New York and RSL serve up a thriller and more questions for both
After the game Thierry Henry was in one of his taciturn moods:
"Great effort. That's it. Amazing effort," or some variation on that phrase, was his stock reply to most questions about a game against RSL where fortunes had veered wildly between the two teams until Dax McCarty's final, unlikely, diving header had settled the issue in the home team's favor. Other than that, Henry was reluctant to be drawn on the game, whether through irritation at the goals his side had conceded (three by Alvaro Saborio on his return from the Gold Cup), or as a couple of other comments about the team's road form hinted at, wariness about optimistic conclusions from a home game that's currently in stark contrast to what New York are doing on the road.
As we noted last week, we've been here recently with the Red Bulls — namely an apparent statement win against a front-running team, with their victory over Montreal a couple of weeks ago, only for a subsequent limp performance in Toronto to dispel any sense of a charge being started. So it was understandable that, even after this extraordinary win against the league leaders and the feelgood factor of winning the game at the death on two late goals, the question of where this leaves the Red Bulls as challengers is one that is once again deferred until they can transfer their form to the road. They're at Sporting Kansas City next, if their statement wins at home have been something short of defining, a win on the road there would be what might finally suggest the team Petke is shaping might just be ahead of schedule.
We've been here recently with RSL too. Once again they started a game with a crunching foul that would come back to haunt them. Alvarez jumped in with an early lunge on Cahill that, rather than taking him out of the game just seemed to galvanize him. A few minutes later the Australian opened the scoring, and when Espindola's cool Panenka penalty against his old side doubled the lead and Henry was the width of a post from adding a third towards the end of the first half, RSL looked in all sorts of trouble. But the second of three soft penalties in the game went their way just before half time, they got a lifeline, and when Saborio concluded his hat trick with two quick fire goals, the first opportunist, the second beautifully created, RSL had an unlikely nose in front with less than ten minutes left on the clock.
Their bench-clearing celebration was premature though. Espindola got another penalty to tie up the game and then with five minutes added time announced, RSL failed to heed that echo of last week's sickening last minute loss to Sporting KC and McCarty pounced to make it 4-3 and instigate one of the loudest crowd roars heard at Red Bull Arena since its inception. As he put it later:
"(I) figured I'd just channel my inner Tim Cahill and stick my head where it probably didn't belong and luckily you get good contact, you close your eyes and good things happen."
RSL shouldn't be in panic mode, not least because Saborio's hat trick on his return from Gold Cup duty was its own portent of what returning first teamers will do for this side on the run in. And their ambition and passing was undiminished even as a long night beckoned in the first half. But two losses to Shield rivals have reeled them back into the range of those chasing them. If questions still hang over the Red Bulls as credible contenders that might be answered in Kansas City next week, RSL will face just as intense an examination of their character when they visit surging rivals Colorado in next week's Rocky Mountain Cup game. For this game, perhaps Henry had it right - plenty of effort in what's destined to be remembered as one of the wild games of the year, and little to conclude, beyond there being more rounds to come in this year's battle royale. GP
Montreal bend but don't break
When we last checked in with the Impact, Marco Schällibaum's team were embracing moral victories. At least, that's how it seemed last week. With FC Dallas visiting, Montréal appeared more concerned with consolidating their defense than keeping pace at the top of the East. Against a Hoops side willing to accept a point, Montréal got their clean sheet, even if they dropped points at home.
The stakes were heightened on Saturday, with Eastern Conference-leading Sporting Kansas City presenting a slightly bigger and more important challenge. Win the game and the Impact were within one of first with two games in hand. Lose and not only did they fall seven off the pace, but the progress they made last week would get new, more urgent perspective.
For 70 minutes, Kansas City looked set to forge that distance, outshooting their hosts 14 to two while limiting Montréal to a single shot on Jimmy Nielsen. With their trademark physicality limiting the Impact's counter attack, Sporting were executing their page one from their playbook, even if they were unable to translate that success onto the scoresheet.
For Montréal, that dynamic isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly given the nature of the team's early success. Winning four straight one-goal games to start the season, Montréal leveraged a bend-don't-break philosophy, one that resulted in a type of passive control on their matches. Schällibaum was okay with his team waiting for chances while their opponents controlled the ball. Their three-man midfield not only limited their defense's exposure, it left Impact poised to uncoil.
Though Schällibaum abandoned that setup for much of the summer, he restored captain Davy Arnaud to the starting lineup last week, the trio he formed with Patrice Bernier and Felipe keeping Dallas a bay. On Saturday, that same threesome helped limit Kansas City to only two shots within the Montréal penalty area, allowing Troy Perkins to keep his sixth clean sheet.
More importantly, Montréal weren't relegated to another moral victory. Six minutes into second half stoppage time, Marco Di Vaio took advantage of a frozen Sporting defense, feeding Blake Smith for the game-winner.
The win would have fit perfectly nicely into Montréal's March surge: one-goal margin; bending without breaking; a three-man middle's passive control. Claiming victory for the first time since June 19, perhaps the old Montréal is back. RF
Cudicini is testing how much goalkeeping matters
There was something familiar about Saturday's opening goal in Commerce City, where an LA Galaxy without their big three (Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane) where visiting a surging Colorado. With a Hendry Thomas header having already put the Rapids up, Rookie of the Year frontrunner Dillon Powers was put through the defense's right and onto goal, reminiscent of how Camilo Sanvezzo scored last week at StubHub Center. Then, goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini came out, set himself very early, and offered little resistance for Sanvezzo's opener. With a subtle tinge of deja vu, Cudicini offered a similarly irrelevant obstacle for Powers, who scored the final goal in the Rapids' 2-0 victory.
Asking goalkeepers to stop players sent in alone may seem like a bit much, but those saves happens more often than we acknowledge. Whether it's a keeper's read a developing play that sends him bolting off his line or reflexes that force precision from opposition attackers, Major League Soccer-caliber goalkeepers can often make easy chances more than foregone conclusions. At a minimum, you want your number one to make the opposition earn it.
Saving only 59 percent of shots he's faced, Cudicini is statistically the worst pure shot-stopper in the league, and while his low number of shots faced imply he may be preventing efforts from getting off in the first place, the seven goals LA's conceded on restarts hint Cudicini hasn't been particularly effective in aspects that don't result in saves. And playing for a team who has used three different starting goalkeepers in the last four years, Cudicini certainly appears to be a step back from the players he's succeeding.
The question is whether his form will matter. Josh Saunders was the winning keeper in the last two MLS Cup finals. Now he's a backup with Real Salt Lake, having been let go to make room for Cudicini. If Los Angeles was able to win consecutive MLS Cups with a goalkeeper they eventually judged to be lacking, can they overcome Cudicini should the 39-year-old fail to come around?
Of course they can. A team can theoretically overcome anything, provided they get enough from other parts. Right now, however, Cudicini's performance is asking more of his teammates than Saunders or Donovan Ricketts ever did. Sitting fourth in the West, LA may need to adjust – start compensating for an unexpected weakness. RF
Night of comebacks sees Revolution into playoff spot
As he came on in the 84th minute at RFK Stadium, you would have never suspected there was anything special about Kevin Alston's appearance. As La Barra Brava's drums persisted, hoping to push their team on to an equalizer which would never come, the was no moment of pause, no time set aside to recognize an appearance that much more than a mere substitution.
Alston was returning from leukemia treatment. Diagnosed in April with a rare form cancer (chronic myelogenous), the former all-star defender was making his first appearance since March 30, even though he'd been on Jay Heaps' bench for the team's last two matches. Born in Washington, D.C., there may have been no more appropriate venue for the 25-year-old's return, though with United chasing a goal hat would never come, the crowd may have been too distracted (or, unaware) to note the occasion, even if the venue always meant Alston was likely to appear
Alston's reaction, via MLSSoccer.com, after New England's 2-1 victory:
It was unbelievable … My parents were there, my brother was there, my grandfather was there, all my family and friends (were there). It made it special to be able to do it in front of them.
By the time Alston replaced Dmitry Imbongo, New England had already completed the first, less important comeback of the night, pulling back a generously conceded opener to take a second half lead. Controlling play after the teams came back from intermission, the Revolution equalized Luis Silva's opener in the 54th minute, Imbongo putting home a poorly defended Chris Tierney cross. Nine minutes later, Diego Fagundez took advantage of a Saer Sene shot curled off the crossbar, the rebound leaving Joe Willis's goal open for the young Uruguayan's seventh goal of the season.
For the first time this year, the Revolution didn't need a clean sheet to win – a more direct way of saying this isn't the type of game New England would have won earlier this season. This spring, an extremely conservative sacrificed ambition for solidity, but with Sene back from injury and Fagundez asserting himself, Heaps' team demands a more open approach, one that can leverage the skill of Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe.
Remarkably, given New England scored only once in their first five games, the Revolution's attack is starting to keep up with their league-leading defense. Now seven matches without being shut out, New England find themselves fifth in the East, suddenly holding down a playoff spot. RF
Chivas USA not relishing their moment in the spotlight
If you were going to pick an MLS side that was likely to pop up on HBO's Real Sports, it wouldn't have been the Goats. But last week there was Chivas being picked apart for a selection policy that's been fairly established news within MLS circles, but which when looked at through the lens of a wider American sporting experience, was made to look decidedly ugly.
James Riley, the former defender for the team who was shipped to D.C. during the restructuring of the team, was called in to add his voice to a story based on two former Chivas coaches suing the side, for what they believe were race-prompted firings as part of a policy of weeding out players and staff who weren't of Mexican, or Mexican-American heritage. Riley was pictured onscreen calling the process a "systematic expulsion" though looking decidedly uncomfortable at the sensational tenor of the questioning.
The attention the story brought to Chivas and the league will mean this is unlikely to blow over quickly. I have a lot of sympathy with Riley, an honest man and player, and the players who were moved on, and don't know the full workings of what went on at Chivas, though looking at the trades alone the selection policy seemed pretty clear and very much in line with what you might expect from a club re-emphasizing their ties to Chivas Guadalajara — whose own heritage-based selection policy is enshrined as part of the club's identity. Given the way the organization is set up, players coming to and from Guadalajara were always likely to correspond with the Mexican side's policies, and a player who could never play for Guadalajara would be less attractive than one who fit with the broader ecosystem the clubs currently form.
The part of the whole affair that played particularly strangely though, was that until the HBO story broke, this was not a story that had been widely framed within labor rights. Not that it shouldn't be, and not that a quickly released Chivas press release quoting H.G.Wells helped matters. It was just that as bizarre as the sight of Chivas being under this particular spotlight was, the feature ran slightly off in its understandings of what is not a unique soccer practice worldwide.
To be clear, those practices are not models of propriety, though it's ironic that certain governing bodies, let alone clubs, are looking at domestic quotas of players to try and level the playing field of rampant globalization and unchecked plundering of players from round the world by elite teams. That kind of geographic protectionism may have a place, though of course MLS already has the economic protectionism of its clubs-as-partners model, and forced parity. And ironically, the league's own handling of US players returning from say, the Mexican league, with their rights still held by MLS teams who don't pay them, has not endeared it to the same Players Union who are presumably monitoring Chivas USA's actions.
For what it's worth, I don't think the Chivas model makes sense ethically or sportingly, but the issue may have as much to do with the foundational myth of the franchise, as any particular regime's manner of doing business. The latter may be addressed in court. The former will continue to dog Chivas as long as they are constituted as an unofficial cross-border entity within a league that protects its own "borders" as a culture of doing business, and for as long as Chivas insist that doubling down on one's heritage in every part of their business is the only way forward.
Oh and against Seattle on Sunday night Chivas, having taken points from four of their last five games, took the lead, lost it and eventually lost the game. A win might have helped the distraction of a difficult week, but then again, maybe not. The problems on the field are real, but they're struggling for attention with those in the spotlight off it. GP