While we are only into week six of Major League Soccer's 2012 regular season, there are more surprise stories in the early going than we might have expected. I can't say that I'm surprised that Sporting Kansas City is in first place in the Eastern Conference, and that Toronto is in last. However, it's shocking to note that the defending champion LA Galaxy aren't even the best team in LA at the moment, as they sit at the basement of their conference standings. Let's look at some of the surprises.
Sporting Kansas City
A first place team a year ago, KC made some subtle moves during the offseason to try to improve themselves. However, their improvement comes more from the play of their returnees than their newcomers. Midfielder Graham Zusi is becoming a star in just his second year as an every game starter. His five assists lead the league. Kei Kamara and second year pro C.J. Sapong lead the team with three goals each, accounting for six of SKC's eight goals. Defense, though, is the big story with four shutouts in five games, with goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen allowing just one goal. They have the game to watch on Saturday when they take on the Western Conference leaders Real Salt Lake at home. While it's not a surprise that they are in first place, no one could have or would have predicted a 5-0-0 start.
When will they ever learn? A team that allowed 59 goals against in 2011 (most in MLS) set out to improve themselves defensively. So far in 2012, they have given up nine goals in four games, all losses. There is no quick fix in sight with Torsten Frings still on the injured list. In their most recent match, the Impact downed Toronto 2-1 on the weekend.
I watched Toronto FC in four CONCACAF Champions League games where they played much better than in their MLS campaign. However, their whole effort went south once Frings suffered his injury. With three Designated Players on their roster, it will be interesting to see if and how this struggling team can make changes to their squad.
Without a doubt, this is the biggest surprise story in MLS. Not only are they the defending champions with pretty much everyone back, but they were also the preseason heavy favorite to repeat as MLS Cup champion. I was among those who picked them for first in the West, and it's far too early to back off of that statement. But as this time, the team is struggling mightily, and to me far too much attention has been given to the Omar Gonzalez injury as the main reason for LA's problems. While Omar was the 2011 Defender of the Year, his absence isn't the main reason why LA is 1-3-0 with a -3 goal differential.
As for reasons why LA is struggling, LA's early schedule was brutal in that the veteran club had to play four games in 12 nights at the start of the season. How could they be ready for this when Edson Buddle signed late and Juninho was re-acquired so close to the start of the season? Add in those loan deals where Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane missed a good part of the Galaxy preseason. There were only a small handful of training sessions where the entire team was together. Losing to Toronto FC also hurt the Galaxy mentally. They had thought they had a chance to win this tournament and to play against the big clubs in the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup. Instead, they bow out to underdog Toronto by losing their home leg of the quarterfinals.
There's no doubt they miss Gonzalez. Head coach Bruce Arena has tried veteran Andrew Boyens there and rookie Tommy Meyer. On Tuesday, he added another player to the central defender mix by dealing Paolo Cardoza to neighboring Chivas USA for David Junior Lopes. Lopes will be available for selection when the Galaxy host Portland on Saturday.
Here are two good stories around MLS:
Thierry Henry has become the first player in MLS history to be named MLS Player of the Week for three consecutive weeks. His seven goals and four assists are impressive enough at face value, but now let's go deeper. In Saturday's win vs. Columbus, Henry assisted on the game's first goal, then scored two others. One of those put the game away, late in the first half. He also played the full 90, firing seven shots, four of which were on target. His mere presence on the field gives more room to Kenny Cooper, who also had a two goal game on Saturday. Playing up top with Henry is a major factor in Cooper scoring six goals already in this MLS season. The Red Bulls have won three straight games, mostly because of their offense, which leads MLS with 14 goals.
Chris Wondolowski continues to be a star for surprising San Jose, who are in second place out west. Wondo, coming off two terrific goal scoring seasons, already has six goals in five games for the Quakes, scoring all but two of their eight goals. Three of his six goals have been game-winners. The Quakes made many roster moves during the offseason and everyone knew they would be improved. But did they improve enough to be a top five team and make the playoffs? Too early to answer that one. If Chris Wondolowski and Jon Busch have their typical seasons, surely a playoff spot is a good possibility. San Jose is at New York on Saturday for a matchup of two of the league's best scorers in Henry and Wondolowski.
We'll see how this two-week break has affected the Union as they face the Columbus Crew on Saturday at PPL. The Union are coming off of their first point and first shutout in that 0-0 result vs. Vancouver on the last day of March. The biggest questions are still on the offensive side of the ball. How productive will Lionard Pajoy become in MLS, and who will emerge alongside the Colombian? The Union certainly have young, talented strikers, but who will become a reliable option this year? Maybe we'll get some answers on Saturday. I'll take a closer look at that game later this week.