Matchday 9 is now in the books, and we are now officially at the quarter pole of the 2014 MLS season. There's one standout MVP candidate – Seattle's Clint Dempsey – and a pretty solid chasing group, probably led by New England's Lee Nguyen, who I wrote a bunch about on Saturday.
Chicago's Harrison Shipp probably has as big a lead in the Rookie of the Year race as Dempsey does for MVP despite his team's struggles. Shipp is one of the new breed of young, cultured, "let's try something fun" playmakers in the league, the type of talent who makes neutrals want to turn in even when there's like a 1000 percent chance you're going to end up seeing a draw.
But as fantastic as Shipp has been, he's not the brightest young talent in MLS. For that, we've got to go to the Pacific Northwest:
1. Take Me Home, Boundary Road
Is Kekuta Manneh the most exciting player in the league? I kicked that idea around with Greg Lalas during the weekend.
Here is his response:
Curious about how to measure "excitement."
The unit of energy is the joule (J). The joule has base units of kg·m²/s² = N·m. A joule is defined as the work done or energy required to exert a force of one newton for a distance of one metre.
Somehow, Greg managed to make talking about Manneh not fun. So much for the value of an Ivy League education.
I'm going to offer this instead:
Manneh is simply deadly when he gets into that left channel, and he added his third goal of the season from that spot in Saturday's 3-2 win over San Jose. There's not a defender in the league who can keep up with his first step, and unlike a lot of the league's other quickest players, he combines that first step with superb close control and a rocket of a shot.
He is the real deal, and a virtual lock for a top five spot in this year's 24 Under 24. He may even be No. 1, given his production and potential – since he's just turned 19, his ceiling is higher than just about anyone. Add in the fact that Kenny Miller has officially split, and chances are Manneh will get tons of run.
Kekuta Manneh has scored a goal every 91 minutes this season; the third best rate of any player in MLS with more than one goal. #WhitecapsFC— Ben Jata (@Ben_Jata) May 4, 2014
Manneh still isn't a 90-minute player, since he remains a liability on defense and often has tunnel vision in possession. When the game moves away from his side of the field, he can and will drift away.
But then it comes back to him, and for however long he's around the ball, the game comes to life. He's the kind of player anyone who loves this game would pay to watch.
And if you're a 'Caps fan, you have to hope you get to not just watch him, but to watch him develop. Manneh will no doubt draw European interest sooner rather than later, and Vancouver will have to make a serious effort to hold onto him and provide him with a platform to become the type of elite player his gifts suggest he can be.
2. Mr. Indispensable
We can talk about MVPs and best young player, and all that sort of thing. But the discussion that always sort of enraptures me is "who is the most indispensible player in the league?"
It should basically be called the Ozzie Alonso award, since the Seattle d-mid's endline-to-endline, sideline-to-sideline coverage is both inimitable and built directly into Seattle's game plan. When he's out of the lineup, the Sounders are not only easier to beat – they're simply not the Sounders.
Besler's big, inch-perfect switch started off the sequence on the game-winning goal:
Sporting are always up near the top of the league in total long-balls hit, but they're not aimless, hopeful thumps upfield. The SKC gameplan is to drag you into one half, make you compress, then open you up and attack up the other. When they do it right, and the ball ends up on Besler's foot, those switches are there all day.
It probably won't be as stark as it gets in Seattle when Alonso's not available, but it could be in the same neighborhood.
3. Man in the Middle
There's a brewing problem – a good problem – in New York. The problem is this: Bradley Wright-Phillips keeps scoring, and Thierry Henry is Thierry Henry, and Dax McCarty is indispensible, and the team is very, very good when Péguy Luyindula is McCarty's midfield partner.
So that leaves no obvious spot for Tim Cahill.
I thought it was a mistake to start Cahill on Sunday for the Red Bulls in what ended up being a 1-0 road victory over FC Dallas, because the Australian DP is at his best making the game frenetic. "Frenetic" is not a good look when it's 95 degrees out and the sun is scorching down, as it was in Texas.
Beyond that, New York's spacing is just better when McCarty and Luyindula are paired in central midfield. Luyindula will stay up a little bit higher, taking defenders away and opening up lanes for McCarty to do this:
There are, perhaps, some clues as to the spacing issue when looking at Cahill's Opta Chalkboard events vs. Luyindula's:
Spacing is key for the Red Bulls, who lack a Federico Higuaín-type playmaking genius to unlock compact defenses. Right now the spacing is better when Luyindula's out there, and that's something Mike Petke's going to have to figure out.
A few more points to make...
7. The guys who are supposed to deliver have been delivering. Nguyen, Pedro Morales, Chris Wondolowski, Alvaro Saborio, Vicente Sánchez, Chad Marshall, Wright-Phillips, Obafemi Martins, Graham Zusi, etc. etc. etc. seemingly ad infinitum. Say what you want about the salary cap, but the good teams seem to have figured out how to spend what they've got.
6. Pass of the week? How about this from Martins in Seattle's 2-1 win over Philadelphia:
That single pass cut out six Union defenders. It narrowly edged out THIS brilliance from Higuaín.
5. Chivas TBD are in big trouble after their latest loss, a 4-1 thumping vs. Houston. I can understand struggling in attack given the loss of Tommy McNamara and the fact that Cubo Torres is the only reliable goal threat, but their midfield and defense have been putrid. They basically didn't track Boniek García at all, and were out of the game at halftime.
4. The Colorado Rapids fixed what ailed them last week against Seattle, gumming up the middle against the Galaxy and riding Sánchez's golazo to a 1-0 win. Stefan Ishizaki has given LA some honest work from that No. 10 role, but you've got to wonder if the call for youngster Raul Mendiola comes sooner rather than later.
2. Portland are finally off the schneid thanks to some late heroics from Max Urruti in a 3-2 win over D.C. United. The Timbers still don't look like the 2013 Timbers – they're allowing a ton of possession, and probably more chances than they'd like – but now they have three points to build on, and a hot goalscorer in Gastón Fernández.
One thing to note: Despite Futty Danso's own-goal, they have been much better defending set pieces over the past month.
1. Epic, memorable collapse from the Fire in that 3-2 loss to RSL. The only good news – and for a team that's winless so far into the season, you really do have to kick over some rocks to find any – is that with Shipp and Benji Joya, they've found a midfield combo to ride for the next decade.