Another week, another round of results proving that parity is to Major League Soccer what voluptuousness is to Kate Upton – maybe not defining, but pretty hard to ignore.
How else to explain the second-year Montreal Impact topping the Eastern Conference standings with a perfect record after four rounds, or the much-maligned Chivas USA traveling from sunny California to windswept Chicago and blitzing the Fire 4-1 to move into second place in the West?
On the other side of the parity coin is the fact that five teams – three of which made the playoffs last year – remain winless so far in 2013. Two of those sides, Chicago and Seattle, are not only winless but also practically goalless, and their fans are starting to worry while their detractors (especially Seattle’s) are starting to gloat.
Following a 1-0 loss to San Jose on Saturday night, the Sounders are 0-2-1, while Chicago dropped to 0-3-1 with their loss to Chivas.
They both found immediate success upon joining this league, they’re both 2012 playoff teams and they’re both struggling early in 2013. How worried should they be?
Let’s take a look.
Both Seattle and Chicago started 2013 with reshuffled defensive corps, but for vastly different reasons. While the Sounders rebuilt their backline in the offseason – trading Jeff Parke to Philadelphia, bringing in veteran Djimi Traoré and promoting youngster DeAndre Yedlin – the Fire scrambled to shore up theirs following a series of recent injuries.
Former German international Arne Friedrich went down with a hamstring problem, and veteran Logan Pause, a midfielder converted to right back during preseason, was lost to a quadriceps strain.
Injuries to backups Steven Kinney and Mike Videira have further unsettled the Fire defense in the early going, resulting in changes to the line in each game so far, and two matches in which they’ve conceded four goals.
Seattle, on the other hand, have conceded just three goals in three games and Traore has slotted in comfortably alongside alongside Jhon Kennedy Hurtado while the 19-year-old Yedlin has played well enough to earn a call-up to the US Under-20 national team.
Missing in Action
Both clubs have contended with other key absences, too. Seattle recently acquired Nigerian international and Premier League veteran Obafemi Martins to pair with US striker Eddie Johnson up top, and no sooner did they complete the move – and get a glimpse of the pair in action during a 1-1 draw with Portland – than both attackers were summoned for international duty.
They both missed Saturday’s match, as did midfielder Mario Martínez, who was called for Honduras’ World Cup qualifier against Mexico.
The Fire were hit even harder by absences: First-choice goalkeeper Sean Johnson was with the US in Colorado, while midfielder Joel Lindpere played for Estonia in a qualifier against the Netherlands and Friedrich, Pause and Dilly Duka all missed the game with injuries.
Bright Side/ Dark Side
Should Chicago fans be more concerned about their team’s lack of offense (one goal in four games), or defense (nine goals conceded)?
The answer is … yes.
Things are bad on both sides of the ball for the Fire, but there have been encouraging signs. They took the game to Chivas for nearly an hour on Sunday night, creating multiple chances.
HIGHLIGHTS: Chivas rout Fire in Chicago
Striker Sherjill MacDonald showed flashes of the effective hold-up play that helped spark the team’s best phase last season, and he assisted on the Patrick Nyarko's goal. Indeed, it was when MacDonald was subbed off in the 68th minute that things went south for Chicago.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Johnson and Lindpere will return for Chicago’s next game, and Friedrich, Pause and Duka are all expected back soon as well.
Seattle are off to the worst start in their five-year history, but their defense – especially goalkeeper Michael Gspurning – hasn’t been the problem. It’s their offense that’s sputtered, scoring just one goal in three games.
That could be chalked up to the loan of striker Fredy Montero, who bagged 13 goals last season, to Millonarios during the offseason. The Sounders haven’t had a chance to properly install his replacement – Martins, who made a 20-minute cameo last week before being called for international duty.
Fans can rightly expect big things from him once he’s settled into an attacking arsenal that also includes Eddie Johnson, Steve Zakuani, Martínez and Mauro Rosales.
Seattle insist that they’re not worried, saying their effort and mood have been good, and that they just need to fine-tune certain elements, such as the final pass in the offensive third.
They also haven’t rolled out their full arsenal for a full 90 yet. Whatever issues the team has had so far, there’s no need for panic in the Emerald City.
As for Chicago, a flood of players will return to their lineup in the coming weeks. The porous defense should get a huge boost from Friedrich and his 82 international appearances, including in two European Championships and two World Cups.
Whether Pause joins the backline or returns to his holding midfield spot to partner with Jeff Larentowicz – a player who has thrived alongside holding midfielders throughout his career – he should improve the Fire’s defensive posture.
Speaking of the midfield, new acquisitions Larentowicz, Lindpere and Duka – all of whom will be available in the next few weeks – are still in get-to-know-you mode. As for the attack, it showed signs of shaking off its early season cobwebs, as MacDonald and Chris Rolfe had their best moments of the young season on Sunday.
MLS has a long history of teams coming from back in the pack to contend at the finish line – from sub-.500 D.C. winning in 1996, to Real Salt Lake in 2009, and slow-starting LA last year. Chicago have not looked good, and of course they could be hit by further injuries, or other complications, but they have a talented roster, and their lopsided goal-difference is somewhat misleading.
There’s no need to panic, but they need to start showing that their recent woes are early-season wrinkles, and not insurmountable problems.