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MLS Grab Bag, Week 5: Your refs are blinder than mine

Friday 30th March 2018

Welcome to the 2018 season’s fifth edition of MLS Grab Bag. Each Friday we’ll review midweek news, preview key weekend matches, and explore other interesting developments.

Throwing a changeup

This week also marks Opening Day for the other Major League (Baseball). Whether or not that’s the reason Major League Soccer decided to kick it into top gear is anyone’s guess, but the league has scheduled a full slate of 11 matches for the first time this campaign.

Of the 23 franchises, only FC Dallas are idle. Ten matches will play out on Saturday. In another swerve to throw off your timing, the 11th is this evening. As the Great Soccer Mom in the Sky would have it, this one is unexpectedly important for an early season game.

Toronto FC v Real Salt Lake

The mercury will dip towards freezing at BMO Field tonight. Normally that wouldn’t bother either team, but TFC need to heat things up on the domestic front unless they want to make a Chelsea-style hash of their title defence.

The Reds are in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. They face Club America on Tuesday evening in a first leg at home. Unfortunately, Greg Vanney’s side can already be accused of focusing too much on that tournament and not enough on MLS. They are already 10 points off the pace in the high-powered Eastern conference. The team has lost their first two games this season and have yet to score in the league. That must change. 

RSL is an ideal opponent against which to turn the tide. Mike Petke is trying to rebuild the side. He’s won one of the club’s three matches to date but has shipped six goals. Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Co must be chomping at the bit.

It pays to have Howard Webb on your side

Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourite referee journeyed stateside last year to supervise Major League Soccer’s VAR program. In January, he took charge of the Professional Referee Organisation, the governing body for all football (soccer) referees in North America. Yesterday, FIFA announced the match officials who would oversee the games in Russia. There were no British representatives, but there are two Americans.

In fact, the US is the only country with more than one. Mark Geiger, who worked the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be involved again. Jair Muraffo, another MLS referee, joins him. PRO members Frank Anderson, Corey Rockwell, and Canadian Joe Fletcher will also make the trip as assistants. After a two-week seminar in Italy in April, FIFA chooses the video-assistant referees from the 36 referees and 63 assistants selected.

If there are no controversial decisions in Premier League matches while the seminar is ongoing, unattended by its officials, English fans will have further cause to be outraged over their snub.

City of Zlatan?

There are 10 Saturday matches in MLS. The most intriguing has to be the first-ever Angelino Derby between Los Angeles Galaxy and LAFC.

The Wings are the league’s shiny new franchise. They are managed by Swansea legend [sic] Bob Bradley. The side features former Arsenal and Real Sociedad star Carlos Vela and precocious 20-year-old Uruguayan Diego Rossi.

The Galaxy are trying to rebound from their worst season in MLS. The squad has been beefed up with Jonathan dos Santos joining brother Giovanni. Combined, los hermanos give the five-time league champions two Mexicans to LAFC’s one. Frenchman Romain Alessandrini, Norwegian Ola Kamara, and Chelsea’s own Ashley Cole also feature for Sigi Schmid, who has been brought back to win a second MLS Cup with the franchise.

The big news, though, has been Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival. The Swede was last week signed to a Transfer Allocation Money deal. TAM is a fund that MLS sides can use to play stars more money than the salary cap permits, but not unlimited Designated Player money. Ibra’s injury concerns allowed for a much cheaper deal than would have otherwise occurred. That is if you call $1.5 million per year cheap.

A wonky knee hasn’t slowed Zlatan down in the PR department. The player took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times to tell Angelinos they were welcome, although it wasn’t exactly clear they had thanked him for coming. He also filmed a promotional spot with a lion and has his own billboard, because those who didn’t thank him for coming must not have been told.

In the buildup to the derby match, Sigi Schmid ‘let it slip’ that Zlatan might make his debut in the contest. If he is healthy, the Galaxy could use him. Their last match was a goalless draw in Vancouver and their rivals have yet to drop a point in their opening two games.

The Dual United

There are three Uniteds in Major League Soccer, same as the Premier League, but Minnesota and Atlanta came into the league together last season. Their mid-March meeting in 2017 previewed their respective seasons. Atlanta overran their namesakes 6-1 at Allianz Field in St Paul. Late in the year, the Loons exacted revenge in a 3-2 victory aided by goalkeeper Kyle Reynish’s red card on the hour and two stoppage-time goals.

This season, the pair are fourth in their respective conferences on six points. Tata Martino’s side is riding a two-match win streak after an embarrassing Opening Day loss to Houston. Adrian Heath’s squad is coming off a woeful performance at Red Bull Arena in which Bradley Wright-Phillips potted a brace for the New Yorkers to complete a 3-0 victory.

History and recent results say Minnesota has punched above its weight while Atlanta is hitting its stride but we’ll still have to wait and see how it plays out when they’re re-United.

The Other Guys

The third match of interest on the day is between Columbus Crew and Vancouver Whitecaps. Carl Robinson’s side come east sitting second in the Western Conference, level on points with Sporting Kansas City, trailing by one in the goal difference column. Gregg Berhalter’s Crew are top in the East based on the alphabet. Their record is identical to Patrick Vieira’s NYCFC but the dictionary is the tiebreaker.

Robinson, who likes to park the bus in his own driveway, let alone when on the road, will be hard put to keep the Crew off the board. The Union managed it in Philadelphia, but this tilt takes place at MAPFRE Stadium. Crew fans may lose their team to Austin, Texas next season, but are going to make every moment count in the interim.

Race for the MLS Cup

Here are the top five favourites to be crowned 2018 Major League Soccer Champion following four weeks’ play:

5. FC Dallas -- It’s still too early for the table to offer a clear picture, but enough has happened I can take a longer view with this power ranking. One fact is the balance of power lies in the Eastern Conference. In the end, however, one team from the Western Conference will be in the MLS Cup Final. Deserved or not, the West has a 50% chance to win it all. Therefore, at least one western team must appear on this list every week. For now, Dallas is that team.

LAFC is also unbeaten and further up the table despite playing one less game. They’ll need to maintain their form to earn a spot here, though. Sporting KC and Vancouver top the table but their collective defensive performances suggest that can’t continue.

Oscar Pareja is one season removed from his Toros contesting Western dominance with LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders. Dallas has scored five and conceded two on the way to a win and two draws. They don’t give opponents much and grind out results. That tends to win titles.

4. Atlanta United -- The sophomore franchise has recovered from a 4-0 shellacking to begin the campaign, cruised through their next two matches, and restored a positive goal difference. That said, they have yet to keep a clean sheet. Goals win games. You know the rest.

3. New York Red Bulls -- Bradley Wright-Phillips is tearing it up in both MLS and the CCL. He’s scored six and assisted on three in the Red Bulls’ opening seven matches in the two competitions. At 33, maintaining that pace is doubtful. Yet, Jesse Marsch has his squad performing at both ends of the pitch. There are still two top teams in New York.

2. Columbus Crew -- I am not going to join the alphabet brigade. Despite losing two key players in attack, the Crew are still too live for most even if they’re closer to the Miami Valley than South Beach and David Beckham. Regardless, they don’t have the pedigree to put them above Patrick Vieira and David Villa in my humble opinion.

1.New York City FC -- Didn’t I just say Patrick Vieira and David Villa?

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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