The High Five: MLS progress, the secret to Red Bulls success, Bruce Arena, Didier Drogba and more

1. These are not your father’s MLS reserves

When talking about Major League Soccer’s ongoing march up the ladder of quality, the “easy play” is to examine the burgeoning amount of top-level talent, guys like David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Robbie Keane, etc.  Such gifted men have long trotted up and down MLS fields – just never in such substantial supply as now.

But here’s another sure indicator of forward MLS progress, one at the other end of the star spectrum (and therefore one that’s not as sexy to talk about). This is about the “stars to be” rather than the “stars that are.”

In the last month, multiple clubs have rolled out undeniable evidence that talent factor across all levels is rising fast around MLS. Some seriously young and inexperienced lineups aren’t just appearing around Major League Soccer, they are flat out getting the job done.

FC Dallas, leaders in the academy development initiative, running away for the second consecutive year in MLS leadership of minutes played by homegrown signings, started a league record five home-growns last month in Columbus. Result: one of the signature wins of Oscar Pareja’s two years in charge around Toyota Stadium

The most interesting game around MLS last week – for me personally, that is, and there were plenty to choose from in round of games pancake stacked with emotion and consequence – happened in Kansas City. Peter Vermes, missing two top men and heedful of Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, rolled out a mostly reserve lineup against the league’s hottest team, Seattle. Result: a worthy 1-1 draw (although it took the inspirational introduction of leading scorer Dom Dwyer to finally push one past talented Seattle ‘keeper Stefan Frei).

Los Angeles has moved past CONCACAF Champions League group stage, into next year’s quarterfinals, thanks largely to reserve lineups. (The big names among LA’s attack, Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Gyasi Zardes and Alan Gordon have all stepped in here and there to add a goal or two.)

Here’s the point: These are not your father’s MLS reserve teams. Reserve lineups of yesterday took regular beatings in friendlies and, quite often, couldn’t get the job done in continental tournament play. They might hold their own here or there, but they weren’t returning from Central America with 5-1 wins, a la Bruce’s young men of L.A.  

And they weren’t picking up clean sheets and three points on the road, a la Oscar’s Pareja’s kids. The depth from places 14-24 (or somewhere thereabouts) has improved measurably, and will likely continue to do so.

Here’s what Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said after Sunday’s result, acknowledging the necessity of rest for his starters, but also tipping his hand to something else: “I’ve always said to the guys to ‘trust in me all the time.’ I’ve got to trust in them as well.”

Exactly. But here’s the deal: It’s not blind trust. It’s a lot easier to trust in today’s MLS reserves than in yesterday’s.

2. Secret to Red Bull success … maybe not what you think

There is no question that Jesse Marsch has done a wonderful job with the Red Bulls this season. He’ll be a Coach of the Year finalist, at least.

To rebuild a team without two DPs (Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill), to completely reconfigure a system, doing so with a small budget and then to challenge for Supporters Shield, all that says good things about Marsch’s managerial talents.

Plus, the high-pressing style is just such a hoot to watch!

But sometimes our habits of over-analysis and over-thinking can leave a couple of obvious elements stranded on the sidelines.

So, again, Marsch has his team well-organized and fully bought in to the system, and credit to him. But you know what else has created conference-leading success around Red Bull Arena this year: nothing more than a cursory look at the stats will tell the story.

The most important men around Red Bull Arena have all been available for almost every match. Marsch has been able to roll out his preferred midfield and attack almost every match. While injuries and international call-ups have left other MLS teams short-handed in important areas, the most vital part of Marsch’s plan – the early elements of the team’s high press – have remained intact.

The Red Bulls have played 29 regular season MLS contests. Leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips has been available for every one. So has the underrated Felipe. Leading assist man Sacha Kljestan was suspended for one, but otherwise available for the other 28.

Dax McCarty and all his hustle-bustle, his ball-winning and his linking through the midfield went missing just twice this year. First-choice wingers Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam have missed just four matches between them.

The Red Bulls’ back line remains a weak point, although 20-year-old defender Matt Miazga seems destined for seriously good times. That may eventually limit Marsch’s team in the playoffs. For now, they have the inside track on Supporters Shield. And for the post-season, who knows? After all, it’s all about pressing in high areas for the Red Bulls, and no pair of front lines in MLS has as many combined minutes as New York’s.

3. Top individual MLS stories of 2015? You had ‘em, right?

There are so many great, individual stories in MLS this year, and the best are coming from wholly unexpected places.

In attempting to pick out three top individual tales of MLS 2015, none of us would have made this call in preseason: Giovinco, Cyle Larin and Didier Drogba.

If you raise your hand and say, “I did!” … well, you’re a big ol’ pant-on-fire liar. You didn’t. None of us could have.

Giovinco is quite simply having the best, most high-quality year ever seen in MLS. I wrote more about it here. Some respected colleagues have offered up interesting alternatives, like Carlos Ruiz’s 2002 season, as suggested by MLSSoccer.com’s talented Matthew Doyle. Personally, I would argue that MLS was so different in 2002 that doing prodigious work then just wasn’t the same as now.

Larin probably hasn’t gotten enough pub for his achievement in Orlando. On the one hand, the rookie striker might not have gotten so many minutes if he weren’t on an expansion team, one put brutally through the injury wringer, no less. On the other hand, his oft-injured expansion side isn’t that good, so his rookie record of 14 goals (and counting!) really is an A+ achievement. Consider that Damani Ralph’s previous rookie best of 11 was set way back in 2003.  Most rookie scorers hit that proverbial wall before they get anywhere close.

Finally, there’s Drogba, whose fierce inspiration and playing style is driving Montreal right now. Who knows if the Ivorian legend and recent arrival into tidy Stade Saputo could do this over an entire season? But that hardly matters for 2015; the 37-year-old needs only to be in le beast mode for l'impact over a few weeks.

Well, seven goals in six games certainly qualifies. His pair of strikes last week helped solidify Montreal’s expanding foothold on a playoff spot. (Watch Drogba’s best stuff for Montreal here.)

FYI, Drogba was just selected MLS Player of the Week. For the second time in his short window of league participation in 2015! At this rate, Drogba would pick up the honor almost 20 times over two full seasons.

4. Long, slow golf clap for Bruce Arena – and for American soccer fans

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe I’m just too prejudiced toward soccer, the game I’ve played, studied and loved for 40 years now.

But I honestly believe the soccer demographic is generally a more progressive one. Yes, of course, we have our cretins and nitwits. But generally, American soccer fans are a more accepting, enlightened lot by nature.

I was never, ever more fiercely proud of our soccer supporters than on that February day in 2013 when Robbie Rogers bravely came out. (From my hotel in Phoenix, where I was visiting MLS preseason camps, I wrote that day about my teary regard for our soccer nation here.)

About that same time, the likes of Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario reminded everyone in an ad campaign that MLS was a strictly no-fly zone for bullying, racism, sexism and homophobia. Take that, ye small-minded ninnies!

Along similar lines, I was thinking recently of supporters in Philadelphia, where the sports fans have certainly earned their checkered reputation. Well, that may apply to other sports, but the Sons of Ben have generally been a model of sportsmanship and even statesmanship. They may playfully call themselves the “SoBs,” but they ain’t! Good on ya, guys and gals, and good luck to both participants at PPL Park on Wednesday.

Completing this circle of good supporter cheer, I give you Bruce Arena’s big-hearted words from last week as he talked about Rogers. The LA Galaxy manager was receiving the Spirit of Courage Award during the Courage Campaign Institution’s annual Spirit of Courage Awards.

Go read it for yourself.

Yes, Arena can sometimes be the guy who yells at kids from his lawn; a rather famous curmudgeon, this one. And, yes, he coaches the Galaxy, the closest thing MLS has to a Yankees-esque villain.

But once we wander past all that, it’s hard not to admire the man for the stand he took on Rogers. Of course, he was playing to the right audience, too – our audience of higher enlightenment.

5. The Little Five

5a. Reminder: everyone in MLS is competing for more than playoff spots; CONCACAF Champions League spots remain up for grabs. The US berths (for 2016) go to MLS Cup champs, the Supporters Shield winner, the other conference champion and the U.S. Open Cup winner. If those placements overlap, the berth goes to the club with the next best regular season record.

5b. Without getting too much into referees – there was lots of controversy and teeth grinding in grounds all around from Week 30 – maybe we should just say this: We’re in Round 31 now and, obviously, the intensity has been cranked up to 11 as pretty much every match has playoff implications. The players and coaches have raised their games accordingly; the league’s stable of officials need to raise their game as well. Going forward, they need to approach matches with greater study, attention and intent.

5c. You want unpredictable? Montreal Impact, in managerial chaos a month ago, has not lost in six league matches. D.C. United, cruising toward a possible Supporters Shield a month ago, has not won in six league matches? No one will ever make a living betting MLS matches!

5d. San Jose manager Dominic Kinnear is known for a lot of great things, although having a Stephen Colbert-esque sense of humor isn’t one of them. But give the man his props for this. What he said after Matias Perez Garcia scored a huge goal for the club, then got his second yellow card for removing and waving his shirt in glorious celebration: “I don’t think you can appeal that. I’ve seen video evidence. It’s pretty strong.”

5e. I know everybody wants to see Bob Bradley move up the coaching ladder in Europe. (He’s being mentioned in connection with the Molde position.) That’s fine; generally, I want folks to live the life they want and pursue the goals they want. But I’m just gonna come out and say it: I’d love to see the guy back in MLS. Heck, I wouldn’t even mind if he took a second run at the national team.

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