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May 4, 2009

Toronto's home-field advantage proving to be a myth

Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are 10 things I found lying around:

1. A little research goes a long way: Here's a note for bloggers, journalists, TV announcers or fans bent on dropping little nuggets of knowledge at soccer-friendly happy hours. It sounds very dramatic and all to repeat this clichéd ditty about "fortress" BMO Field and how it's such a bugger of place to play, etc.

To hear people talk about it, you'd think poisonous snakes menaced the visitors' locker room and skilled snipers were placed strategically at elevated positions about the grounds. What out-of-towner would dare trespass?

Problem is, it's not true. This little kernel is brought to you by folks who haven't done their homework and instead fall back on platitudes and assumptions. Yes, TFC attendance is a tremendous success story. And yes, the grounds at Exhibition Place teem with a brilliant atmosphere.

But all that pomp and circumstance makes BMO a place that players, both hosts and travelers, crave and enjoy. They covet and feed off the energy.

As for BMO's being a tough place to take points: TFC is 13-10-12 all time there, a home record that is below-average in MLS. Columbus' 1-1 weekend draw added to the body of evidence.

2. Crushing the Revolution: The weekend's most shocking display came out of Gillette Stadium, where things are going sideways in a hurry. Suffice to say a 2-0 loss at home was hardly the response anyone expected from Steve Nicol's team.

Eight times during the previous two seasons, the Revs had lost by big scores (3-0 or 4-0). But the Revs responded each time, going 7-0-1 in their next matches. Not this past Sunday, however, as the home team collapsed in a shockingly meek heap a week after falling 6-0.

Commanding the midfield, Houston had a 2-0 lead well into the second half before New England even took a shot. In fact, the Revs matched an all-time club low with just three shots the entire match.

So, is the breakdown due merely to injury, as players such as Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman and Chris Albright missed another contest Sunday? (Matt Reis' return in goal didn't help, as his schoolboy boo-boo gifted Houston its first goal.) Or is the failure to properly replace Clint Dempsey, Andy Dorman, Michael Parkhurst and others finally catching up to a chintzy organization?

3. One to remember: Seattle and Chicago gave fans at Toyota Park their money's worth Saturday. A proper stadium, tactical adjustments on both sides based on score shifts and Fredy Montero's ejection, Cuauhtemoc Blanco's stylish passing, other big league individual performances and a good spirit overall made it the weekend's top match, easily.

4. And one to forget: For those who suffered through a historically tedious Los Angeles-Red Bull match, well, that was 90 minutes of life they'll never get back. It was such a snoozer, I thought about setting myself on fire just to have something to think about. It featured six total shots in the first 80 minutes before a late "flurry" ginned up the combined final total to nine, which still matched an all-time league low.

5. Men of the moment: Big outings from Seattle center back Tyrone Marshall and midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, Columbus winger Emmanuel Ekpo, Chicago right back Tim Ward (although he lost his man on Seattle's goal) and teammate Blanco, Chivas USA goalkeeper Zach Thornton, D.C. United two-goal scorer Jaime Moreno and all four members of Houston's diligent midfield highlighted the weekend performances.

6. Read the memo: Jeopardy is rising for disorderly conduct as referees mete out harsher punishment in some areas this year. Last week's official U.S. Soccer referee review focused attention on contact above the shoulder. So, presumably, teams made their players aware of the increased focus on enforcement in this area, right? Well, Seattle's Montero didn't get the memo; he was sent off for an elbow to Gonzalo Segares' head.

Along the same lines, maybe it's time for MLS defenders to put their hands down. We've seen penalty kicks called three times this year when defenders from Dallas, Toronto and, this past weekend, New York, had their hands waving about inside the penalty area at inopportune times. We can argue about "ball to hand" or about whether the arms were in natural positions, etc. Regardless, for all their blemishes, MLS officials are calling this one pretty consistently in 2009. Players, you've been warned.

MLS Game of the Week
Saturday
Dallas at Houston
Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

7. Bailing on Ballouchy: A feisty and productive Nick LaBrocca replaced the ineffective Mehdi Ballouchy in Colorado's midfield for his team's 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. The only question is, why in the world did it take so long? Ballouchy, the No. 2 pick of the 2006 draft and an attacking specialist, has four goals and nine assists in 81 career matches, the kind of flimsy production that strangles the life of managerial careers.

8. Tough way to play: Two sides, Dallas and New York, attempted to make the 4-5-1 work this past weekend. Both lost, which isn't exactly shocking. It's a difficult way to play because it requires a special player up top, one with skill, tenacity and loads of patience.

Dallas' Kenny Cooper just isn't that kind of player, although the Red Stripes managed to create some offense against D.C. United. New York's Juan Pablo Angel can do the job, but he had so little support in terms of creativity around him that it didn't matter. The Red Bulls fell to L.A. with little resistance.

9. Is there a way out? In the bigger picture, Dallas and New York have similar conundrums and similar difficulty ahead in mapping a way out of the woods. Both organizations have suffered because of coaching and personnel flux, and both beg for organizational stability. Each needs a plan and needs to stick to it.

So do they stay the course with managers who have yet to prove they can identify capable talent? Or will they soon begin to consider other options and hit the restart button yet again?

10. L'affaire du Carver: Why do I get the feeling that if we poke around at the soft underbelly of this John Carver comeuppance at TFC, more interesting stuff may come oozing out?

The peculiar accusations that MLS officials forced the Reds' former manager to be on the field during matches didn't pass the smell test. Sure enough, TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston later revealed that club management, not league headquarters, had butted in on where Carver had placed his rear end.

Just days before Carver's stunning resignation, Johnston said during an in-game TV interview, "Everything is looking rosy, we just have to pick up some points." Really? Did he not know that things weren't "rosy," or was that just spin meant for distraction? FYI: TFC, barely into its third season, already has deployed 62 players and is playing for its third manager. All beg the question: Has a cogent plan ever been in place at BMO?

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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