Things we learned in MLS Week 9

Whatever you need to do, Mike. Just keep him safe. - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The lessons of week 9 include: why TFC should be worried, TC should be on the bench for RBNY, and the Revs could be the next big thing in MLS.

It isn't often a week in MLS brings lessons about the Honduran national team, but this one did.

1. Toronto FC has a problem

TFC's third consecutive loss wasn't the sort of game anyone should get too down about. Yes, the game was played at home to historically awful visitors - the Revs hadn't previously managed to win at BMO Field. And yes, it was something approaching the full-strength, "bloody big deal" juggernaut we expect to be the norm for a TFC starting lineup: Michael Bradley, Julio Cesar and Jermain Defoe all started (and finished) the match.

But it was one of those days when a couple of errors turned the game. Doneil Henry played a lax pass out of defense straight to Daigo Kobayashi, who immediately played a through-ball for Patrick Mullins, and his shot was near-perfectly struck. Henry was then unlucky to get in the way of a less-well hit shot from Mullins - a scuffed half-volley took an awkward bounce, and Henry's efforts to block were in vain as the ball reared up and caught his arm. Penalty - and three points - to the Revs.

These things happen. Even with the heavy rain that bogged down the second half, and defensive misfortunes costing two goals, TFC played well enough to win this game. Ryan Nelsen will probably look at the tape and conclude his team is doing the right things just a little bit worse than is required to be rewarded for it.

So, despite this week's loss being TFC's third in a row, and fourth in the last five outings, there need be no panic in Toronto. Except there is one cause for concern: Toronto has just one more (MLS) match to play before the World Cup stars are snatched up by their national teams. Indeed, there may be no more league games for Michael Bradley until he's back from Brazil, since Jurgen Klinsmann seems to be set on starting USMNT's training camp on May 14.

Even if everything falls right for Toronto when RBNY comes calling on May 17, the challenge for Nelsen will be to keep his team from getting sucked into a downward spiral over the next four or five games that must be played without (at least) Bradley and Cesar, and possibly even Jermain Defoe. It is one thing to be in less-than-great form while having your best players; but having neither best players nor best form is a vexing problem for any coach.

2. MLS is to Honduras what Sunderland is to Jozy Altidore

If you're a fan of USMNT, you are probably aware of the current narrative surrounding national team forward Jozy Altidore: he's spent the entirety of this season being not very good for the English Premier League's Sunderland.

Indeed, the Black Cats' recent unlikely escape from certain relegation (they aren't safe yet, but they have graduated from "definitely going down" to "probably not going down", which is a remarkable achievement) was in part owed to Gus Poyet's decision to abandon all hope that Altidore was the right man to play up top for his team. The Sunderland coach put his faith in Connor Wickham, and the team's fortunes have turned around. USMNT supporters have been reduced to hoping that Jozy's form for Sunderland is just one of those instances of a player being a bad fit with the team and tactics around him.

But Altidore is just one player struggling on one team. For some perspective, consider the remarkably thorough trashing of reputations MLS is currently laying down on multiple prospective members of the Honduras World Cup squad.

Jerry Bengtson is good for a goal every other game for his country, but he hasn't been able to consistently make it off the bench for New England. This week, he was kept off the pitch by Patrick Mullins' impressive performance against TFC - and few would fault Revs' coach Jay Heaps for sticking with Mullins after he proved so important to New England's first ever win in Toronto.

Over in Colorado, Marvin Chavez should be the sort of live wire spark the Rapids could use, at least when Vicente Sanchez isn't able to play. But he wasn't even in the 18 this week.

Victor Bernardez is warming up for Brazil by being at the center of San Jose's desultory start to the season - the 3-2 defeat by Vancouver being merely the most recent humbling.

Of MLS's highest profile Hondurans, only Oscar Boniek Garcia is getting the kind of playing time and showing the kind of form that his nation's supporters would hope for in advance of the biggest football tournament of them all. And Garcia's Houston Dynamo only just shook themselves out of a slump this week by beating up on one of the most reliably awful teams in the league - Chivas USA.

And spare a thought for guys like Johnny Leveron (Vancouver) and Alex Lopez (Houston), who arrived in MLS last year as emerging internationals and have regressed to being occasional bench warmers for their respective clubs.

Whatever Honduras achieves in Brazil this summer, it will owe even less to MLS than Jozy Altidore and USMNT owe Sunderland.

3. Bruce Arena is a good guy

It hurts to type those words. Bruce Arena generally stomps around MLS with an infuriating level of self-interest. Last year, he had the gall to complain about his team's crowded CONCACAF Champions League schedule without reerencing the fact he had decided to let his Galaxy play a friendly tournament in August, thereby missing the first week of the CCL group stage, thereby ensuring there would be a crush of fixtures at the end of the season.

He is no fool. He knows what he is saying, and what he was effectively saying at the time was that a money-spinning exhibition game was more important than the most prestigious tournament in the region. And that CCL should prioritize LA Galaxy's side projects when setting its schedule.

It would be funny were it not for the fact that he is one of the most respected coaches in this country, and even his gibbering fantasy of playing Real Madrid's reserves every week has some currency with those in charge of running MLS and US Soccer.

But credit where it is due. Arena's LA Galaxy was losing on the road at half-time of its week 9 fixture against Colorado. The team is currently in so-so form, the defense in particular looks shaky - it would be in Arena's best interest to play his strongest side and try to get points and better performances from his first-choice players.

Yet the LA Galaxy ran out for the second half without defensive stalwart Omar Gonzalez. The reason given "a precautionary measure". This may prove to be an understatement, but there is no reason for Arena to conceal his motivation for weakening a losing team. He is self-interested, not pathologically dishonest.

And it must be said that self-interest doesn't really explain the withdrawal of Gonzalez. He's probably got one more game for the Galaxy and then he's presumably off to join USMNT for the World Cup. He'll likely miss around six MLS matches as a result. Whether he's fit or not, he won't be playing for Bruce Arena.

But Arena pulled Gonzalez out of the match to protect his fitness. The primary reason to do that is to protect the center back's prospects of making his country's World Cup squad. Whatever one may think about Gonzalez's claim to be a starting center back for USMNT in Brazil, the team's best interest is served by having the largest possible pool of players fit and available for selection in these final stages of preparation.

Your country thanks you, Bruce.

4. The New England Revolution is one game away from being considered an elite MLS team

Seriously. The Revs have yet to concede a goal at home. They have emerged from a brutal opening stretch of six-games-out-of-nine on the road with 14 points and a share of the lead in the Eastern Conference. And they just beat a pretty much full-strength TFC in Toronto without defensive leader Jose Goncalves and with a rookie heading the attack.

Their recent form - ten points from their last four games - is exceeded by only one team: Seattle Sounders. And guess who New England plays next?


5. Bradley Wright-Phillips is more important to RBNY than Tim Cahill...at the moment

Hear me out. Cahill is the future of the New York Red Bulls: the guy who will pick up the captain's armband when Thierry Henry moves on. He has proven his value to the team, and he will deliver the goals and guts to which we have become accustomed once again.

But Cahill is not RBNY's present. He is about two weeks away from being whisked off to join Australia's World Cup training camp. Injury has restricted his appearances for the Red Bulls so far this year, and his work to date has caught the eye for the wrong reasons: he was the Red Bull to incur a penalty this week.

It was always the case that RBNY was going to have to figure out how to get through a few (probably only three) games without Cahill. When the season kicked off, it was fair to assume Mike Petke would go all out for as many points as possible with Cahill in the lineup, then try to get through a few games without him, and hope to pick up where things left off on Cahill's return.

But now things have changed. The team has figured out to survive and thrive without its Australian heart. This became clear this week against Dallas, when Peguy Luyindula replaced Cahill in midfield in the 61st minute, and RBNY started to look just a little bit better. Not great, but good enough to finally create a too-good-to-refuse chanceagainst shorthanded opponents and score a goal.

A goal scored by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is proving an extremely able partner for Thierry Henry up front. BWP, not Cahill, is the man whose form has brought the success to date and will be required for further success over the next few weeks.

And that's OK. The objective is still to pick up as many points as possible before the World Cup claims its players (Roy Miller will be heading out also), but now the RBNY strategy must be to keep momentum going through Cahill's absence, to stockpile points for the inevitable moment when he must be re-integrated back into the side.

Managing Cahill's return, rather than his departure, is the test Petke is now preparing for - and in the short term, that should mean treating Cahill as a bench option. He is a competitor, as capable of forcing his way into a good team as lifting a bad one: we need not worry about Cahill's ability to get back into the starting lineup in the long term.

But right now, the way forward should be to ride BWP's hot streak, rack up as many points as can be got, and worry about where Cahill fits into the side when he's back from Brazil.



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