Of the 11 MLS crowds that have passed 60,000 people, the Seattle Sounders have hosted six. Sunday brought the latest as a derby with Portland, positioned as a post-World Cup showcase, drew 64,207 to CenturyLink Field.
Between that rivalry, the atmosphere, and the returns of Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, MLS gave ESPN its best chance to convert some of the network's prodigious World Cup audience.
Both stars were in the Sounders lineup for the teams' second meeting in five days. If any of the players felt any lingering effects from Wednesday's 120 minutes in the US Open Cup, they were not apparent early on as a combative battle in midfield led to multiple collisions between Osvaldo Alonso and Will Johnson. The friction produced a stalemate at halftime, with Portland having registered the only shot on goal.
Though Caleb Porter seemed satisfied with his team's performance, Portland have slowly slipped toward the bottom of the West. Coming into the game, the Timbers sat eighth. Though a point in Seattle would be satisfactory, wins are becoming more imperative for the Timbers, whose West-worst defense was facing one of the league's best attacks.
In Sunday's second half, that poor defending returned, with Portland's midfield offering little resistance to a Seattle team that finished the match with 10 shots on goal. With Marco Pappa playing in from the wing, Seattle were able to balance Portland's numerical edge in the middle, swinging the game in their favor.
In that light, it was apt that a Timbers midfielder was at fault for the breakthrough goal. Johnson, who has described his team as at times having "the heart of a lion but the brain of a goldfish", was late leaving his post after a 71st-minute corner, allowing an unmarked Dempsey to score from four yards out.
Pappa's standout performance was rewarded late, the Guatemalan international scoring four minutes from time, yet the game still served as a microcosm for each team's season. For Portland, the main problems have hopefully been addressed with the signing of the former West Brom defender Liam Ridgewell. Conceding 32 times in 19 games, the team just can't prevent goals.
For Seattle, the 2-0 result completed a mini double, having downed the Timbers four days before. The hallmarks were as they have been most of the year: a strong second half; timely play from the stars; and three points on the board. Seattle are now 10 clear in the West. RF
The King never left the building
Thierry Henry delivered a magical performance that left the Columbus Crew and MLS as a whole all shook up on Saturday night. With a goal and three assists, Henry was the key figure in a convincing 4-1 victory for the New York Red Bulls. The win pulled them into the last of the qualifying playoff spots.
In his first assist, Henry’s work with Eric Alexander leading to a Bradley Wright-Phillips goal was fantastic vision of the game off the ball. Henry read the movements of midfielder and forward to split the defense and create Wright-Phillips’ 15th goal of the season.
After the Crew responded with a goal in the 39th minute, with a goal from the substitute Adam Bedell, Henry scored off of a rebound after two of his team-mates could not finish close-range opportunities. In the second half, Henry’s third and fourth assists – to Lloyd Sam in the 56th minute and Alexander in the 91st – made him the all-time assist leader for the club, with 37.
Henry’s current role has not been as a dedicated goal-scorer (he has four this season), but as a creator and leader, evident by his commanding presence throughout the left side and the midfield. In a post-match interview, Henry criticized the Red Bull defense, lamenting the surrendered goal and the errors he warned would lead to dropped points should such errors continue.
It was Henry’s distribution that made the difference for the Red Bulls, especially after the Crew were given space and opportunities in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Dax McCarty made his return from injury, entering the match for Bobby Convey in the 61st minute, coach Mike Petke assigning him a defensive holding role to neutralize Federico Higuaín and allow Tim Cahill to move forward more freely. Petke made another defensively-minded substitution in the 82nd minute, putting Ibrahim Sekagya on for Wright-Phillips.
This loss extends the Crew's winless streak to six matches for a 4-8-6 season record, similar to the Red Bulls’ 5-8-5. However, the Crew don’t have a player like Henry to help turn the season around. Columbus had four regular starters out: Hector Jimenez and Josh Williams with injuries and Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis not yet back from international duty.
Both teams face midweek Eastern Conference action, with the Crew away at Kansas City and New York at Philadelphia. As the race towards the playoffs gains momentum, King Henry knows it’s now or never. MB
Galaxy leave questions unanswered
The LA Galaxy lead the Western Conference in shots per game, possession and passing accuracy. After this weekend, they are also second in goal difference and points-per-game. With a defense that is allowing less than a goal-per-match, LA should be generating more discussion, but as MLS sees its last stars return from Brazil, the Galaxy's seven-match unbeaten run remains under the radar.
Perhaps it's how the four-time champions are going about their business that has left them unnoticed. Consider Saturday night in Carson, for what would normally be a marquee visit from Real Salt Lake. With Jeff Cassar's team having just ended a five-game winless run, the defending Western champions brought a modicum of momentum to StubHub Center – an impetus emboldened by the returns of Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando. Both US World Cup players were in Cassar's team as RSL faced LA for the fifth time in nine months.
More than any of the previous meetings, the game became bogged down in the middle, chopped up by a series of challenges from two diamond midfields which destroyed the game's flow. Even as Gyasi Zardes put the game's opening goal in off Rimando's right upright from 19 yards, he did so with João Plata attempting to challenge him from behind, something the 22-year-old's 12in and 40lb advantages helped him shrug off for his third goal of the season.
It was an impressive start for a team starting to rekindle some of their old counterattacking flair, but for most of the ensuing 70 minutes that flair failed to show. It wasn't until the match's last minutes when, countering against a pursuing RSL, LA generated two breakaway chances. Landon Donovan dribbled his into the onrushing keeper, while Marcelo Sarvas earned a penalty that was saved by Rimando.
The 1-0 final score was LA's fourth one-goal win of the year, their only multi-goal triumphs coming against Chivas USA and Philadelphia. Perhaps more tellingly, for the 10th time in 15 games the team were held to one goal or less, with the finishing problems of a team first in the West in shots but seventh in goal-rate evident in the final moments.
As much as their deflated place in the standings, that is why people are looking past LA. Beyond Robbie Keane, there isn't a player who can reliably score goals, and while Zardes's summer hints that could change soon, Donovan's inability to find his former self remains a concern.
By all indications, LA will have no problem making the playoffs, but for a franchise with the Galaxy's success, making the playoffs isn't enough. They are now within a point of a postseason spot, but it is still unclear whether LA can compete for another title. RF
Dues increasing at top of the East
In a third consecutive road win, DC United extended their lead at the top of the Eastern Conference with a win against the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night. Despite the 2-1 scoreline, DC's weaknesses were evident and exploited by the Quakes. The absence of Fabian Espindola is a factor, no doubt, but efforts from the likes of Chris Rolfe, Luis Silva and Bill Hamid will have to keep pace with the rising costs of living on top.
The Black and Red did well the first 30 minutes, during which they scored their goals. Rolfe made a smart cross into the area, leading to a handball from vulnerable Quakes defender and former DC United man Brandon Barklage. The play resulted in a 12th-minute penalty scored by Eddie Johnson. This was Johnson’s second goal of the season, a rate he must improve. Rolfe again contributed with a cross to Silva for the second goal, but it was goalkeeper Hamid’s six saves in the second half that preserved the lead and the points. At times forced to defend while facing their own goal, DC were fortunate to walk away with three points.
Chris Wondolowski pulled one back for San Jose before the half – his first goal since 3 May and the team’s first since 31 May – and the Quakes went on to control possession for the last 60 minutes. It wasn’t enough to improve their last-place position, but certainly enough to raise serious questions about the Eastern leaders.
The following night, the only team with a lower standing than the Quakes were persistent, if not formidable, opponents against the defending MLS champions. The Montreal Impact fell to Sporting Kansas City 2-1 at home, giving SKC a third consecutive win and a fifth road win of the season. Dom Dwyer opened the scoring early with a goal in the fourth minute, and then finished off the game with a goal in the 89th. Those were Dwyer’s fifth and sixth goals against the Impact this season, bringing his season total to 14. He is one goal behind the season leader, Bradley Wright-Phillips of New York.
For Montreal, Justin Mapp and Marco Di Vaio teamed up to give the team hope with a Di Vaio goal in the 28th minute, but in the end SKC were able to make the most of a counterattack and a frustrated opponent. Montreal collected four yellow cards, including one in stoppage time by Di Vaio, who was clearly frustrated by his team’s inability to salvage a result.
Interestingly, Toronto FC sit in third place in the East with three games in hand, and will face both DC and SKC before the end of the month. Before then, DC will face MLS guilty pleasure Chivas at home and SKC will travel to Columbus. Expect to see a shake up in the standings. MB
Philadelphia's futile puzzle
Every puzzle, no matter how difficult, promises a solution. That may explain the patience Philadelphia fans have shown over the last four and a half years. Over the last fortnight, however, the futility of that wait has been reinforced.
After defeating New England in new coach Jim Curtin's MLS debut, two weeks ago, the Union have taken one point from their last two, with Saturday's draw against Colorado leaving the team defeated despite the 3-3 result.
That feeling came after the team blew a late two-goal lead, with the game seemingly secured by Andrew Wenger's 74th-minute insurance goal. Instead, that score sparked a collapse, with Michael Lahoud's failed bicycle clearance two minutes later seeing the midfielder ejected after he instead kicked Jared Watts in the face. When Rapids midfielder Dillon Powers converted from the spot, Philadelphia were tasked with holding out with 10 men – it was a task they almost immediately failed.
Perhaps it was appropriate, in a season where so many Union players have switched positions, that Sheanon Williams – Philadelphia's long-serving right back – was burned for the final goal while deputizing in the middle. Attempting to mark Rapids dangerman Deshorn Brown 26 yards out, Williams misjudged Gabi Torres's pass from the flank, allowing Brown to leave him in midfield as he turned towards goal. There, beating Zac MacMath from 19 yards out, Brown delivered the 3-3 result that seemed inevitable once Lahoud was sent off.
With Maurice Edu serving a red-card suspension, Williams was seemingly forced into action in the middle – unless you consider Amobi Okugo an option. A regular starter in defense for two years, Okugo has been moved back to midfield by Curtin, apparently with no room for exception. Raymon Gaddis has been given Williams' old spot, Fabinho has been handed full-time duty at left-back, and striker-turned-centre-back Aaron Wheeler is now a striker again. The shakeup has left Edu, a natural midfielder, as the team's best centre-back, which made his absence even more pronounced on Saturday.
Curtin deserves the right to try to solve the Union, but he is the third man in two years to have his chance with this core, and while it is too early to pass judgment on his tenure the emergence of the same, disappointing traits hints that the puzzle may not have a solution. With rumors linking the Union with multiple international centre-backs (Colombia's Carlos Valdes, Algeria's Mahjid Bougherra), it seems upper management might agree.
After more than four years of trying to put this puzzle together, the Union may now realize: there may be pieces missing from the box. RF