XI: The Weekend of August 17th

-The Louis van Gaal era at Old Trafford began with a thud. Manchester United came out flat against Swansea City, and despite a second half surge, the Swans left with a 2-1 win. For United, the loss continues a trend of home defeats begun  under David Moyes, and it will temper expectations that may have been raised after a steamrolling preseason. I still expect United to have a good season under van Gaal, but he himself admits that it usually takes him a couple months to settle at a club.

-At St. James’ Park, the champions survived a tough test from Newcastle and came away with a 2-0 victory. David Silva  opened the scoring thanks to a backheel assist from Edin Dzeko. Newcastle produced several chances in the second half, but finishing eluded them. Sergio Aguero came on as a substitute, and scored in stoppage time to seal the three points for Manchester City. After a weekend of close games, the two-goal margin has City right where they ended last season: atop the table.

-A pair of sides with big question marks hanging over their heads came out with good performances. Southampton faced a trio of former players at Liverpool, and came inches from equalizing late in a 2-1 loss. Crystal Palace, under caretaker manager Keith Millen, went to the Emirates and scored first against Arsenal, but they were done in by a stoppage-time winner from Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal’s North London rivals also benefited from late heroics. Eric Dier scored in stoppage time for Spurs, who won 1-0 at West Ham despite spending much of the game down a man.

-Leicester City began their first Premier League campaign in a decade with something of a triumph: a 2-2 draw against Everton. The Toffees, who finished last season in fifth place, had the lead twice, first because of a beautiful goal by Aiden McGeady. But the home side fought back both times, getting the second equalizer thanks to Chris Wood in the 86th minute.

-This is the second season of the Premier League on NBC, but the first following a World Cup. I’ll be very interested in seeing what ratings for their opening weekend were; last season’s first five matches averaged 442,000 viewers, and I’d expect this year to better that, given that all five games came down to the final minute. Scheduling has worked in their favor; Tim Howard and Everton are on NBC in the late kickoff each of the next two Saturdays. The Toffees face Arsenal this week before facing Chelsea.

-Speaking of NBCSN, I am going to sincerely miss their coverage of Major League Soccer, particularly on these Premier League weekends. NBC and NBCSN offered soccer coverage from 7 AM through 5 PM on Saturday. In addition to being good for viewers, the synergy has been good for MLS. The league’s NBCSN viewership has been significantly higher when following Premier League coverage. This season, that’s the difference between 216,000 and 105,000 viewers per game. MLS won’t have that when Fox and ESPN take over next season.

-Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders got the benefit of the Premier League bump on Saturday, and RSL won the battle of MLS’s two best records. After a 6-0 thrashing of Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal, Seattle couldn’t come up with a comeback in a 2-1 loss. Is there cause for concern in Seattle? That makes three losses in four MLS matches now, all against Western Conference opposition. They still have games in hand on the teams around them, but recent performances are not up to their early-season standard.

-There is a gap, in both points and quality, between the Eastern Conference’s top two clubs and everyone else. Sporting Kansas City made this painfully clear to Toronto FC on Saturday night, with a 4-1 demolition. SKC’s first two goals both came on penalties, with Dom Dwyer picking up his first goals in several games. Soony Saad’s bullet of a goal made it 3-1 and effectively ended the contest. DC United kept pace atop the east with a 4-2 win over Colorado, but it wasn’t as easy as the scoreline would suggest. When Dillon Serna scored perhaps the best goal of the week, it was 1-1 in the 52nd minute. United scored three times in a 20 minute span before Colorado got a consolation goal in stoppage time.

-Perhaps the most surprising result of the MLS weekend was Columbus 4, LA 1. The Crew, who are currently 4th in the east, put in perhaps their best performance of the season in front of a sold-out crowd. Their second goal stood out to me as the best of the bunch, a great piece of attacking movement. Columbus doesn’t sell out often, but they did for what is almost certainly Landon Donovan’s last game at Crew Stadium. The Crew gave Donovan a piece of the net he scored in last September against Mexico. The supporters gave him a ribbing.

-Many people expected FC Dallas to fade as the season went on; that’s been their habit in recent seasons. But they show no signs of meeting those expectations, and on Saturday they trounced San Jose 5-0. 22-year-old Canadian Tesho Akindele scored a hat trick, his first in MLS.  The other three U.S. Open Cup semi-finalists lost their regular season match this weekend, but the scheduling didn’t seem to faze Dallas. The 5-0 defeat is the worst home loss in Earthquakes history, and as they’re in 8th place it seems San Jose may already be looking forward to their new home opening next season.

-The combined impact of the weekend’s MLS results has been to compress the Supporters’ Shield race. RSL and SKC both have 42 points in 24 games. But if they were to win their respective games in hand, LA (34 in 21), DC (40 in 23) and Seattle (41 in 22) could all surpass last year’s MLS Cup finalists.

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