s being outplayed by United in the first half, I never once doubted the Red Bulls’ ability to earn the three points. Sure, they gave up chances, but only one of them—Simms’ free header in the area—was a legitimately good one. Everything else seemed within coach Hans Backe’s plan, or at least acceptable.

On a hot afternoon in D.C., this New York team exuded the kind of regal confidence in their strategy: Withstand the pressure, and eventually, the chances would come. From a fans’ perspective, it was ugly; but from a purist’s standpoint, it was also beautiful. Regal, almost.

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Mac Attack

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Floppy-mopped Jack McInerney is a star in the making. He’s got a ways to go, but his inherent talent is plainly visible. Watch him make a play, like the one he made on Saturday night to get his first-ever pro goal. Here’s a 17-year-old kid, directing the veteran Fred about where he wants the ball, pointing to space in front of him, demanding the right pass.

Then he shows tremendous composure with his first touch, away from Gregg Berhalter, and even better patience, waiting for Donovan Ricketts to commit before burying his shot. How many other young American strikers have that innate ability right now?

What makes me most comfortable with tagging “Jack Mac” a star of the future is the fact that Peter Nowak is his coach. If anyone knows how to handle a young talent, it’s Nowak. Remember, he’s the only pro coach ever to get the best out of Freddy Adu.

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Broken Wand

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Kansas City Wizards coach Peter Vermes’ anticipation of that inevitable bad moment, when things will stop going well. “There is going to be adversity—injuries, go down a goal, a guy gets thrown out,” he told me. “We don’t know how the team will react.”

Well, now he knows. They obviously didn’t react the way he would’ve hoped. Already down a goal, the Wizards went down a man in the 33rd minute when Davy Arnaud was sent off for his foul on Houston’s Pat Onstad.

What’s interesting is not only to see how the team reacted—KC eventually lost 3-0—but also how Vermes himself reacted. He seems to have been as brutally honest as ever. “They came out pretty physical and ready to play,” he said after the game. “We didn’t match it at times, and other times we did.”

And the red card?

“The red card was a little ridiculous,” Vermes said. “It changes the game completely.”

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Red All Over

Speaking of red cards, the referees went to their back pocket five times this past weekend. Were there really that many ejectionable offenses? Yes and no.

Here’s my take.

Arnaud, Kansas City: If Onstad were not a goalkeeper and Arnaud’s cleats had connected with a field player’s ankle, would the red card have come out? Doubt it.

O’Rourke, Columbus: A misguided tackle in a spot on the field and a time in the game that didn’t call for it. This was a second yellow, and full deserved.

Dube, New England: He wasn’t a particularly hard foul, but he showed the bottom of his cleats. That’s enough for me.

Niouky, New England: I’ll let TV announcer Jay Heaps speak for me: “That’s a red card, two-footed from behind,” he said on the broadcast.

Miglioranzi, Philadelphia: Reckless, at best. When will players learn that jumping into any tackle with the bottom of their cleats showing is a no-brainer red card?

Greg Lalas is a reporter for MLSSoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.