Photo: Paul Rudderow
Interesting week for the Union and MLS. Here are some observations.
The Kleberson effect
Brian Carroll looks like a different player when paired with Kleberson. With the Brazilian genuinely playing a more advanced playmaking role, Carroll has been freed up from having to support the attack so that he can focus on what he does best: Shielding the back line. Not only does Carroll look to be playing better defensively, but so too is the back line.
Reevaluating the Kleberson-Adu deal
Until Wednesday, it was beginning to look as though Kleberson joined the Union almost solely because his loan deal expires in December, whereas the man he was exchanged for, Freddy Adu, was under contract for two more years at a higher salary.
Forget that notion. Kleberson can clearly still play. He looks like the CAM the Union have lacked since the team first formed.
The difference between Kleberson and Keon Daniel at center attacking midfield is like night and day. The Union’s offense suddenly has some fluidity to it. No, it’s not perfect yet. (Danny Cruz still has almost no part in the short passing game, and there’s no guarantee Michael Farfan won’t be returned to the left flank, where he is less effective than on his favored right side.) But it looks on its way. And that could change this club from a counterattacking mid-table team that regularly parks the bus to steal points to a good team that genuinely plays entertaining, attacking soccer.
Hey Negadelphia! Maybe Hackworth has a clue after all
Many fans have taken shots at Union manager John Hackworth for his lineup choices. A few were probably more deserved than others. But it became very clear over the last week that some of his oft-criticized choices were very justified.
- Hackworth’s choice to slowly work Kleberson into the lineup
As good as Kleberson has appeared in stretches, it’s very clear he’s nowhere near 90-minute fitness. In fact, 60-minute fitness is probably pushing it. Hackworth clearly saw this in practice and knew that Kleberson hadn’t been starting regularly in Brazil over the past year, so he chose to work him into the lineup slowly.
- Ray Gaddis starting at left back
Hackworth’s choice to play Gaddis at left back instead of Gabriel Farfan makes sense now that Farfan has revealed he asked to no longer play left back this season. Put simply, Gaddis was the best alternative on the roster, even considering his weak left foot.
The next question, logically, is why the Union didn’t try to acquire a proven left back in the off-season. Hackworth touted the merits of 20-year-old Damani Richards, only to cut him in training camp.
Well, it’s not like the Union had a lot of roster flexibility, thanks to the Freddy Adu situation. That likely limited options to Gaddis, Sheanon Williams, rookies and journeymen such as former Columbus left back Shaun Francis, who was in camp but not signed. Adu’s departure hasn’t yet added flexibility due to Kleberson taking his roster and salary spot.
If Bakary Soumare leaves in a trade, it could open salary space a left back. Then again, if Gaddis can regularly play as well as he did in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chicago, then maybe one won’t be necessary.
- The choice to start Jeff Parke and Amobi Okugo over Bakary Soumare on opening day
For Soumare, the rust was evident in his first two starts for the Union, and 90-minute fitness was not. That’s no surprise to him or anyone else who follows soccer. It takes time to regain form after a long injury layoff. On the other hand, Parke and Okugo were ready to play at a high level right away. On opening day, they were probably the two best center backs on the roster.
Soumare’s excellent performance in the most recent Chicago game, however, shows he still has the skill to play at a high level. No, he’s not 100 percent yet, but he’s on his way. By the time he is, he could be playing for another team. Either way, Parke’s hamstring injury could be a blessing in disguise, because Soumare has put in a good enough shift in the shop window that someone should come calling with a decent trade offer. For now, the Union benefit.
The best ref in MLS?
Allen Chapman may be the best referee in Major League Soccer. He only debuted in MLS last year, but he consistently shows the confidence, prudence, judgment and demeanor required to control a very physical league. On Saturday, he controlled a potentially chippy match by judiciously handing out cards early. He showed he will book players for what they earn, not what they appear to earn. Example: He gave Sheanon Williams a yellow card and granted a free kick for a clear foul outside the penalty area, rather than award a PK after Sherjill MacDonald went down a bit too easily on subsequent contact from Williams after Chapman let them play the advantage. Over and over again, he made the right calls.
I’ve watched Chapman officiate several matches this year, and each time, he has called a stellar match. It’s a sharp departure from most MLS matches, in which poor officiating often plays a key part. PSP pioneered the Geiger Counter, our regular postgame rating of a referee’s performance, named after local referee Mark Geiger. We might have to figure out a clever term referencing Chapman for the matches that are actually officiated without controversy.
Whither Chivas USA?
Gabriel Farfan better make the most of his time at Chivas USA while he can. There’s no guarantee that team will be in southern California next year.
A few readers and I got to talking about Chivas on the site Monday, so here’s a little repurposing of my thoughts there.
If I’m MLS, I take the team, move it to San Antonio, and try a similar concept—but without a Mexican parent club—without being so explicit or uncompromising about it. San Antonio is a big and rapidly growing metropolitan area, 50 percent Latino, and proving successful so far in the NASL. It has only one major league team (the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs), its closest soccer competitors are at least 200 miles away (Houston, Monterrey*), and it would probably have a sizable pool of homegrown players from which to draw. Also, they already have a stadium that sits about 10,000 and can be expanded to about twice that. Build a good soccer team, and if you just happen to have a lot of Latino players in a heavily Latino community, well great. It’s good to reflect your community. If not, that’s fine too.
San Diego might have been the best move a year or two ago. Then Tijuana, a team formed in 2007, won the Mexican title in December and forged a popularity that seems to cross the U.S. border. Tijuana sits just 30 minutes from San Diego, they have a few American players, and they just poached one from the Galaxy’s youth academy. MLS may have missed its chance in San Diego, which is a shame, because it seemed an ideal place for the team. Now, Orlando and San Antonio look like the best alternatives outside New York City.
It should be no surprise that two MLS clubs haven’t thrived in Los Angeles, even putting aside Jorge Vergara’s mismanagement of Chivas USA. After all, Los Angeles can’t get two teams to thrive in other sports either. The Clippers have always played second fiddle to the Lakers. When the city had NFL teams, the Rams and Raiders were probably one team too many. (And look what happened: Both moved.) It’s just hard to do, particularly when you consider how young MLS is as a league.
North American sports are just different from what you have in Europe. Many soccer fans have visions of London, Manchester, Glasgow, and Milan derbies in their heads, but that’s just not how it sports work here. New York-Philadelphia, Toronto-Montreal, Portland-Seattle, Cleveland-Pittsburgh—rivalries between nearby regions, not within the same city, have always been been the best rivalries in North American professional sports.