The week that was in Major League Soccer could portend a paradigm shift in the league’s power structure, at least as far as the 2008 season is concerned. Three teams–Columbus Crew, DC United and the New York Red Bulls–notched 3-0 victories to suggest a numerically-symbolic start to the new era.
Of course paradigm shifts are never this clear cut, even in retrospect. Nor should a team that has won the Supporters Shield for the past two years really be viewed as part of a “new order.” And it is admittedly at least somewhat disingenuous to suggest there is such a thing as an MLS “power order” in the first place given the parody that shapes the league. Still, the changing fortunes of the three teams warrants a closer look.
After a slow start to the season, the New York Red Bulls have been bolstered by a quartet of new signings in the July transfer window. The four additions (three defensive players, all four from Latin America) officially make the Red Bulls a Juan Carlos Osorio team in style as well as in substance. Gone is the attempt at power football with its emphasis on flashy American stars that marked the (brief) Bruce Arena era. Jozy Altidore, only recently seen as absolutely vital to the team’s fortunes, is gone and, it appears, quickly forgotten in its newfound success. Claudio Reyna has retired and Hunter Freeman who will leave for Norway at the end of the season, is part of the team in name only. In their place Gabriel Cichero and now Diego Jimenez (who started his first MLS game Sunday) give the Red Bulls back line an entirely different, more secure look. Jorge Rojas is the attacking midfield engine the team’s fans have long clamored for. Perhaps most important of all is the role of Juan Pietravallo as anchor of the team’s defensive midfield. “His contribution in my opinion is huge,” Osorio said of the Argentine’s role in the team’s three-game winning streak.
Instead of wing-based power runs, the team has adopted a Latin American style ball-control offense. The results–three wins in a row, five game unbeaten streak, 254 minutes without conceding a goal–speak for themselves. MLS coaching staffs leaguewide are surely scrambling to come up with a game plan to counteract the new-look Red Bulls.
DC United was able to upgrade one vital spot on its roster. Goalkeeper Zach Wells, who never really found his form this season, has been replaced by Swiss-Liberian backstop Louis Crayton. The move appears to have paid off with Crayton recording two clean sheets in his first three games with the club. DC’s other acquisitions have also made their mark: Joe Vide (claimed off waivers July 16) scored the game-winning goal against Colorado yesterday and Ivan Guerrero (signed from San Jose for partial allocation) got one of the assists. Rookie Craig Thompson, acquired from Houston for draft picks on June 30, started the Colorado game and demonstrated he can hold his own in an MLS match should he be called on to do so.
While a third straight Supporters Shield may be a bit of a longshot for Tom Soehn’s men (then again, DC is only six points behind Columbus with eight regular season league games remaining) United is heavily favored to win the US Open Cup next week where it faces USL side Charleston Battery in the final. Perhaps most important of all, Ben Olsen has been removed from the injured list and was even part of the matchday squad against Colorado (though he did not play). Olsen has missed virtually the entire season, but his return will bolster United’s ever-important midfield.
As for Columbus, the Crew underwent only cosmetic changes in the summer transfer window. Instead the club’s existing players, including several new acquisitions that joined at the start of the season, have begun to gel as a unit. Guillermo Barros Schelotto finally appears completely comfortable and is having an MVP-caliber season. So too is Alejandro Moreno, who was recently called up to the Venezuelan national team. With Beijing silver medalist Emmanuel Ekpo, Sigi Schmid appears to have a superstar-in-the-making. Ekpo returns to the team this week and is expected to be available for Saturday’s game at Dallas. William Hesmer is in brilliant form and looks to join the growing ranks of great American goalkeepers. If he keeps it up, the 27-year old may find himself on a European club roster before long.
Next month the Crew face a series of tests that could ultimately decide just how successful the team ends up being this season. September is book-ended by a home and away series with New England, with whom Columbus is tied atop the Supporters Shield and Eastern Conference table. A game at Toronto–never an easy place to play–looms Sept. 13, while the resurgent Red Bulls visit Crew Stadium for a national TV game on Thursday night, Sept. 18. American soccer fans may be about to find out just how good this club is.