New York may finally have lost their flakiness
The Red Bulls have never been top of the Supporters' Shield standings this late in the season. As even their own coach acknowledged last week, there are certain types of games you just expected New York to lose, and it's those dropped points that, when added up, make the difference between contenders and credible also-rans.
It's more than bad luck – New York fans talk of the "Curse of Caricola" but in serial incarnations it's been more a kind of persistent flakiness that besets the team – they've tended to be like the old West Ham sides from the 70s: capable of playing anyone off the park on their day, less inclined to dig in and grind out results over the course of a season.
But on Sunday night, in perhaps the most challenging circumstances of the season, the Red Bulls fought back against, and at times even dominated, a Seattle side playing at home for sole possession of the Supporters' Shield lead. And they did so under the most testing of circumstances.
Seattle were playing in front of a huge home crowd and had won 10 of their last 11 at home. They may have been without Clint Dempsey (but in truth, as a newly arrived Designated Player, Dempsey is still in that first season DP mode of getting to know his new team), but the Red Bulls were without half their spine – both Jamison Olave and Thierry Henry were absent for the game on Seattle's notorious artificial turf. The absence of the latter in particular overshadowed the build up to the game, but it was a credit to his team mates that that absence quickly became a footnote.
The remainder of that New York spine and those drafted in to augment it stepped up to produce a gutsy road performance. For long stretches of the game they quietened the feted Sounders crowd – who took until the 36th minute to come alive, when Eddie Johnson forced Luis Robles into an acrobatic save. It inspired the only sustained period of Sounders pressure of the game and a few minutes later a Holgersson handball gave Evans the opportunity to make it 1-0 before half time – and as the relieved Seattle crowd celebrated you could pinpoint the exact moment previous New York sides would have started to go into hiding.
Instead New York came out the sharper in the second half and took the game to Seattle – Tim Cahill constantly prompting a faster tempo from those around him. Two set pieces ended up in Holgersson and Espindola hitting the woodwork and while Seattle looked sharp on the counter, they didn't look comfortable – even when they got into their usual comfort zone of the last fifteen minutes, where they've only conceded two goals all season.
Make that three. A late piece of opportunistic finishing from Cahill and the game finished level – enough to take New York back to the top. Ultimately, the point might not be enough of a buffer against Seattle's two games in hand, but it will have sent a message to those teams around them that the serial under-performers might be good for something more this year, than folding under pressure. GP
Four-for-one: playoff focus centers on East's five-seed
Neither Chicago nor New England would have been happy to see Philadelphia, one of their competitors for the East's five-spot, take a surprise three points out of Kansas City. That meant both teams, in an increasingly-tight race for the conference's last playoff spot, needed home wins to have a chance to leap back in top five. But just like the Union, both the Fire and Revolution would need to do damage against the East's in-crowd if they were to make up ground.
For the Revs, that meant their third meeting of the season with Houston, a team that won their last visit to Foxboro on July 13 (2-1). This time, however, New England drew first blood, finally navigating a combative midfield and Houston's prescient offside trap to create a 64th minute goal for Saer Sene. Twelve minutes later, however, when a resurgent Will Bruin cracked an equalizer under Matt Reis's crossbar, the Revs were handed a result that left them out of the top-five, a 1-1 leaving them tied for sixth at round's end.
Meanwhile in Bridgeview, Chicago were trying to figure out the increasingly unpredictable Montréal Impact, with the one-time East leaders appearing to bring their Dr Jekyll selves while taking an early lead through Marco Di Vaio (his 18th of the year). The league's other golden boot contender, Mike Magee, responded with two second half goals to give the Fire a 2-1 lead, though it was his late second half penalty miss that would loom large. When Maxime Tissot pushed his 87th minute header past Sean Johnson, Chicago shared New England's fate, their 2-2 draw leaving them eighth some Sunday.
That's when the newly-surging Columbus Crew, revitalized in the wake of Robert Warzchya's dismissal, claimed their fourth win in five, the speed of Dominic Oduro dealing a dimming blow to Dallas's faint playoff hopes. The 4-2 win made it nine goals in three games for Columbus, leaving them tied with New England (41 points, one point back of Philadelphia).
Brian Bliss's squad is, without question, the form team in this race, but having played an extra game, they may also be at the mercy of the Union, whose one-point edge on New England and Columbus (two on Chicago) loomed larger with every weekend result. And if the Revs and Crew, who play a home-and-home to end the season, take points off each other, Philly return to the postseason. RF
There's a Cup final coming up…
In case anyone was looking at the team sheets for the Vancouver vs RSL and Toronto vs DC games and squinting at the team sheets in a puzzled manner, Tuesday night sees a cup final between the two visitors in those games, and as expected both coaches rang the changes with their selections.
That there were two very different sets of expectations in doing, and two very different results, should tell you everything you need to know about the two finalists' seasons – and in many ways everything you need to know about the campaigns of their two opponents at the weekend.
RSL, coming off a rare two-game losing streak, may have expected to be in damage control mode going up to a Vancouver side who were faltering in their playoff challenge and likely to be dangerous. And indeed Jason Kreis did field a second string side. If Vancouver expected to take advantage though, they were set back when Devon Sandoval grabbed a 9th minute goal for the visitors, and then despite huffing and puffing they could not get past number two RSL goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.
It was another troubling result in what's been an underwhelming season for the Whitecaps, who've managed to tread water at best. Injuries haven't helped, but nor has Martin Rennie's desire to tinker with his line up and tactics. In 2012, a premature mid-season overhaul of the side saw them limp into and out of the playoffs, while this year the results elsewhere this weekend put them in grave danger of missing out completely.
Jason Kreis has had a personnel overhaul to make too this year, as his salary capped squad aged out and new players, some of them very young, were asked to step up. Crucially though, they were only asked to do so within the context of a coherent system built on continuity, as Kreis noted after Saturday night's game:
Us being able to put anyone on the pitch and still win games is one of the large benefits of having a philosophy of playing in a system that we stick to 90% of the time. We train all of our guys in that same system, we train all of our guys against opponents system's within ours. So we know our weaknesses and we know our strengths, so we believe that if we put in the right effort that our strengths will come out.
Kreis also went on to suggest that the chance to win the Open Cup at home in a one-off game took precedence over the realistic shot his side still have of taking the Supporters' Shield. He'll get no disagreement from his opponent in Tuesday night's final – Ben Olsen too went into Saturday's game in Toronto focussed almost exclusively on the US Open Cup final – and for good reason. The wretched domestic season saw the rest of the East disappear over the horizon some time ago and the Open Cup has become DC's only hope. With that in mind he rested key starters such as Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid, and withdrew more players in the second half against Toronto – and duly saw his side hammered 4-1 by one of the only teams in the East close to having as poor a record as DC According to Olsen, that was the plan:
I set these guys up to fail today, it's pretty simple. We hung in there for about 60 minutes and then I got some guys out that were maybe going to factor in to Tuesday's game and now I'm putting guys out of position. You start adding those up and you are playing a real team in the MLS and that's what can happen.
That's what can happen indeed. DC go into Tuesday's final as the team bottom of the Supporters' Shield standings against the side that finished their game on top of the standings. RSL beat playoff rivals at the weekend. DC United lost to wooden spoon rivals. Salt Lake are at home in Tuesday night's final.
But it's a cup final. And if ever there were was a team whose season came down to one game before that season was over, it's DC United. Stranger things have happened. GP
Next gear not enough for LA in Portland
At some point, Los Angeles is supposed to surge, find their championship form, and become the team so many picked to claim a third-straight MLS title. And for much of Sunday's first half in Portland, the holders obliged, their transitions into Portland's third making them the more-dangerous side over the game's initial 30 minutes. Though the Timbers were starting to look like their normal, controlling selves before halftime, Bruce Arena had leveraged 180 minutes against Caleb Porter's club to forge a winning formula. LA was providing a small glimpse of their November form.
But set pieces – one of the ailments that has plagued the champs all season – came back to bite them seven minutes into the second. That's when Max Urruti beat Sean Franklin near-post on Will Johnson's corner, getting his studs around his mark to punch this one home:
Just like that, the plan that seemed set to exploit Pa Modou Kah and Futty Danso (who rose to the challenge in central defense) was rendered meaningless in the face of a second half deficit. Instead of playing on the counter and looking to throw numbers at the Timbers in transition, Los Angeles was given the initiative; challenged to take the game from their hosts.
At that point of the season, it was a particularly important challenge. LA came into the match two points back of Portland for third in the West. Win, and the defending champions would move closer to avoiding a second straight play-in round. Allow Urruti's goal to stand, and a four-five match with Colorado became the most-likely scenario.
But just as they were on their season's first visit to Portland, LA was left ruing late-match officiating at the end of a one-goal loss. On July 13, the Galaxy cried foul when they felt insufficient time was added after Andrew Jean-Baptiste's 92nd minute winner. On Saturday, Arena was seen berating officials after the assistant referee (correctly) raised his flag when Robbie Keane got behind the defense on the restart ahead of his ill-fated equalizing goal.
The 1-0 loss leaves Portland five points up on LA, but it also left lingering questions. In that first half – where LA seemed to have Portland where they wanted them – did we see LA try to begin their surge? And if so, should Galaxy fans be concerned that LA's next gear didn't seem to be good enough? RF
The Blue Hell is a little too pleasant a place to visit
Somewhere on the road to home field advantage, Sporting KC's stadium became a little too friendly. Philadelphia Union were the latest recipients of the hosts largesse on Friday night, when their non-scoring strike force both scored and were not scored against en route to a surprise victory over a well-rested Sporting side who could perhaps claim ring-rustiness, were it not for the fact that they have lost at home to Portland, Seattle, Montreal and New York already this season, and continue to make a habit of falling back from hard-won positions.
A slightly more legitimate excuse for Friday's performance might be the absence of Matt Besler at the heart of defense, or perhaps an adjustment to the demands of the Champions League. But a run of three league victories, including a 3-0 chastening of an otherwise resurgent Columbus, should have set Sporting up nicely to put more pressure on Eastern leaders New York against a stumbling Philadelphia. Instead they were caught by the similar type of bunkered countering that had seen New York pull off a surprise victory at Sporting Park in August – a sign that Sporting have still not worked out how to play against the rope-a-dope tactics Houston Dynamo have famously beaten them with in the last two season's playoffs.
Philadelphia worked hard for their victory, but it wasn't one anyone was calling before the game. Not only had the Union never beaten Kansas City on the road, they arrived in town having not scored in three games, and having not won for five. Jack McInerney seemed to be in sole possession of the scoring jinx he'd briefly shared with Houston's Will Bruin (now scoring emphatically again), and the Union looked the most vulnerable in the tight Eastern playoff picture.
They also had a keeper in Zac MacMath, who'd been seen for much of the season as vulnerable at set pieces and possibly too lightweight for the league. But one factor in the Union's victory on Friday was that MacMath picked up a league-leading 11th clean sheet of the season. He's still raw, but John Hackworth's persistent faith in the young keeper is paying dividends.
Sporting KC's stadium is perhaps the finest in the league – everything from the hospitality suites to a supporters' section built to maximize the singing from the Cauldron (home of the "Welcome to the Blue Hell" banner) has been thought of with an extraordinary attention to detail. It's a lovely stadium to watch soccer. Right now, it can be a little too comfortable for visitors to play soccer in too. GP