The Portland Timbers have earned a reputation as road warriors in Major League Soccer. They rolled through a series of difficult challenges on the road on the way to last year's MLS Cup title, so when they arrived at the Citrus Bowl on Sunday to take on an Orlando City side that had managed just two draws in its previous home games, the Timbers had to like their chances of leaving Florida with a point or three.
Kaka had other plans, as did his Orlando City teammates, who put on a display that sent the clearest message yet that this second-year team is ready to be a force in 2016.
Kaka made his first appearance of the year and provided a strong reminder that he is still one of the best playmakers in MLS, scoring a goal and setting up two others in a 4-1 rout of the Timbers that leaves Orlando in first place in the Eastern Conference, and one of just two unbeaten teams remaining in the league (Real Salt Lake being the other).
"I'm delighted the captain was back and played like he did, because he just led from the front and you could see what we missed the last couple of games," Orlando coach Adrian Heath said.
“It’s amazing we’re on top of the league and conference today and it gives us a lot of confidence," Kaka added after the match. "It gives us confidence for the next game and three more points.”
Sunday's win wasn't Orlando's first of the year, but it was easily the team's most complete performance to date. The Lions outplayed the Timbers in all facets, perhaps most surprisingly in midfield, where Kaka caused all sorts of problems, and the tandem of Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita helped keep Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe quiet for most of the night.
It is that Orlando midfield, with Kaka leading it, that has the Lions looking so dangerous. Consider that Heath didn't even use Italian midfielder Antonio Nocerino while Brazilian forward Julio Baptista was introduced before the match and has yet to make his debut. Both high-profile additions are sure to play key roles this season and should give the team the depth it lacked last year, when injuries helped keep the then-expansion team from reaching the playoffs.
Two of the players who suffered through injuries in 2015 were among the best performers for Orlando on Sunday. Brek Shea impressed from his left back spot while Kevin Molino played a part in two goals from his right wing role. The tandem, with their speed and shiftiness, help make Orlando a team that can beat you on the flanks as well as through the middle.
It also showed Orlando's versatility that it could post a 4-1 victory without star forward Cyle Larin having a major impact on the match. Though it was the first game of 2016 Larin didn't score a goal, with the forward leaving after 24 minutes with an injury, that didn't stop Orlando from coasting to victory.
As for the Timbers, it was a night to forget. The back four simply didn't have good chemistry, and newcomer Jack Barmby struggled badly in his debut at left back. The Portland midfield didn't fair much better, with the normally reliable Diego Chara failing to keep up with Kaka while Valeri and Nagbe struggled to make a mark.
"I didn’t think the performance was in line with what these guys are capable of and they know it," Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. "It’s not just the attack or the defending, it’s both sides of the ball."
The Timbers aren't likely to panic over a slow start to the season, nor should they. But with matches coming up against the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas, the defending champions could watch a slow start turn into a serious slump if Porter can't get his squad to recapture its title-winning form.
As for Orlando City, the coming weeks will offer some good tests from the other playoff contenders in the East, including multiple meetings with Philadelphia, New England and the New York Red Bulls in a one-month span. With Kaka back in the fold, Orlando can be one of the better teams in the league.
"If we believe in what we're trying to do, and we play with that same intensity, certainly in this place, with our supporters behind us, it's a pretty formidable force to deal with," Heath said.
SOUNDERS TURN TO BENCH TO HELP SNAP SKID
Clint Dempsey grabbed the headlines for scoring the winning goal in the Seattle Sounders' 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact, but Seattle's first win of the MLS season was about much more than a star player making a game-winning play.
Sigi Schmid turned to his bench Saturday, and youngsters Dylan Remick and Aaron Kovar stepped up to help contain a dangerous Montreal attack, as well as win the battle in midfield with the help of some tactical shifting.
Schmid slid Dempsey into a central role, moving Andreas Ivanschitz over to the left side where Dempsey had been playing in the season's early matches.
"We wanted to put (Dempsey) in a spot on the field — we think he's our most creative player — and give him a chance to get the ball, get touches and create things for us," said Schmid, who also pointed to his team's ability to contain the left side of Montreal's attack with preserving the victory.
"I thought [Christian] Roldan and [Osvaldo] Alonso and [Tyrone] Mears did a pretty good job over there," Schmid said. "I didn't think [Ignacio] Piatti really got any chances to run at our team, which was important."
Dempsey's move into the middle didn't exactly help open the floodgates for scoring chances, but it did allow Schmid to get more minutes out of the U.S. national team star, who just played in Tuesday's U.S. win against Guatemala. With his energy preserved, Dempsey had enough left in the tank to get up to head home the winning goal in the 79th minute, which eventually gave Seattle its first win and removed the Sounders as the only team without a point this season.
Scoring chances were still tough to come by for the Sounders, who mustered just three shots on goal — all by Dempsey — but for a team coping with the loss of Obafemi Martins and still searching for an attacking replacement, that is to be expected, particularly against a tough defensive team like Montreal.
Scoring more goals is an issue the Sounders will need to address eventually, but Schmid will come away happy with how his team managed to post its first shutout of the season, and beat a good team in a match that the Sounders will be hoping sparks some momentum.
"It was good to see us hold it together, not give up any real clean chances towards the end, and be able to manage a game through," Schmid said.
RASH OF RED CARDS AS MUCH ABOUT PLAYERS AS ABOUT REFS
Major League Soccer has a red-card problem. Or is it a red-card foul problem?
If you listen to MLS coaches and players, the rash of early-season red cards is the fault of MLS referees who are calling things too tightly, following league mandates to clean up potentially dangerous tackles by establishing a virtual zero-tolerance policy for studs-up challenges.
MLS teams were made aware of the league's increased emphasis on punishing harsh tackles before the season began, but it doesn't really appear as though players have bothered to adjust. As a result, we have seen 16 red cards issued through the first five weeks of the season, a rate that has the league on pace for an almost 50 percent increase in red cards.
The rash of red cards led LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena to address it after his team's 0-0 tie with the Vancouver Whitecaps, in a match that saw Whitecaps midfielder Matias Laba draw a controversial red card.
"There're just been too many red cards in this league. It’s ruining games; it doesn’t make the games entertaining, and I don’t think the fans like it," Arena said. "I know about the players but, it seems like every game in this league there’s a red card now."
Have there been highly questionable red cards? For sure, but of the 16 issued so far, many more of them were legitimate calls than blown calls. You could make a reasonable argument for all but two or three of the 16, which leads you to wonder whether it's MLS referees who should be reconsidering their frequency of red cards, or whether it should be players who adjust.
If the MLS red card trend and the cause for it sounds familiar, it could be because the league experienced a very similar trend back in 2009, when 16 red cards were issued in 31 league matches in April of that year. That trend led to outcries very similar to the ones taking place now but it didn't last, and players and officials eventually adjusted and red card frequency went back to more normal levels.
The focus of the red cards was different in 2009, with officials targeting plays that could be deemed a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, as well as handballs in the penalty area. Seven years later, the league's focus is on reducing the number of studs-up tackles being delivered, and dangerous plays in general.
Not everyone sees the mandate working out.
"I understand what MLS is trying to do by protecting the players, but right now we’re trying to take tackling out of the game,” Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted said. “That’s not going to purify the game. It’s not going to make it any prettier to look at, and it’s especially not going to evolve this league. I think it ruins games more than it benefits the players."
The current high rate of red cards is a cause for concern, but to suggest it's purely an issue that referees need to fix is misguided. Players need to do their part to clean up their challenges. The notion that MLS doesn't want tackling in the league anymore is absurd. What MLS shouldn't want is clumsy or reckless challenges, and as much as some of the red card issues this season have been highly suspect, many more have been spot-on calls that will hopefully serve as deterrents to bad and dangerous tackles.
THE BEST OF MLS WEEK 5
Player of the Week: Kaka. The Brazilian star made a dramatic return for Orlando City, scoring a goal and assisting on two more in his first match of the season.
Team of the Week: Real Salt Lake. Jeff Cassar's team wins the battle of unbeatens against Sporting Kansas City, earning a very impressive road win in the process.
Rookie of the Week: Jonathan Campbell. The Chicago Fire defender turned in another strong showing in central defense, helping the Fire post a shutout in a 1-0 victory against the Philadelphia Union.
Goal of the Week: Brek Shea. His left-footed curler capped off a sharp give-and-go with Kaka with a beautiful finish.
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