Dempsey's home debut just a small part of big night in Seattle
A day three weeks in the making finally came Sunday for the Sounders, with Major League Soccer's new poster boy debuting in front of another historic Seattle crowd. By the time the turnstiles were checked, 67,385 had filled CenturyLink Field for Clint Dempsey's bow, a crowd bested only by LA Galaxy's home opener in 1996 (69,255) for biggest stand-alone crowd in league history.
And while Dempsey's debut added a something to the occasion, promotion for Sunday's event carried a small contradiction – a little white lie. Seattle versus Portland at a fully open CenturyLink would have likely drawn the same crowd without Dempsey. Last year, when the teams met during the Sounders' annual open stadium stretch (capacity's usually capped below 40,000), the game drew 66,452. With another year's awareness, Seattle were likely to break their record regardless.
In that way, Dempsey quickly faded into the background. Soon, it was the broader occasion, the fact an NFL crowd was coming out to another MLS match, that took center stage. And as the game played out – as Osvaldo Alonso tried to hold Seattle's midfield together; as Michael Gspurning squelched Portland's chances at a first half lead; as Diego Valeri started to steal the show –players who had been with their teams from First Kick usurped the Dempsey narrative. The rivalry, the stakes, the Cascadia Cup stole the show.
As such, it was only right that the man who has come to dictate the rivalry's results, the friend said to have helped lure Dempsey to Seattle, stole the show. Eddie Johnson, going wide left to retrieve a long ball just before, drew an ill-advised foul from Pa Modou Kah, the Portland defender taking out Johnson 38 yards from goal, where the Sounder was unlikely to do any damage. On the restart, Mauro Rosales found Johnson near the spot, with "EJ" flicking far post for the night's only goal:
Johnson has made noise via social media about wanting a new contract, the US international paid below MLS's exclusive Designated Player level. If he always played like he does against Portland, he'd have an ironclad case. With his fourth the goal in five against Seattle's rivals, Johnson stole Dempsey's show, capping the Sounders' historic night with a 1-0 win over the Timbers. RF
Montreal finally have another winning streak
Montreal took full advantage of Sporting KC's stumble against Chicago by hitting five past a demoralised Houston Dynamo team who had their chances, but who never recovered from two quickfire Impact goals shortly before the half.
Perhaps more significantly, the result finally gave the Impact back to back wins in the league (a phenomenon which has only occurred once, in May, since the four game winning streak the Impact opened the season with) – which is the kind of basic consistency they'll need if their long-held games in hand are to remain a significant advantage. It's been a funny season for the Impact – they've remained in the playoff places throughout, without ever repeating the signs of dominance they showed at the start of the season. The likes of Bernier, Mapp and Di Vaio have had strong seasons and the latter has been top or near the top of the scoring charts all year, but for an older team, depth beyond the first team has been a problem. When Marco Schällibaum has rotated his veterans out of necessity he has run into trouble, such as the 4-0 drubbing his team picked up recently at Red Bull Arena, where Di Vaio did not start.
Schällibaum has also rotated himself on and off the bench with his habit of being sent off. He's been dismissed three times this year, and disciplined retrospectively on a further occasion for encroaching on the field, and on Friday his latest punishment was increased by MLS, in an effort to get the message through to the temperamental coach.
But on Saturday evening it was the Impact who sent a message. They seem to enjoy playing the Dynamo at Stade Saputo – almost as much as the Dynamo seem to hate their habitually fruitless trips north of the border. When Stade Saputo opened after refurbishment last season, the Impact followed up a 4-1 victory over Seattle with a 4-2 victory over the Dynamo to spark a decent run to the edge of playoff contention. And if Houston were optimistic after last week's muzzling of Clint Dempsey in their victory over Seattle, and if they had their fair share of chances in the opening half-hour of the game, they were left chastened by the five goals (including another brace for Di Vaio) that Montreal put past them en route to regaining the lead in the Eastern Conference.
Can they stay there? Well for all that the Impact have struggled to put a winning run together in recent weeks, their rivals have failed to take advantage. Sporting have done everything to concede the initiative, while New York have been indifferent-to-poor on the road and imploded again on Sunday. Philadelphia have blown hot and cold, while the likes of New England, Columbus and Chicago have threatened to gain traction at various times (New England doing rather more than threaten with their 5-1 win over the Union this weekend) and shot themselves in the foot at others. It's reminiscent of the 2011 season in the East, where Sporting eventually prevailed as much through the failings of those around them as through their own play. If Montreal can extend this mini streak, or even manage another couple of back to back win sequences between now and the end of the season, they may do enough to inherit first place in the East – it's one of those years where nobody else has yet suggested they're on a drive to win it. Even if they don't, this emphatic win over the current 5th placed playoff team is a big six-pointer in their bid to improve to a playoff spot in their sophomore MLS year.GP
KC's struggle for goals could push them back into the pack
Can we call it a crisis now? Sporting Kansas City fell 1-0 to Chicago Fire on Friday night, and in doing so lost their fourth MLS game in the last five, with just the increasingly abberational victory over New England to show for a run that included defeats to Montreal, New York, San Jose and now Chicago. Most alarmingly for Peter Vermes, the New York loss (to habitually poor travelers, natch) represented the only one of those defeats where Sporting found the net.
Perhaps most worrying for Sporting has been the fact that when they come up against sides prepared to match them for hustle, they seem to struggle to shift the emphasis of their play to take advantage of their notional advantage in talent. With Chicago pressing and springing attackers on the counter on Friday night, Sporting looked uncharacteristically anonymous for much of the game. It wasn't that the Fire were doing anything particularly complex, but they were playing a game that has been a successful blueprint for Houston Dynamo in the past two seasons playoff games against Sporting – and the Kansas City team were unable to pass their way through the Fire press until late in the game when they were chasing the game and had to commit men forward.
When I spoke to Sporting's Jimmy Neilsen in the wake of the bruising encounter against RSL that they'd controversially shaded in stoppage time last month, he insisted that Sporting had "tried to play some more soccer this year" and that their reputation as a physical side, while having some merit, was not wholly representative. Certainly at their best, Sporting can be an exciting force in attack, and the likes of Zusi have the skill to unlock defenses, but at times it seems as if such flair as they do display seems to be in direct proportion to their ability to impose themselves physically on teams they outwork. As Houston have showed, match Sporting for pace and endeavor one-to-one and they can be a curiously brittle proposition.
Coming into the game it should have been Chicago who were the brittle proposition – since Mike Magee's one man rescue mission began to flag, the Fire have been struggling, and recent elimination from the US Open Cup (a tournament Chicago have historically prized), and their own struggles in front of goal, have stretched fan patience to the limit. Or beyond the limit, according to a controversial editorial by the team's Communication Director this week, which had left several fans angered and bemused coming into Saturday night's game. With the team under somethging of a cloud, salvation came from an unlikely source — as Hunter Jumper got his first MLS goal (to go with his award of "Most descriptive name in MLS") to give Chicago the win and keep them on the edge of the playoff picture. It was a result that also ensured that Sporting were the side facing uncomfortable questions afterwards, as a team who thrive as frontrunners were forced into yet another losing battle with the pack. There are enough games left for Sporting to re-establish a lead, but first they'll have to remember how to score again. GP
New York continue an August to forget
Sporting KC, RSL, Montreal? Nine points. Columbus, Philadelphia, Chivas? One point.
After edging Real Salt Lake in a thriller at Red Bull Arena, following a drubbing of Montreal at the same venue, New York looked to have affirmed their Shield credentials, if only they could stabilize their road form. But that RSL victory has been followed by a run of three games that even by the standards of this franchise's perennial capacity for underachieving looks to be a new low.
On Sunday, the Red Bulls went down 3-2 to a Chivas USA side who had scored 21 goals all season going into the game. Despite leaning heavily on heroics from Dan Kennedy and a late goal line clearance from Bobby Burling, Chivas deserved no less against visitors who showed a troubling lack of imagination in front of goal and who were punished for rudimentary errors in defense.
Chivas have been improving in recent weeks. The results hadn't been coming until Sunday night and confidence has been understandably shaky, but they've contested most of the games they played and were showing steady signs of turning a corner. Still, few were anticipating that they'd have enough to trouble a side still among the challengers for the Supporters Shield – and when they were pegged back within seconds of taking what at the time looked like an unlikely lead the Red Bulls were probably favorites to go on and win the game, poor road form or not. But Chivas scored a late first half penalty after a clumsy New York challenge in the box, and never lost the lead again – hitting Robles' post before adding a third on horrible New York marking, before withstanding a late New York comeback that came close to an undeserved equalizer.
It capped a miserable run for New York – unable to find a way through either a dogged Crew or Union defense in their previous two games, they came into this game needing to find the net at a minimum. The fact that they did so twice will be little consolation given the result, but most alarming was the succession of point blank range chances spurned by Fabian Espindola with the game still goalless in the first half. Espindola's poorly taken quick free kick also led to the sequence that gave Chivas their penalty – a fact noted by Mike Petke, along with remarks on Espindola's holdup play, in his half time comments to the cameras. Espindola was duly hooked just before the hour to allow Bradley Wright-Phillips to make his debut, and despite the limited impact of his replacement, Espindola may find his opportunities limited for the remainder of the season.
Not that there's much season left, and from contemplating going top of the East before this game started, New York now find themselves contemplating a run-in that includes two tough road trips to Houston, as well as one in Seattle. Amid that run are looming home games against DC and Toronto. After the RSL game, those looked to be the culmination of a sequence where the Supporters Shield contenders might have hoped to stockpile points for the run in. As it is, they're looking like must-win chances to make a poor run's points total look a little more respectable. But with Espindola out of sorts, and Henry looking off the pace in front of goal, the question of where the goals will come from in those games, and how they'll be kept out at the other end, is looking far from straightforward. As one New York fan's Twitter account put it: "Forget first. I don't even wanna make the playoffs like this." GP
Dallas, San Jose provide sound, fury, leave with near-nothing
If this result came in June, both coaches would herald it as a well-won point. Dallas came back from a horrible start, pulled back two goals, and salvaged a point at home against San Jose. For their part, the Earthquakes would have been happy to get a road result against a talented squad, even if their 2-0 lead after 18 minutes would have had then dreaming of more.
But it should go without saying: this isn't June. After Saturday's game, both teams had completed over three-fourths of their schedules, and with ground to make up in the West's playoff race, neither team can afford to drop attainable points. When Dallas stormed back from their two-goal deficit but came up short of finding a winner, both teams effectively lost ground.
It was, however, a very entertaining way to lose ground, starting with Alan Gordon's clinical finish inside Raul Fernández's right post to open the scoring in the eighth minute. Ten minutes later, this nice pass and run from Steven Beitashour (catching Dallas's left side napping) seemed set to spark an Earthquake landslide:
But from there on, it was all Dallas. The home side would outshoot their guests 15-5 over the last 72 minutes, getting goals from Blas Pérez and Michel to pull even with 18 minutes to go. That Michel's equalizer came from the spot after Pérez's dubiously drawn penalty only foreshadowed the absurdity that was to come, a clean-out slide tackle from Justin Morrow on Ramon Nuñez giving Dallas a man advantage for the last nine minutes. When Victor Bernardez got Kenny Cooper and himself sent off five minutes later, Dallas had four minutes plus stoppage time to find a winner against nine.
But the red cards actually helped San Jose. The match's rhythm, so decidedly in Dallas's favor for more than an hour, was blunted. With the home side adjusting to the game's new dynamic (and adjusting again five minutes later), time ran out. Dallas never recaptured their momentum.
The stalemate leaves Schellas Hyndman's team sixth, and like San Jose, the games-played column is works against them. With six Western Conference foes holding better points rates, FCD will have to outplay two other teams to make the postseason. And like the Earthquakes, who have to best three clubs, they only have eight games to do it. RF