1. If you are providing live commentary on a game of soccer, it's a good idea to pay attention to that game of soccer
Last week, Mike Grella scored a goal for the New York Red Bulls against Columbus Crew. Here's what happened: Michael Parkhurst received a pass just inside his own half; he was instantly pressured by Grella, ducked out of that challenge but took a heavy touch that brought the ball in range of Bradley Wright-Phillips; BWP won the ball, pushing it toward the Crew's goal; Parkhurst turned to give chase and Emmanuel Pogatetz also moved in to help retrieve the situation, but Grella got to the ball first and essayed a one-touch chip from 25 yards that beat 'keeper Steve Clark.
An unusually emphatic example of the upside of pressing for possession high up the field.
Here's how the Columbus TV commentary team called the play:
"...NYC FC 1-0...[Pogatetz passes to Parkhurst]...Earlier today, New England 2-1 over San Jose [Parkhurst evades Grella but runs the ball into BWP; ball is now being chased by Grella, Parkhurst and Pogatetz], Orlando and Montreal tied at two [Grella shoots, goal is scored]...Turnover...Shot from distance. Shot is in the back of the net by the guy that just came in the game! [Clark is looking forlornly at the ball in the net; "guy that just came in the game" is celebrating]"
Great job, commentary team.
Still, it happens. Live commentary isn't easy, 90 minutes is a long time to talk continuously about one soccer match: very occasionally, a commentator might get caught in the middle of largely irrelevant chat while one of the more significant moments of the game being watched unfolds on the field.
Or, if you're part of the community of TV commentators for MLS games, every week is apparently the new normal.
In Colorado this week, the crew adding spice and insight to the match between the Rapids and New England Revolution decided to cut away to the sidelines for a special report on the atmosphere in the stadium. In the 18th minute. Just as Kelyn Rowe muscled Sam Cronin off the ball, sailed a long pass over the top of the Colorado defense, and watched Juan Agudelo pluck the ball out of the air with his left foot and half-volley it into the net with his right.
It was a remarkable goal. Here's how Altitude TV's viewers heard it play out:
"Well, you guys, it's really an amazing and interesting crowd right now. The energy is all focused on to the field. [Rowe wins the ball] Everyone is on the edge of their seats..[Rowe hits a pass toward Agudelo]...you don't see a lot of people getting up, going to the bathroom, or even looking at their phone in fact. [Agudelo collects. Shoots. Scores.] Back up to you."
At least we know the fans in the stadium saw what happened.
For those watching MLS on TV, this was an instructive moment. We've seen it twice in two weeks now: commentators shift attention away from the game they are supposed to be commentating on, and a very impressive goal is scored.
Don't get caught out a third time, viewers of MLS on TV: if the commentators don't think the game is worth talking about, pay extra close attention to what's happening on the field.
2. Keep an eye on Real Salt Lake
The ever-decreasing group of undefeated teams in MLS has been cut to two after Week 5: FC Dallas lost for the first time this season; Colorado stretched its scoreless streak to six games and 600 minutes of competitive play (the Rapids last goal in MLS was against Chivas USA on October 11, 2014), and broke its run of 0-0 draws (three in a row to start the year) by losing 2-0 to New England.
Still unbeaten in MLS 2015: the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake. Both teams are easing into new tactics this season; both are seeing encouraging early returns.
The Red Bulls have been assisted by a relatively light schedule - three games in five weeks - which has doubtless allowed a coach and a squad with a great many new faces to put in the necessary hours of getting to know each other in extended stretches of training rather than the week-in, week-out grind of the usual pattern of the regular season.
And RBNY's performances in those three matches have appeared to reveal a steadily improving team. Its last match - a 2-1 road win over Columbus Crew - was perhaps its most impressive result to date, and the players have cause to head into their Week 6 road trip to Eastern Conference leader D.C. United (already beaten by RBNY this season) with some confidence.
RSL's start has been less flattering. The team was very lucky to get out of Portland in its opening game with a point and a clean sheet. It followed that by allowing Philadelphia (currently the worst team in MLS) to score three goals, and only retrieved a point from its home opener thanks to a late - and soft - penalty. Next, another game at home required a late goal: this time against Toronto FC, who equalized in the 88th minute only for RSL to steal three points with a match-winner in the 89th. Finally, this week, the team traveled to Salt Lake and got a win courtesy of a moment of illuminating brilliance from Javier Morales.
RSL has notched two unconvincing wins in a row after opening the year by drawing two games it appeared destined to lose. The team is visibly trying to adapt to new tactics (a 4-3-3 formation that would appear to give the team less control of possession that it has traditionally sought in seasons past), yet - despite the discomfort of that transition - it isn't losing.
We saw this from RSL last season, when the squad was adapting to a new coach (Jeff Cassar took over after Jason Kreis left to take over NYC FC at the end of 2013) rather than new tactics. Cassar guided a team still largely playing under the identity bequeathed by Kreis to a 12-game unbeaten run to start the season. Unfortunately, RSL lost almost as many matches as it won over the remaining 22 games (9 wins and 8 losses in that stretch) and slumped to third in the Western Conference, behind an imperious Seattle and LA.
No team can expect to roll through 12 games unbeaten to start the year, and certainly few would expect this iteration of RSL to match the achievement of last year's squad. Key players are gone: Kreis has taken Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert and Sebastian Velasquez to NYC; veteran defender Nat Borchers was moved on to Portland. And Joao Plata, the team's breakout star of 2014, is injured.
RSL has every reason to be struggling at the start of 2015. And if this is RSL struggling - undefeated, eight points from four games - it is worth keeping a wary eye on its progress. This team's best might be trouble for the rest of the league.
3. LA Galaxy is in a slump, and it doesn't matter...yet
Since taking over LA Galaxy in 2008, Bruce Arena has traditionally focused his attention on winning MLS Cup. When he was in charge of D.C. United, he put together a team capable of winning everything. In three seasons, from 1996 to 1998, his DC won two MLS Cups (and made three consecutive finas), one Supporters' Shield, one US Open Cup and one CONCACAF Champions' Cup.
But since he landed in LA, Arena's focus has been near-exclusively on MLS Cup. All other competitions he appears to regard with either disdain or derision.
For the past three years, the Galaxy has been bounced out of US Open Cup by the NASL's Carolina Railhawks, and Arena has got in the habit of either skipping the traditional banana-skin game entirely, or at least ducking the post-match press.
In the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League, Arena had the Galaxy playing an exhibition tournament during CCL's opening round of the group stage, then had the temerity to complain about fixture congestion when his team had to play four out of the last five CCL group stage match-days to make up for having skipped the first one.
But in MLS, he switches on. In his first three full seasons in charge, LA Galaxy won the Western Conference three times and the Supporters' Shield once. It also made two MLS Cup finals (2009 and 2011), but only won the title once (2011).
In the last three seasons, however, it appears Arena has eased off on the regular season a bit. The team finished fourth in the West in 2012, third in 2013, and was second to Seattle in both the Conference and the Supporters' Shield table in 2014.
But the post-season results have improved (from "very good" to "excellent"): LA has made two out of three MLS Cup finals from 2012-14, and won on both occasions (2012 and 2014). We'll find out whether the Galaxy is inclined to take US Open Cup or CCL a little more seriously later this year, but the recent pattern of the team's activity suggests it is entirely focused on winning MLS Cup. Every season.
So pay little mind to the fact LA lost its second game in a row in Week 5 of the 2015 season. Do not be fooled by what is now a four-game winless streak since LA opened the season with a not-entirely-convincing home win over a fragile Chicago Fire.
LA won just two of its first eight games in 2014 and was winless over four matches from April 19 to May 17, but very nearly won the Supporters' Shield, and won MLS Cup. In 2012, Arena's team lost three of its first four games of the season, was winless for seven games from the end of April to the end of May, finished with the eighth-best record of the 10 teams to make the playoffs and...still won MLS Cup.
The Galaxy has not yet looked good this season, but one suspects Arena cares not at all what his team looks like in March, April and even May. He builds teams to win games in October and November.
There are clubs in the league that needed a hot start. RBNY or RSL are implementing new playing styles, and positive momentum helps to quell anxiety in the fan base and build confidence within the squad. Those coming off a bad year - like Chicago, Colorado or Montreal - would have been hoping for an early morale boost to shake off past disappointment and renew supporter enthusiasm.
But LA doesn't need a hot start. Arena is MLS's king of the hot finish.
4. Vancouver is on a roll, and that does matter
The team that beat LA this week, Vancouver Whitecaps, is now officially the hottest side in MLS: there's no arguing with a four-game winning streak. And lackluster as the Galaxy might be at the moment, it is still the current MLS Cup champion.
The Whitecaps produced their best performance of the season to date against what might be presumed to be their best opponent of the season to date. Maybe we will learn 2015 is an off-year for LA, or Vancouver's 3-1 opening day lossto Toronto will appear more significant once the Reds start playing some home games and are able to build some momentum (TFC is currently four games in to a seven-match road trip).
It is hard to gauge the significance of early season wins and losses. What is less hard to gauge is whether a team appears to be getting better or worse. Right now, Vancouver looks like a team that is getting better.
The 'Caps preceding three wins were each settled by one goal, often scored late: an 86th-minute winner in Chicago; a 96th-minute winner in Orlando; and a 90th-minute game-clincher last week at home against Portland. This week,Vancouver scored twice in 10 minutes mid-way through the second half (the 56th and 66th minutes), finally delivering a relatively anxiety-free finale to its fans.
Surprisingly for a team that currently leads the league in total attempts on goal and shots on target, the match against LA was just the second time this season Vancouver has out-shot an opponent (the first was against Chicago). And just the second time the team has won the greater share of possession over 90 minutes in MLS 2015.
Possession isn't too important to the Whitecaps' game plan. The first time they saw more of the ball than their opponent over 90 minutes this season was when they were getting thrashed by Toronto in Week 1. But a team that can keep the ball can better protect a lead, and Vancouver hasn't been very good at protecting a lead that wasn't established in the game's dying minutes so far this season (TFC fought back after falling behind in the 19th minute; Portland equalized in the 82nd minute after dominating for most of the game once Vancouver had scored in the 15th minute).
The 'Caps have only played five games. And they are now in a three-games-in-eight-days stretch that will test squad depth and fitness. Week 6 will bring two matches in four days (they host Columbus on April 8 and play in San Jose on April 11). But that is why positive momentum and confidence is important.
Vancouver is hitting its stride as the season brings tougher challenges. After playing Columbus, the 'Caps will play three of their next four games on the road. The winning streak will surely end soon. But what had the potential to be a damaging part of the season - when the schedule is overcrowded with games and road trips - now looks less imposing.
Every team in the league has more to worry about than the 'Caps at the moment. They can keep playing their game, and it's up to everyone else to prove they can keep up.
5. Davy Arnaud is the most fouled player in the history of MLS
This actually happened last week, against LA Galaxy, when the D.C. United midfielder suffered two fouls - sufficient to nudge him beyond Jaime Moreno on the league's all-time most-fouled list. This week, against Orlando, Arnaud was again fouled twice: his career total fouls suffered in the MLS regular season now stands at 706 from 332 appearances. He and Moreno are the only players in the league's history to have been fouled more than 700 times (excluding post-season statistics).
Here at Once A Metro, we are in the grip of Hate DC Week (or DC Hate Week - the hate is strong; the commitment to a name for it, not so much). Because that is what RBNY fans do: hate DC.
Assuming he starts against RBNY on April 11, Arnaud will be making the 300th MLS regular season start of his career in Week 6. He'll be the 11th player in the history of the league to reach that milestone (Brad Davis became the 10th back in Week 4 against Colorado).
What better way for the Red Bulls to help him commemorate his 300th start than by delivering him the 707th foul of his career?