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MLS Weekend Review

Red Cards, Brek Shea, and Rocky Mountain Soccer

Orlando City, Colorado, and Real Salt Lake continue to play well in the early stages of the 2016 MLS season, but red card-happy referees are outperforming every team in the league.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 06, 2016
10:15 AM

WEEK FIVE of the MLS season is in the books and—hey, who needs Wrestlemania when you have soccer like this? Players are being sent off in unprecedented numbers as referee decisions dominate the headlines and the boxscores.

Many teams are still in early-season form, but there has to be serious concern for the New York Red Bulls—a team that cannot score and is paper-thin along the backline. 

Here are my thoughts from the weekend. 

Code Red

After three more red cards over the weekend, a total of 16 players have been dismissed from the first 41 games of the MLS season. In addition, a total of 15 penalty kicks have been awarded.

An optimist will see this as an attempt to reduce violent physical play, a development that should eventually lead to better soccer. A cynic will suggest that the referees are making themselves the stars of the contests—at the expense of the players. 

If all the red cards were clearly justified, this pattern would be easier to deal with. But many have been suspect. The dismissal of Red Bulls midfielder Felipe Martins on Friday, for example, was a bad decision from Mark Geiger (who else?). The 15 penalties have doubled the referees’ already enormous impact on the outcomes of games.

At the current pace, MLS refs would hand out 133 this season. In 2015, they administered 90.

The best-case scenario is that the rate sharply declines in the months ahead due to an adaptive decline in reckless challenges. Right now, it’s a huge mess and a black eye on the league.

Orlando leads East after one month

After an off-season plagued by confusion and front office turmoil, few expected Orlando City to start the 2016 season on the upswing. But this is, after all, MLS—where predictions are about as reliable as lottery results.

Orlando City, which just missed out on the playoffs in its expansion year, has been the class of the Eastern Conference. It. Through four games it has improved dramatically on the defensive end, while its offense is looking unstoppable with Kaka on the field.

The 4-1 win over Portland on Sunday night was probably the best performance by any MLS team this season. Brek Shea’s goal was stunning, and Kaka was clearly enjoying himself on the field as he worked his magic.

“I thought we thoroughly deserved it,” Coach Adrian Heath said. “Some of our play, at times, was exceptional. We scored some great goals. We had big performances from a lot of players. As I said to the players after the game: if we believe in what we're trying to do and we play with that same intensity, then in this place certainly, with our supporters behind us, it's a pretty formidable force to deal with. It was a perfect storm with the crowd as well.”

Rapids, Real Salt Lake surprise

Orlando City's early success qualifies as a surprise, but Colorado and Salt Lake City are turning heads around the league. 

The Rapids were widely expected to be the worst team in the league, with many in the media, including yours truly, expressing serious skepticism over Pablo Mastroeni’s handling of the team. There's still a long way to go but through four games Colorado has posted wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy and, on Saturday, Toronto FC. The Rapids may not be pretty to watch, but so far the team is effective.

All is not well in Colorado: The Rapids have scored just three goals in four games and has struggled to create chances. The addition of Tim Howard, moreover, is a colossal waste of resources that doesn’t address the team’s weaknesses. That said, the team has been playing hard this year, which is a welcome sight; when Jermaine Jones’s suspension ends this month, the team could really build on its fast start.

Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, won Saturday in Sporting Kansas City, one of the most difficult places to play in MLS, to remain undefeated through four games. 

“I'm extremely pleased with the way our team handled themselves out there against a very good team,” Cassar said Saturday. “We talked about punishing them on the opportunities that we got. I thought we did that and we still probably could have scored a couple more, but, for this group of guys, I'm really happy.”

With Colorado and Real Salt Lake both suddenly giving soccer fans in the Rocky Mountains reason for optimism, it’s only fitting the two will be playing each other Saturday night.

Red Bulls’ offense disappoints

Friday’s Revolution-Red Bulls game brought out the worst in refereeing so far this season. On the game’s only goal, Red Bull defender Kemar Lawrence was injured and the Revolution elected to play on, take advantage of the numbers, and score. Later, Felipe Martins was sent off on a terrible decision by Geiger, leaving the Red Bulls down a player for most of the second half.

 The Red Bulls have a right to be angry, but the players and Marsch need to look in the mirror before they lash out. Last year, the Red Bulls led the league in scoring; this year they’ve been shut out in three of four games.

Even more worrisome, Marsch said afterward that he was happy with New York’s performance.

“Our team played great,” he said. “We had fight. Our team stuck together, had confidence even with a man down, played quite well to one of the better teams.”

And then continued to focus on all the wrong things.

“You know, it's shameful for me. The game is supposed to have honor, and they can claim that they didn't see them, they can claim that they weren't sure that he wasn't hurt,” Marsch said. “It was clear as day that he was down on the ground and not just one player saw him, the whole team saw him, so that part for me is shameful. The other part is that the referee had such a huge impact on this game by having a bad performance. For me, he can blow the whistle when a guy is down like that. He can give a red card to Bradley Wright-Phillips when he is on a breakaway and he gets pushed and shoved from behind that prevents him from getting a clear shot. Could be a red-card penalty. How does that affect the game?”

Here’s how it would have affected the game if the Red Bulls had been scoring at their 2015 rate: not at all.

Columbus vs. Dallas: MLS Cup preview?

The biggest game of the weekend was the FC Dallas-Columbus game, and even without Mauro Diaz, it lived up to expectations. It was an open game that featured end-to-end action, very good chances, and quality goalkeeping. The final, a 1-1 draw, was fair to both teams.

Columbus has had a poor start to the season but should be back on track sooner rather than later. For now, FC Dallas is still the team to beat, despite a shocking 5-0 loss to Houston in Week 2.

As in most leagues, MLS games tend to improve in quality as the season moves along. This was one of the stronger early-season games, even if the Frisco attendance of 13,174 for a game of this magnitude was a bit of a letdown.

“When we look back on this point, it will be a good point. Dallas is a good team,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said afterward. “Having said that, the guys feel we gave away two points. We feel like we should have scored multiple goals. We should have won the game, but that's soccer. We're not complaining. That's the game of soccer, and we did reasonably well to create some very good goal-scoring opportunities. Some of the ball movement was pretty good, and we're going to keep improving.”

If they do, don’t be surprised to see a rematch between these two sides in December—in MLS Cup.

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