San Jose can manage a game
You could be forgiven for looking at the game stats for the San Jose Earthquakes, the celebrated "Goonies never say die" mentality, and the er, agricultural style of one or two of their more effective players, and thinking that they are a one-dimensional side, who wear their opponents down by sheer force of will, and the blunt-force trauma of ball after ball forced into the box late on.
There's something to this of course: 11 games this season have featured game-changing late 'Quakes goals, including Wednesday's stoppage time comeback against Portland that preserved their unbeaten Buck Shaw record this season; Lenhart and Gordon up front are two players who've made celebrated virtues of obvious limits and even from apparent character flaws. And while the shallow tv camera angles at Buck Shaw foreshorten the impression of their play somewhat, it's fair to say that there are a fair few goals scored there that can be fairly described as being "bundled" as much as "kicked".
Sure enough on Saturday night, the last ten minutes of the Earthquakes game against Seattle saw wave after wave of hopeful balls into the box, playing the percentages that might lead to a knockdown for a poacher to grab a late goal. But the team attempting it was not the Earthquakes, but their hosts - who found themselves chasing a 2-1 deficit for the entirety of the second half and ultimately eased out of their own game by a very well-managed first half from San Jose.
The San Jose opener, after just 90 seconds, was an impressively taken, though unimpressively closed down, shot from outside the box by Simon Dawkins, after which San Jose harried and competed and refused to let Seattle settle early. The Sounders would equalize with an emotional goal for Steve Zakuani (his first since his return from injury and another milestone in what's been an impressive run since his return to the team), but from then till half time San Jose did a great job of first keeping their cool and holding their line, to gradually and effectively squeezing the play upfield, so that by the time Chris Wondolowski darted to the near post to flick a returned corner past Gspurning for his 22nd goal of the season, it was almost as if Seattle were surprised to find themselves back in their own box.
They never recovered from that surprise and despite pressuring throughout the second half, never really looked like getting an equalizer, never mind the winner they needed to confirm their play-off participation and put some pressure on San Jose, in a Shield race the Earthquakes may now run away with. What's ominous for those who may face them in the play-offs (which may include the Sounders on current trajectories) is a) Wondolowski's return to scoring form; b) the fact that they don't just rely on the type of late luck that will eventually desert a side in most knockout runs; c) the knowledge that they can manage a game. The Goonies are looking all grown up. GP
2012 playoff hopefuls are being hindered by 2013 contenders
Technically Philadelphia Union could still qualify for the play-offs. A draw or a loss against Houston Dynamo would have mathematically eliminated them, but yes, technically, their surprise 3-1 win means they are still in contention for another week. As both Houston and New York found to their cost this weekend, sides and players playing for their jobs next season, and in formations that have slipped beneath the scouts' radar due to being new, could still have a big influence on the play-off destinies of those still in contention this year.
Since the season began to slip away from the Union and having confirmed that he will be the coach for next season, John Hackworth has been experimenting with personnel and line up. In midweek an experimental line up with Hoppenot and McInerney up front was not enough to stop DC United from taking the points, but on Sunday, a rare outing without 4-3-3 yielded three goals for the front pairing of Adu (2) and Martinez - the latter grabbing his first career goal. Three goals in one game for a side who'd managed four in the previous eight was a very healthy return for Hackworth's experiment - but while he's looking for clues for next season's alchemy, the result left Houston just a point ahead of Columbus in the last play off spot this year, after DC United successfully negotiated their potential spoiler game against last place Chivas (for whom in fairness, there may be rather more doubt about who next year's coach will be).
Meanwhile up in New England, 10-man New York thought they'd snatched their first win in New England since 2002 when Joel Lindpere nodded home in injury time, only for Darrius Barnes to score his first goal for the Revs and perhaps do his prospects for next season no harm. New England now have a chance to further spoil the Dynamo's play-off run in their next game, while Philadelphia will at least have the chance to make some amends to the team they beat on Sunday, when they play their rivals Columbus.
No successful 2013 auditions for Toronto's players, who may have pulled back from 3-0 to 3-2 but ultimately lost 4-2 to a Los Angeles side looking utterly transformed from the side the Canadians knocked out of the CCL at the beginning of the year. The Galaxy look in great form to defend their 2011 crown - for many of their rivals there's always next year. GP
Sporting KC and Chicago Fire are on a collision course in the East
While Sporting KC's game against Montreal on Saturday may have been something of a damp squib, this has been a great week on the road for them - after they ended New York's unbeaten home record on Wednesday night. With the Red Bulls unable to win in New England on Saturday, Sporting lost no ground to them this weekend, but they did lose ground to the Chicago Fire, who moved definitively into second place in the East with victory over Columbus, and will now have a chance to contest first place with Sporting when the two clash next weekend.
It should be quite a game. Chicago are transformed from the side that stole a smash and grab win at Livestrong earlier in the summer, and have won seven in eight in a perfectly timed tilt for the post-season. With Higuain back for Columbus on Saturday night, tensions were high for Fire fans before the game, with the thought that this might be where Columbus stopped their mini-slide, and when Arrieta gave the Crew the lead, the Fire's worst fears looked like being realized. Enter Chris Rolfe, the returning hero for the Fire, who scored twice in quick succession to give Chicago victory - though things could have been much more comfortable had the otherwise excellent Fernandez not done this. Nonetheless this is a much more rounded side than the team whose main tactic earlier in the year seemed to be to break at speed.
That said, the speed that the Fire possess may be a better match up for Sporting's high tempo, high pressure game than New York's ponderous midfield was in midweek, when they made their bid to overtake the Eastern leaders. There will be twists and turns to come in the East, but no doubt what the next compelling game is. Clear your diaries for Friday night. GP
Salt Lake in - extra offense now crucial
Over recent months Real Salt Lake have stumbled, tripped, floundered… you get the picture, they've struggled to get over the line. But Saturday night's tight 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers, televised nationally on NBC Sports, secured RSL's fifth straight trip to the playoffs.
A sellout crowd at Rio Tinto roared RSL into a commanding first half lead. That isn't a rare occurrence this season, with the people of Utah backing their team like never before. RSL are well on the way to recording their highest ever average attendance — after the Timbers game the 2012 average at Rio Tinto stood at 18,897, a 7.89 percent increase on last season — and another bumper crowd helped two of Salt Lake's stars snap out of a severe slump.
With top scorer Alvaro Saborio out injured, more pressure has been heaped onto the shoulders of Argentine striker Fabian Espindola. And that's something he could've done without. Until the 14th minute of Saturday's showdown, the ponytailed striker hadn't scored since June 16. The relief on his face was evident as he smashed home an inventive free kick routine, that involved captain Kyle Beckerman running over the ball, before Javier Morales back heeled it into Espindola's path, for his first league goal in over three months.
The 27-year-old began the season in bullish fashion, scoring twice in RSL's back-to-back wins against LA and New York. His play is about much more than scoring but with Saborio out he now needs to deliver goals, to add to his tireless and inventive forward play. Now RSL have made the playoffs, they'll be hoping Espindola continues to regain his scoring touch as they seek another MLS Cup to add to their 2009 title.
Another player who's pivotal to that target: Javier Morales. RSL's other Argentine mirrored countryman Espindola by scoring what proved to be the game winner with a sumptuous free kick. With that trademark strike Morales also snapped a long goal drought — the last time he scored was with an almost identical strike against San Jose back on June 23 — as he and Espindola carry RSL's main offensive threat in the postseason.
Marshaled by veteran 'keeper Nick Rimando making saves like this, leaking goals won't be an issue. But RSL still haven't scored more than two goals in a game since Portland last visited Rio Tinto on July 7, when they triumphed 3-0. Kreis' philosophy does put more responsibility on defenders to pass out from the back, to maintain possession and be brave. But that also allows RSL's defense to sit back and reduces the danger of getting caught on the counter-attack or being susceptible to balls played in behind. Their defenders aren't the quickest, so it works well. However with the playoffs coming up a slight change in tactics is needed to kick start RSL's potent yet underachieving offense. Pushing the backline further up the field will allow Espindola's surging runs, Morales' ability to find pockets of space and Beckerman's supreme defense splitting passes to all occur closer towards the opposition's penalty box.
The end result should be more goals for RSL - currently only two (Sporting KC and Vancouver) of the 10 teams sitting in playoff spots have scored fewer. Kreis is a man of principle and he isn't about to completely change his mindset, but he doesn't have to. He just needs to twist the dial on the RSL machine a bit closer towards "attack." JPW
The Whitecaps come home, but they're still stumbling
One sign from a Vancouver fan read "Home Sweet Home." Another huge banner by the corner flag away to the right stated "Our Home" above an illustration of BC Place. That illustration may well have been handy for some of the Whitecaps players, who could be forgiven if they'd forgotten what their home stadium looked like. On Sunday night against Colorado, they returned to play a match at BC Place for the first time in 38 days after a grueling four-game road trek.
On the field it was almost a case of "Home Sweet Home". But leading 2-1 with four minutes left, disaster struck. Lee Young-Pyo and Alain Rochat challenged for the same ball in the box and Colorado substitute Jamie Smith pounced amongst the confusion to grab a point for the Rapids and leave the 'Caps playoff hopes hanging in the balance. After five straight losses and four on the road, a 2-2 tie at least stopped the rot. But with a bit of composure Vancouver could, and should, have grabbed all three points.
Vancouver looked shaky in the first half but perked up dramatically thanks to their lively rejigged frontline in the second period. Gershon Koffie and Barry Robson dominated midfield, as both created the 'Caps two goals. But this particular game summed up Vancouver's season, full of promise, full of spirit, full of attacking impetus but then a slip up cost them a win, once again. With Dallas off this weekend, it was the perfect opportunity for Vancouver to stretch the gap between themselves and the Texas outfit. The 'Caps are now just two points ahead with four games remaining for both teams.
It's not all doom and gloom though. With three of their remaining four games at BC Place, the 'Caps will hope to draw on the superb atmosphere created by the "Southsiders" to push them over the line. The crowd certainly got going in the second half, as did the 'Caps, after manager Martin Rennie brought Kenny Miller on at half time to throw an extra attacker into the mix, with Vancouver down 1-0 at the break. Also, Vancouver's rookie forward Darren Mattocks was named as the top MLS player under the age of 24 earlier in the week and he played like it in the second half. The duo of Mattocks and Miller scared the life out of Colorado's defense. And with Robson, Koffie and Dane Richards threading balls through from midfield it was only a matter of time before Vancouver got on the score sheet.
But having gone ahead in a four minute spell, they froze. They stopped going forward, they weren't quite sure what to do. Go for more goals? Protect the lead? They ended up doing neither and could have conceded a late winner too had Brad Knighton not saved smartly from Cummings in injury time. The 'Caps can't afford to do that again. But Rennie will have learnt a lot from his players. Yes, they were nervous after going in front. But they did have the capabilities to do that and with a jet-fuelled offense orchestrated by Robson and Koffie just behind, a positive approach for the remaining fixtures will yield positive results. JPW