One gruesome tackle and one beautiful game may have, for better or worse, defined what the race to be the top team in MLS will look like in the coming weeks and months.
New York, Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake came into the season considered the best teams in MLS and have done the work to prove those prognostications true, but with playmaker Javier Morales set to miss four months or more with a broken leg, RSL suddenly finds itself facing a stiff test to keep up with the big spenders from opposite coasts (after starting the season looking like a team ready to run away with the league).
The Galaxy and Red Bulls treated MLS fans to an entertaining and high-quality game on Saturday, arguably the best 90 minutes of soccer contested in MLS this season. It shouldn't have come as a surprise considering the talent on display and the veteran coaches steering both clubs. Each team showed the technical quality and star power that makes them the current leaders in each conference (though LA's lead atop the West has as much to do with RSL only playing six games to the Galaxy's 10).
Morales' injury changes things considerably for RSL, a team that looked like a good bet to win a Supporters' Shield. Real Salt Lake still boasts talent all over the field and still has good depth, but there is no denying that losing Morales will cost RSL points in the standings and gives a slight edge to the Red Bulls and Galaxy as the season progresses.
Neither New York nor Los Angeles will complain, not with the looming CONCACAF Gold Cup set to cost each of team multiple key players. The Red Bulls are especially vulnerable, with as many as five starters (and Juan Agudelo) potentially getting Gold Cup call-ups. The Galaxy stands to lose Landon Donovan and Donovan Ricketts and could potentially lose Omar Gonzalez as well.
That's what made the coming weeks so vital to RSL. While the CONCACAF Champions League finalists are also set to lose Gold Cup players (Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson), Real Salt Lake was poised to really take advantage of its depth and the presence of Morales's playmaking to pull away from New York and Los Angeles in the race for the Supporters' Shield.
Now, RSL must regroup and turn to veteran Andy Williams to lead the way. The problem with relying on Williams too much is that he's 33 and can't handle the same workload that Morales could handle. With Morales in place, Jason Kreis could pick his spots to rest Williams and use a mix of Williams and Ned Grabavoy. Now, Kreis will turn to young midfielder Collen Warner or veteran Arturo Alvarez to pick up the slack. Alvarez is the more well-known commodity, but Warner has the talent to emerge as an impact player and potentially a regular starter.
RSL will be hoping to fair better without Morales than it did against Chivas USA, when a second-half goal from Will Johnson was all Real Salt Lake could muster despite having a two-man advantage for more than 45 minutes. While Chivas USA deserves some credit for holding off the home team, Real Salt Lake really should have done better with such an advantage.
The Red Bulls and Galaxy can both come away from their match with confidence despite settling for a tie. The Galaxy responded well to an early goal allowed and took the game to New York in the second half, while the Red Bulls did very well to leave Home Depot Center with a point despite the absence of standout midfielder Teemu Tainio. Overall, both teams looked sharp and more than capable of taking advantage of RSL's loss of Morales.
Real Salt Lake isn't going to budge from being a Top Three team, not with its stingy defense, standout goalkeeper Nick Rimando, and a host of other attacking pieces in place, but losing Morales very well could keep RSL from running away with the league the way it could have.
If Saturday's Galaxy-Red Bulls match was any indication, the race for the Supporters Shield and the battle between the three top teams in MLS is going to be fun to watch and tightly contested, all season long.
Mondaini facing stiff penalty
Chivas USA striker Marcos Mondaini's leg-breaking tackle on Javier Morales was different than Brian Mullan's bone-breaking tackle on Steve Zakuani. For one, he wasn't responding to a bad call and clearly responding emotionally. He didn't seem to be going in with malice or a hot head. No, Mondaini's tackle looked more like a clumsy and poorly-executed attempt at a tackle, the kind you would expect a forward to fail at delivering.
While all this may be so, Mondaini still faces the prospects of a lengthy suspension. When MLS slapped Mullan with a 10-game suspension, the message was clear and new precedent set. If you deliver an ugly tackle, and injure someone badly, you will pay. Mondaini apparently missed that message when he lunged at Morales from behind and collapsed Morales' ankle from behind.
Now what? Mondaini can't possibly escape with fewer than 6 games or so, but the fact that the Mullan precedent happened so recently makes you wonder if the MLS Disciplinary Committee won't punish Mondaini even further to try and remind players to cut out the bad tackles. Another 10-game suspension wouldn't be out of line, and a 12-game ban wouldn't be all that surprising.
What should MLS do? A year ago the tackle might have merited a three-to-five game ban. In this new era of trying to protect players and eliminate ugly soccer, MLS needs to hit Mondaini with a 10-12 game suspension, or the message it tried to send with Mullan's suspension will be completely wasted.
MLS Player of the Week
After a surprising and rather inexplicable stint on the bench for D.C. United, reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar was finally unleashed by head coach Ben Olsen and responded with a pair of outstanding performances.
Najar helped set up both goals in D.C. United's 2-1 victory against Seattle last Wednesday and was D.C.'s best player in a 0-0 tie vs. FC Dallas (that would have been a D.C. victory if not for an outstanding performance from Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman).
Najar's quickness and sharp passing helped get United's attack going against Seattle and his efforts helped him edge out Toronto FC's Joao Plata and D.C. striker Charlie Davies for this week's honor.
MLS Rookie of the Week
Toronto FC midfielder Joao Plata isn't a rookie by MLS definition (because he played professionally for a season in Ecuador), but we'll give the 2011 fourth-round draft pick the nod anyway for a stellar performance in helping Toronto FC beat Houston, 2-1.
Plata blasted home a penalty kick and delivered a killer assist in TFC's victory and is looking more and more like a real threat capable of playing consistent minutes. He slipped far in the MLS Draft because of concerns about his size (he's 5-foot-5), but Plata is putting those fears to rest.
As far as players actually eligible for MLS Rookie of the Year, rookie defenders A.J. Soares (New England) and Jalil Anibaba (Chicago Fire) performed well in helping their teams post shutouts in scoreless ties on Saturday.
MLS Team of the Week
While no team ran away with the week, D.C. United gets the nod here for its mid-week victory against Seattle and a draw against FC Dallas where D.C. controlled the match. The inclusion of Andy Najar made all the difference, but more importantly the struggling D.C. defense managed to allow just one goal over 180 minutes to recover from a recent awful run.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.