A bad week for the chasing pack in the East
It's been a terribly tight year in the East, but while teams have hit runs of form, and fallen out of them, we're perhaps beginning to reach a point where the top three contenders of Sporting KC, Montreal and New York consolidate at the expense of their neighbors. All three won at the weekend, to share a three way tie clear at the top of the East — and to sweeten the deal, all three did so at the expense of would-be playoff rivals, and two did so with four-goal road wins in defiance of their road form this year.
Montreal's goalless draw in Philadelphia last week was their first road point since July 3rd. Their home form had kept them in contention through summer, and the slips of those around them had ensured that they never dropped too far, even having played fewer games than others, but Sunday night's 4-2 win in New England assisted by a Matt Reis red card, was their first road win since beating Sporting KC on the first of June. Even allowing for the scarcity of road points in MLS, these are not formidable stats, yet by the end of Sunday night's round of games there was Montreal on top of the East and having played two games less than Sporting and New York.
But even allowing for the games in hand for the Impact and other teams, this felt like the week where the East finally stretched out a little. At this stage of their season Houston are normally gearing up for their run to home, but despite the Revs loss, and having a home game against a Red Bulls side who'd never beaten them on he road and indeed have struggled to beat anyone on the road of late, Houston couldn't jump into one of the playoff places. Their loss to Columbus in midweek could charitably have been chalked down to road form and the Crew having the bounce of an interim coach, but with Will Bruin's move behind a front three doing little to help his form in front of goal, and Jason Johnson's first MLS goal scant consolation, Houston had the indignity of four being put past them including the gamewinner from returning striker Thierry Henry. After last week's contretemps between Henry and coach Mike Petke, Henry had assured New York reporters that he and the coach had "always been on the same page but even more so now". Perhaps this is what he meant.
Steve has already described the waxing and currently waning fortunes of Chicago, but then there is Columbus and Philadelphia. Columbus, reduced to outsiders and finally sacking Robert Warzycha after last week's loss to Seattle, may have taken some heart with Wednesday's victory over Houston, but by Saturday it was back to reality again as even a Kansas City side hit by international absences and the loss of Kei Kamara had too much for them. Like the other contenders, Sporting have had their speed bumps this year, and the "Blue Hell" of Sporting Park has been rather too pleasant for too many visitors, but after digging out last weekend's late victory over Colorado, a 3-0 victory over the Crew was enough to ensure they remain in the mix for one of the top seedings while Columbus are left deeper in the territory of optimistic theoretical math for their playoff chances. Philadelphia meanwhile went to San Jose with Jack McInerney unable to buy a goal. As it turned out, neither could anyone else other than San Jose's Shea Salinas. And despite hitting the post twice and seeing out the game against ten men, the Union failed to add to their total of what's now one goal in four games. They remain stuck in the middle of the Eastern standings, but the top is beginning to look that much further away for them and a few middling others. GP
LA Galaxy caught out while missing absent friends
Feel free to get a little indignant about the LA Galaxy's loss on Saturday to Colorado. Or get a bit snarky, if you prefer. Either is an acceptable response to the latest icky residue of Major League Soccer's ongoing choice to plow stubbornly through these FIFA international fixture dates.
Clearly, we should applaud the Colorado Rapids, as Oscar Pareja's ridiculously young team – two leading Rookie of the Year candidates and three other youngsters who are prevented from being so through contractual technicalities – keep apace in a brutally tight playoff race. Edson Buddle's stinger was the difference in Saturday's 1-0 win at the Galaxy's StubHub Center.
What else is there to say about a match where one team is stripped of its top men? Well, Carlo Cudicini, shockingly wobbly as the Galaxy starter before, is not even No. 2 in goal anymore, apparently. Beyond that, we seemed to be watching images of the Galaxy's future. There was so much youth in Bruce Arena's lineup – including debutante MLS starter Kofi Opare, who manned a center back role – because the Galaxy's stars were all away on international duty. (Opare did OK, although he probably didn't step toward Buddle quite quickly enough on the game-winner.)
So a ginormous Western Conference match in a league built around pricy Designated Players and their exalted salary exempted-ness was decided … wait for it … without a single one of the Galaxy's three DPs nearer than two time zones from Los Angeles. Gone was Robbie Keane, cartwheeling away for Ireland, along with U.S. internationals Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez.
Major League Soccer plays through these dates because scheduling remains such a problem in a league still dealing with teen angst. (This is season No 18 in placid Don Garber Valley.) It's about the bigger financial complexities of the calendar, about reduced profits for mid-week matches, etc. From a standpoint of dollars and sense, it has always made some sense – but it's surely time to grow into big boy pants on this one.
To see such a meaningful match involving the two-time defending MLS champs decided by a watered down roster, just doesn't feel right. SD
Chicago, where disappointment arrives as regular as Monday morning
Can we all agree that the Chicago Fire's current incarnation is like that chain restaurant in the area? You know, it's a shoulder shrug of a spot, average price, average food. Not awful, but it screams "default choice."
That's just not going to change. And yet, you keep going back because, somewhere in your mind's most hopeful eye, you keep thinking it might magically evolve into something more. Or you might find that gem on the menu. Alas, disappointment lands as regularly as the Monday morning alarm clock.
Chicago looks increasingly unlikely to make the 2013 playoffs. There just isn't enough "there" there. The team keeps hanging around, now two spots beyond playoff grace, but just near enough to the post-season finish line to keep us all coming back, with just enough intrigue to make us check the scores on our mobiles on random Saturday nights.
And then, inevitably, the next 2-1 loss happens. Like Saturday's. Own goal. In the 89th minute. Veteran Gonzalo Segares caught facing his own net, knocking the sharp centering ball from Seattle's Zach Scott past goalkeeper Sean Johnson, nearly unbeatable to that point, and "poof" went a potentially valuable point into the Seattle night.
Johnson keeps giving everyone hope, and did again Saturday at CenturyLink Field against a Sounders FC attack depleted measurably by international absences. Johnson's penalty kick stop on Osvaldo Alonso was wonderful stuff. As was a one-handed push-away on Alonso's second-half drive from 25 yards. But his next little costly positional or technical gaffe is out there.
The Fire midfield remains a big bag of "meh." Chris Rolfe's season – this is where I humbly raise my hand and cop to calling him a league MVP candidate in 2013 – is officially a disappointment. Mike Magee had threatened to heroically rescue it all; the league MVP award was his to lose all summer and his very arrival into Toyota Park in that high-profile Robbie Rogers' trade had paddle shocked the prosaic attack. Magee did score Saturday – but it was the first strike in five matches for a "Magic Mike" that seemed to be on a summer fade. Even Saturday, his league-leading 15th goal didn't help the Fire earn a point.
But he is the league leader. And he will be Major League Soccer's MVP if Chicago books a playoff spot. So … yeah … like that chain restaurant, we'll be back. And we're not even sure why. SD
Why are Dallas and Vancouver still experimenting in Round 28?
Can we agree that by week 28 the time for experimenting should be done?
There were FC Dallas and Vancouver on Saturday in Texas, where the heat has yet to break. So there was copious sweating, not just for temperatures in the "What have we done to deserve this?" zone, but for two teams tied for sixth in the West, still idling nervously one spot beyond playoff grace.
We did mention it was Round 28, right? So why was Nigel Reo-Coker playing right back? Yes, Whitecaps manager Martin Rennie had used the veteran Englishman there once before. But he's not a right back! Lee Young-Pyo is a right back, one of the league's best, in fact. But he was on the bench. Meanwhile, promising young defender Johnny Leveron was tasked with instantly evolving into a promising young midfielder.
Results of all this maddening shifting and shuffling, more of Rennie's over-thinking that has left so many Whitecaps' faithful scratching their noggins during the Scotsman's time in charge: a 3-1 loss to a Western Conference rival.
Reo-Coker never looked comfortable at outside back. He was beaten for the game's first goal, a rare Je-Vaughn Watson strike. Leveron did grow into the central midfield role through the night, but was caught unawares early by pressure arriving faster and from different angles than when he mans the back line.
In the end, it broke down in a loss to an FC Dallas team also mired in extended "tinker time." That's down to a roster that was never constructed right to begin with, too heavy with strikers and not anywhere near sufficient in midfield depth.
Some of the experimenting was about Blas Perez, his 10 goals, and his latest absence for international duty. After 27 matches no other FCD man has more than three goals – so you do the simple math on that one. When Perez isn't around to offer a highly positioned target, the attack becomes a marginally effective mishmash.
Some of the ongoing experimentation is also square peg, round hole stuff, all about veteran playmaker David Ferreira. Unfortunately, the increasingly immobile Colombian has become the square peg. The team is the round hole, and manager Schellas Hyndman seems determined to make it somehow fit. Deployed nominally wide on the left Saturday, Ferreira was asked to create from wider areas.
It took a late Mauro Diaz strike to help gather all three points. (On a well-crafted goal that involved forgotten man Eric Hassli … and how nice it must have been to get a contribution from the highly paid Frenchman?) The win kept FC Dallas, showing more signs of life after that long summer fade, relevant in the playoff chase. Not only in the technical sense, either, but in self-belief. Because, honestly, if Dallas cannot beat a fading Whitecaps bunch in Texas – even a Dallas side without Perez or starting goalkeeper Raul Fernandez, who is also Peru's No. 1 – then it's not a playoff-worthy side. And in that case, experiment away! Because then it's all about 2014 anyway... SD
And elsewhere, one potential expansion team sends a message
After the long period of expansion inertia caused by the New York bottleneck, Orlando City were just one of many teams held in a holding pattern, and caught in something of a Catch-22 situation regarding a potential MLS standard stadium. Crudely put, the state wouldn't put their share of funds into a proposed public-private partnership unless MLS status was assured, while MLS were reluctant to sanction a franchise without a stadium.
Commissioner Garber's announcement of four more teams by 2020, made during the MLS All Star game, not only inspired speculation about what new sides might enter the bidding, it reignited some of the campaigns such as Orlando's as the odds shortened on the possibility of getting one of the spots for a few of the presumptive favorites.
Among those sides was Orlando, and while negotiations to move them from their current home of the Florida Citrus Bowl to a custom space are ongoing, they have regained momentum in the wake of the commissioner's announcement and a stadium deal is now much closer.
In the meantime the USL Pro side has been doing the business on the field. They had a good run in the US Open Cup — along the way embarrassing partner club Sporting KC. And on Saturday night over 20,000 people were present as they clinched the USL Pro title. That's 20,000 people for a third division soccer game.
Sporting loanee Dom Dwyer scored four in their wild 7-4 win — his performances this season have been almost a one-man case for the success of the young MLS-USL Pro partnership that is pairing top tier teams with affiliates for loans and reserve league play. Dwyer will return to Sporting match fit and full of confidence, as opposed to likely seeing very little action in the Sporting squad that started the season.
As time goes on of course, we'll get a clearer read on just how successful that partnership is in creating senior league squad depth and what the knock on effects will be around the country, but for Orlando at least, on Saturday night, this was a team and fan base with no intention of remaining as little brothers for long. If rumors are true they could yet join the league alongside NYCFC in 2015. By the looks of it, they'll certainly bring plenty to the party. GP