Week 6 of the Major League Soccer season is in the books. So far, the season has been packed full of penalties, new faces, and questions about whether the league is turning into a place where old international soccer players go to retire. There are also especially interesting storylines in Texas and in Canada. Here’s what you need to know about the season so far.
Red Cards, red cards, red cards!
In the first five weeks of the MLS Season, refs issued 16 red cards in 42 games. This is the second highest rate in the past 15 years. Is this a matter of out-of-control players, or are the refs just doing a better job?
One of the 2016 priorities for MLS was to protect players, and calling red card offenses was recommended as an important way to do that. In March, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) made a commitment to MLS to increase its protection of the players. This commitment came after a review of 2015 red card offenses showed that 28% of offenses had been missed.
Although the PRO may think it is making the league safer with its emphasis on issuing red cards, some players and managers disagree. When Vancouver player Matias Laba was sent off in the Vancouver-L.A. Galaxy game, Galaxy manager Bruce Arena spoke out. "There's just been too many red cards in this league,” he said afterward. “It's ruining games; I know about the players, but it seems like every game in this league there's a red card now."
David Ousted, Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper, agreed. "I understand what MLS is trying to do by protecting the players, but right now, we’re trying to take tackling out of the game. That's not going to purify the game. It's not going to make it any prettier to look at, and it's especially not going to evolve this league. I think it ruins games more than it benefits the players.”
Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid had a different take: “I think, over the long run, it's good.” Schmid continued, “Finding the right balance right now? Probably not. But it takes a while to find that balance. Eventually, things change. Things become different.”
New players are making an impact
We are not even two months into the 2016 MLS season, but we are already seeing some of the league’s new signings making a big impact on the pitch. Even though MLS didn’t bring in an international superstar like Didier Drogba this season, the league did sign a number of new players with a lot of potential.
Ashley Cole, defender for L.A. Galaxy, has been the most impressive signing so far. Cole, 35, came from Arsenal and Chelsea and has been solid as a defender and a contributor to the attack. Cole is among the top defenders in completed passes, crosses, and recoveries.
Real Salt Lake’s Stephen (Sunny) Sunday has brought defensive strength to the midfield. Sunday, 27, came from the Turkish club Alanyaspor. He’s partnered with USMNT member Kyle Beckerman to control the central midfield, and the two of them have been able to provide more freedom for Juan Manuel Martinez and Joao Plata to lead the attack.
Ronald Mataritta, defender for New York City FC and a starter on the Costa Rica national team, looks like one of the best left backs in MLS. He ranks first among defenders in recoveries and is near the top in shots, dribbles, and tackles won by defenders.
Nuno Coelho, defender for Sporting Kansas City, is a key reason that Sporting KC has not given up more than two goals to any team this season. Coelho, who previously played for FC Porto and Sporting CP, has formed a strong partnership with USMNT member Matt Besler. When Besler went out with a concussion, Coelho continued to provide excellent distribution and is among the top defenders in completed passes.
International Retirement League?
On Tuesday, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard announced that he plans to join the Colorado Rockies on July 8. For the past 13 years, Howard has played for the Premier League team Everton, and prior to that he played for Manchester United.
The last time Howard actually played an MLS game was in 2003. When asked by NBC Sports how the league has changed since the last time he played, Howard said, “I think the quality of play has gotten better. The fan base has grown and is more knowledgeable.”
Howard continued, “Some of the players that have gone back over, this ain't a retirement league. Now you have players going over like [Sebastian] Giovinco, he is incredible. Giovani dos Santos, probably one of the top Mexican players of all time who is playing there in his prime. That's exciting because for me, when I was a 21-year-old in MLS, that wasn't the case."
But Howard is 37. That’s an age when many international players have already retired. Over the past 10 years, soccer’s biggest names have come to Major League Soccer after retiring from other international leagues, including David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Jermain Defoe, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa, and Kaka.
That is not to say that home-grown players can’t prosper. We’ve seen great things from U.S. players, including Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, Omar Gonalez, Brad Evans, and Bobby Boswell. But it’s too early to tell if the league will continue to court older superstars or if it will provide opportunities for younger players who have not yet had the chance to prove themselves on a big pitch.
Regional divide: Texans on the north and south side of the Western Conference table
FC Dallas sits in first place on the Western Conference table with an early season record of 5-1-2. The Houston Dynamo sit in last place with a 1-3-2 record.
Four minutes into last Friday’s game against the L.A. Galaxy, the Dynamo snuck in a goal to start the scoring. Unfortunately for the Dynamo, that was also the end of the scoring for them. The Galaxy went on to trounce the Dynamo 4–1.
Houston was completely outmatched by L.A. on both sides of the ball. And that’s how the Dynamo has played so far this season. They have only scored twice in the last three games, and they have conceded 13 goals this season, second most in the league.
Things look a lot different farther north, where FC Dallas has already played eight games and is looking better in each game. Attacker Michael Barrios scored against the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City in the two most recent games. Fabian Castillo and Tesho Akindele add to Dallas’s strength up front, with the back being led by the Walker Zimmerman and Zach Loyd partnership, after Matt Hedges went out on a knee injury.
Regional Divide: Battle for Canadian supremacy in the Eastern Conference
On Saturday, Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact will clash at Saputo Stadium. Both teams are only six games into the season, but they already look like they are on their way to fighting it out for Eastern Conference championship.
Montreal is currently ranked first in the Eastern Conference with a 4-2-0 record. This is the second best start the Impact has ever had. Plus, the team has been without superstar Didier Drogba, who only returned from injury this past Saturday to help the Impact beat the Columbus Crew 2–1.
Toronto FC finished its first six games with a 2-2-2 record. Not too bad, considering they have been on the road all season. Toronto’s start is similar to 2015, when the team opened with a seven-game road trip and began the season 3-4-0.
The feel this year is different, though. Last year, Toronto scored the second most goals in the league but also tied for giving up the most goals in MLS. In the off-season, Toronto acquired four MLS veterans: Steven Beitashour, Clint Irwin, Will Johnson, and Drew Moor. These four players have brought strength on the back of the pitch. So far, Toronto has only given up five goals in six games. The team needs to start scoring more, and with attacking options including Sebastian Giovinco and USMNT members Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, that is very possible. In the meantime, Toronto looks well organized, which is a big difference from last year.
Things may change, but for right now, the Eastern Conference champion looks like it might be a Canadian team.
Photographs, from top: Brian B. Bettencourt/Toronto Star/Getty Images; Shaun Clark/Getty Images; Ashley Allen/Getty Images; Scott Halleran/Getty Images; Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images