US Soccer Player MLS writers Justin Shaffer, Dario Camacho, and Tony Edwards debate the first month of the season, NBC Sports Channel's coverage of the League, and the situation in Southern California.
What has surprised you the most so far this season?
Dario Camacho: Toronto. Say what you will about their current problems, but by year's end last year it looked like they had turned the corner. Having Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans seemed like hope for a better 2012.
Five straight losses and they look even worse than in 2011. Losing Frings so early in the season and bowing out of the CCL has placed a heavy burden on Aron Winter. If May doesn't improve anything from the fiasco that was March and April, Winter might be looking for work elsewhere by June.
Justin Shaffer: San Jose sitting in second place in the West and third in the combined table. But a deeper look shows that’s a little misleading. Their early schedule has been relatively weak and, aside from a fluke win against an injury-depleted Seattle, they really haven’t beaten a good team yet. They’ll get a real test against Real Salt Lake at home this weekend, but then get Philadelphia, DC United, Vancouver, Chivas USA, and Columbus. These are five winnable games and the Earthquakes will need all the points they can get. Starting May 23rd, they’ll face LA, Sporting KC, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, and LA again. Anything more than three points from those five matches will be a success and seven points might be a best-case scenario.
Tony Edwards: I thought Portland was going to be better. I'm surprised that Chivas is where they are, but then it's not a stretch to say Robin Fraser was well-thought of when he took the Chivas opportunity. I think Philadelphia and the rest of the East deserves their own Discussion Topic, there's so much wrong there.
What's going on in Southern California? Does Robin Fraser have Chivas on the right track? Is the Galaxy back to being the class of the West?
Camacho: Chivas USA is always an anomaly. What are you going to get each week is a surprise to everyone. Yet, with three road wins you wonder if they play better as true underdogs rather than playing in front of fans (the ones that show up at least). If there was ever a team that deserves better it's Chivas USA. They always get my sentimental vote of approval.
Edwards: Fraser is taking the classic, build-from-the-back, make-them-tough-to-play-against approach. It might work, given time, but it's not going to sell a lot of tickets this year. It is only fair to acknowledge that if any team needed a 'culture change.' it's the team that wears Guadalajara's crest on its shirt.
Camacho: Frasier needs consistent performances from his players, yet it's always a mixed bag. They did beat RSL and they did win at Portland in that tough environment so there is something there. Bringing in Ryan Smith to open up the left was a great pick up. They just need a strong central forward to actually take advantage of Smith's crosses.
Shaffer: Chivas hasn’t really looked much better than last year. They’re looking like they’ll again sit at the bottom of the middle tier in the West, just above the truly bad teams.
Edwards: What about the Galaxy?
Camacho: They probably need a switch in tactics. No Omar Gonzalez means you can't rely on your defense. They should be a power offense with Donovan, Buddle, and Keane.
Justin: LA next four games should give us a clearer indication of how they match-up against the better teams in the league, with home games against New York and FC Dallas and road games at Seattle and Colorado. LA’s early schedule is loaded with difficult match-ups, but they’ll get opportunities to pad their record against the lesser competition in the league as the season wears on. Dropping points at home to teams like New England isn’t going to get them where they need to be though.
Edwards: As Justin alludes, the League's schedule is long and forgiving for good teams. Give Arena a few more weeks to work out the backline and the Galaxy will still end up first in the West when the regular season is over.
After adding Montreal, the biggest change of the offseason was MLS' contract with the NBC Sports Channel. How have these early broadcasts been received?
Camacho: NBC Sports Channel's coverage has been great. That energy and production value has carried over from the first game they broadcast. Yet, MLS has to figure out a flexible TV schedule with NBC. The most hyped game to date this year wasn't even available for all to see (RSL vs SKC). It's a shame. MLS has to have better flexibility in order to put its best foot forward week in and week out.
Shaffer: Yet what NBC has created as far as its production values has been impressive and consistent.
I truly enjoy listening to Arlo White and Kyle Martino call games together. White’s focus and quality on the play by play is an all too rare treat in what must surely be the worst era in sports broadcasting. As the televisions and broadcast qualities have improved over the past few decades, the on-air personalities have surely regressed. Martino is the rare color commentator who doesn’t have to hear himself speak at every opportunity. His unique perch on the sidelines has offered an interesting and helpful perspective on the game and has been so well integrated into the broadcast that the viewer wouldn’t have any idea he wasn’t in the booth if it wasn’t mentioned periodically by White. NBC Sports probably mikes the supporters groups more than any other soccer broadcast I’ve watched.
Edwards: I'm not as sold on Arlo White as you, and some friends whose opinions I rate highly, are, but I will agree on the production values and mic-ing of the supporters groups. Watching a game from Kansas City is a great experience, and who of us thought we'd ever say that.