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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS shows improvement in Week 2.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, March 30, 1999) -- With good crowds in New Jersey, Los Angeles and Kansas City and several very well-played and entertaining matches, Major League Soccer had a much better second weekend than its opening effort.

In Los Angeles more than 27,000 showed up to watch the Galaxy defeat Dallas in a shootout. This was 10,000 more than attended opening night. One explanation for the poor opening night crowd was that many in the Hispanic community are upset over Mauricio Cienfuegos’ unhappiness with his contract. But many Galaxy fans believe the problem was the almost complete lack of advertising by the team in the two weeks before opening night.

In past years, the Galaxy’s prior ownership advertised opening day heavily both in area newspapers and on television. This year the new ownership might have assumed that opening day did not need advertising. Given that most Galaxy crowds are day-of-the-game ticket buyers, without advertising opening day may have caught many by surprise.

In my opinion, the best MLS match so far this year (and thanks to the miracle of satellite TV I have seen them all) was the MetroStars victory over the Columbus Crew. It was played at a good pace and at a high skill level. With a little better finishing the match could have ended about 2-2, but the 1-0 MetroStars victory was a fair result.

What is quite apparent in the early going, is that the "tiering" of MLS continues. The good teams are clearly better than the rest. The Chicago Fire and D.C. United are in the top tier. Who else is?

Based on their first two performances the MetroStars are very much improved, even if on paper they might not appear as strong as last season’s woeful bunch. Maybe coach Bora Milutinovic is a miracle worker. Perhaps we’ll see next weekend when they take on D.C. United.

Dallas has had two good outings, not yet having given up a regulation-time goal. The Burn is definitely improved over last season. Whether they are ready to step up to challenge the Fire is still an open question.

What’s with L.A.? The Galaxy likes to see itself as an offensive juggernaut capable of scoring goals almost at will. Their offense is sputtering badly. The conventional wisdom is wait till Cienfuegos settles in, and Carlos Hermosillo wanders back in after the Mexican season finishes. But there may be deeper problems in L.A.

Kansas City has now lurched from disaster to disaster. I thought its home opener against Chicago was as close to a must-win match as you will ever see this early in a season. Frankly, more than looking bad, the Wizards are looking totally disorganized both on defense and in attack. After repeatedly getting beaten on poorly-executed offside traps, several K.C. defenders in post-game interviews sounded, well, confused.

"We’re supposed to be playing with a sweeper," Wizards’ defender Scott Vermillion told the Kansas City Star. "We have to figure out what system to play, whether offside trap or whatever."

Kansas City’s goalkeeping situation has even gotten more bizarre, if that is possible. Both starter Tony Meola and back-up Chris Snitko have gone down with injuries. K.C. used rookie discovery player Cesar Delgado on opening night in Dallas, but he had a horrendous outing and since has been released. David Winner, already a veteran of several MLS teams, was signed and got the start against Chicago. He can be excused if he thought he was somehow involved in a shootout during regulation time because Chicago repeatedly beat the offside trap forcing him to go one-on-one against attackers running completely free.

The Wizards thought that they might start Tony Latronica in the nets against Chicago. But after having him in Kansas City, they found out he was not available because technically he was still the property of English club Millwall with whom he had trained over the winter. Latronica played last year with the A-League’s Boston Bulldogs and then was loaned to Millwall. The English Football Association had not processed Latronica’s release through FIFA, the world governing body, so the United States Soccer Federation could not give MLS permission to sign him. David Allred from Raleigh was called up as Winner’s backup.

This means that Kansas City has so far had eight goalkeepers in camp, and the MLS season is only in its third week.

Speaking of goalkeepers, I owe an apology to New England player/coach Walter Zenga. I thought inserting himself into the starting lineup was an ego thing. But looking at the way he threw his 36-year-old body around making several sensational saves, including stopping a well struck penalty kick, he is the man -- at least in regulation. But in the future, may I suggest, if coach Zenga thinks a shootout is in the offing, he might think about replacing player Zenga with Jeff Causey. Against Miami, Zenga showed he still hasn’t a clue how to play the shootout, and looks completely befuddled.

The inequality of the shootout continues. Colorado has played two very strong matches on the road, in Los Angeles and in San Jose. But after losing two shootouts, the Rapids are without a point in the standings. Likewise, Dallas deserves to have come away from the Rose Bowl with something to show for shutting out the Galaxy in regulation. But the Burn does not.

Finally, I thought the most heartening story of the second weekend of MLS was Diego Gutierrez’s return to Kansas City with the Fire. The defensive midfielder who grew up in Kansas City and played college soccer locally at Rockhurst College, started his pro career with the Wizards in their opening season of 1996. He had emerged as their starting left back by the end of his rookie season.

Then during the 1997 preseason, Gutierrez tore up a knee and missed the whole season. He was still on injured reserve when the expansion draft occurred between the 1997 and 1998 seasons. To this day, Kansas City coach Ron Newman says that Gutierrez was left unprotected in the draft because of confusion over his injured reserve status. But he was grabbed up by the Fire even though they knew he might be fit for the entire 1998 season.

Chicago coach Bob Bradley’s gamble has paid off. Gutierrez has worked himself back into fitness and his presence as a defensive midfielder frees Chris Armas up to push forward. No one was happier at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night than Diego Gutierrez.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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