Nagbe does Dallas
The leaders of the Western Conference are rather more uncomfortable at the top of the standings after Saturday night's clash between Portland Timbers and FC Dallas, after a brilliant moment of improvisation by Darlington Nagbe separated the two frontrunners and sent the Timbers within a win of overtaking Dallas at the top.
As for what this game told us about these two sides relative MLS Cup aspirations, that was a little less clear cut. For Portland it depends on your perspective. Either you bemoan their wastefulness in front of goal, when a home game and the absences of Kenny Cooper, Blas Perez and (after only a few minutes play) Eric Hassli, had solidly handed them the attacking initiative and freed up Jewsbury and Harrington to press forward and add numbers to their attack. OR you acknowledge that Raúl Fernández had an outstanding series of saves for Dallas to confirm his reputation as the most spectacular shot stopper in the league this season. Fernández has also earned a reputation among Dallas fans as something of a heart stopper for other aspects of his goalkeeping play, but he was on fine reflex form in Portland to keep Dallas in the game, and it took Nagbe's perfect swivel in the box and scooped, curling shot to beat him. Nagbe also scored in Frisco earlier in the season, only for former Timbers player Kenny Cooper to pull Dallas level from the spot.
No Cooper in this game though, and in losing their grip on the Conference, Dallas can console themselves that they're unlikely to be as toothless up front again owing to the bizarre set of circumstances that left them playing most of the game without their three first choice strikers. Even had he not been on international duty, Perez had missed Panama's game against the USA in midweek with gastroenteritis; Cooper was forced to return to Dallas with a family emergency only an hour before kick off; and Hassli's third start of the season ended in injury only minutes into the game. Without those three, Dallas's main threat was the set pieces of Michel and Benitez, and Ricketts had one or two scares — only compounded when the utility player Jackson was moved up front and proved to be a handful for the Timbers.
Both sides looked understandably confident, though both coaches will want to take a look at their defensive decisions as they analyze this game. Dallas were outwitted on the counter on more than one occasion, and a brilliant dragback and through ball by Nagbe to take their center backs out of the game, should have been followed by a better finish from Chara. But that was perhaps inevitable with Dallas chasing the game, and arguably Caleb Porter should be marginally more concerned at the number of fouls his team gave away around the box. In the end it didn't affect the result, but it meant that a nominally blunted Dallas attack was always in the game. And as the Timbers eye frontrunner status and the heightened expectation that comes with that, that may be the area Caleb Porter wants to work on next.
D.C. pay price for ending their goalless streak
D.C. United's struggles in front of goal this season have been the understandable focus of most inquests into their poor league form — and only six goals all year tells its own story.
And as the season has drifted on and more and more points have been dropped, the US Open Cup began to loom larger in D.C.'s hopes for anything other than a forgettable season. D.C. are justifiably proud of their history in the Cup, but this year's edition also held the possibility that it might provide the opportunity for United to get some confidence in front of goal against undermanned or lower league opponents. Ben Olsen duly played a strong side for the team's third round game against Richmond Kickers, only to endure a goalless 120 mins and his side scraping through on penalties (prompting the coach to ruefully joke that at least his side had got some goals in the shootout). His tired team duly struggled again in the league.
This week, the Open Cup gambit came together in eye-catching fashion, as a spectacular De Rosario hat trick (half as many competitive goals as his team had scored all season, remember) took D.C. past Philadelphia in a convincing team performance by a side featuring several first choice players. And when Nick DeLeon was fouled sloppily by Gale Agbossoumonde in the 19th minute of their subsequent home game against Toronto, and De Rosario stepped up to score from the spot and officially end D.C.'s MLS scoreless streak, it looked as if things had finally turned around.
There was also encouragement in Wednesday's performance and how the team came out of the blocks today. De Rosario's goals grabbed the headlines, but arguably just as important has been the return of John Thorrington alongside Perry Kitchen in midfield. The team's shape dramatically improves with someone in Thorrington's role, and Kitchen in particular looks deeply grateful for the assistance in the heart of midfield. Thorrington's presence also liberates the players in front of him to become more creative in their movement and that was telling on Wednesday night and the early stages of Saturday's game.
But despite lifting the psychological barrier of the goalless streak D.C. could not break the winless streak, as they visibly tired as the game went on and fell victim to their other achilles heel this year — defending balls into the box, particularly at set pieces. First Robert Earnshaw was able to get the better (admittedly questionably) of Brandon Macdonald to head past Hamid on the half hour mark, then eleven minutes later Hamid had to watch helplessly as Daniel Woolard glanced a Toronto free kick into his own net, to leave D.C. trailing at half time.
Toronto have an achilles heel of their own of course — conceding late. And with both teams winless since March 9, and with the referee adding five minutes of added time to this game, you had to imagine the stage was set for a dramatic denouement, but D.C. had nothing left. D.C. are still in the Cup, have got their midfield working again and they've broken their goalless streak. But like all MLS teams their resources are finite and they must live with the results of the priorities they've chosen — and that means they're still winless in their last 13 MLS games.
The Eastern playoff race is tightening
The Western Conference was not the only Conference where the standings were shifting this weekend. Montreal came into the weekend with the chance to go four points clear of New York with three games in hand, and also steal a march on Philadelphia, Sporting KC and Houston — none of whom were playing. Instead Montreal handed the initiative to a Columbus Crew team who'd played as recently as Thursday lunchtime in the Cup.
If Montreal thought they'd take advantage of the Crew's fatigue or disappointment at going out of the Cup, they were stunned to go 2-0 down after 22 minutes after a rested Dominic Oduro added a second goal to Matias Sánchez's 6th minute opener. And as the game went on it became clear this was not just a case of the Crew catching Montreal cold, but a team who had half a step on their opponents all over the field. The Impact didn't get the bounce of a few crucial balls in the box, but they also failed to compete against a more determined team — the minimum requirement when facing a physical Columbus side — while failing to consistently pick up the Crew's playmaker Higuain (whose silencing has been the consistent element of the games the Crew have lost this season).
The result not only reined in the Impact, but made the playoff picture look very interesting, as the Crew moved to within two points of Sporting KC, Philadelphia and Houston, who'd started the weekend filling the last three playoff spots on 22 points. It could have got tighter still after in-form New England raced into a 2-0 lead in Vancouver, but they were undone after their dynamic rookie Andrew Farrell got a straight red as the last man trying to chase down Kenny Miller in the box. The Whitecaps, driven on by the ebullient Miller, whose return to the team has made the difference in Vancouver's form, came back to score three before half time. They looked to be struggling to hold on to their lead though, with the confident ten man Revs battling throughout the second half, even after Miller appeared to have killed the game with his superbly taken second goal in the 68th minute. The Revs pulled one back in the last ten minutes through Imbongo, and were within a fingertip Brad Knighton save of grabbing an unlikely point in stoppage time.
Despite the result, the Revs can look past that pivotal red card and continue to see positives in their recent form. They're scoring goals (including four in midweek) and young players such as Rowe, Farrell, and a revived Agudelo, are showing a lot of promise for the future, including the immediate future of an Eastern race that's tightening as it heads into summer.
The Bash Brothers are still just about intact
On Friday our San Jose game previewer Robert Jonas discussed the departure of the Quakes long-time coach, Frank Yallop, by noting that with due respect to Yallop's interim promoted replacement Mark Watson, the removal of a man synonymous with Quakes' post-2008 reincarnation, meant that this was now very much San Jose President Dave Kaval's club.
But for one game at least, the last team Yallop built returned in one of its more iconic forms, as the combination of Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon were at the heart of the Quakes' strained victory over Colorado Rapids. Early in the first half San Jose took the lead through the Bash Brothers — Steven Lenhart picking up a flicked-on Alan Gordon header with plenty of work still to do, only to hit a vicious shot from outside of the box that was still rising as it hit the net.
Moments later came the moment that should have put the Quakes comfortably in control, when Gordon was chopped down by Atiba Harris for a straight red — depriving the Rapids of not only an eleventh man, but one who had scored three in two games. Cue San Jose overwhelming the Rapids, surely? Not really. While the Earthquakes went further ahead on a Cronin goal after half time they were pegged back immediately and outshot and out-hustled throughout the game, as their midfield was, if anything, overrun itself by a determined Rapids side, who looked by far the more likely to get a Goonies-style late goal.
Lest we get too sentimental, this was a San Jose team that had followed last year's Supporters Shield-winning form with a recent run where they'd won just once in eleven games. And while there were occasional re-runs of their late game dramatic comebacks, they'd tended to be in the cause of salvaging a point rather than stealing three. Injuries have stretched a squad that was already looking rather lightly-reinforced for their forthcoming Champions League campaign (ironically, this first game after Yallop's departure was one of the few times we'd seen the combination of Wondolowski, Lenhart, and Gordon on the field at the same time), and while the drop off hasn't been dramatic, there'd been a steady deflation from the giddy heights of 2012, with Wondolowski in particular looking an anonymous figure compared to last year's record-breaking hero.
They held on for the win though, and while there may be something to the idea that Yallop had taken this team as far as he could, Watson may have followed his first win as interim coach with a quiet note of thanks for the foundation he's been given by his former boss.
The Bronx is burning...
...well, "burning" Queens anyway. The last week brought the latest turn of events in the ongoing saga to secure a home for New York City FC, when the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. wrote an open letter to MLS Commissioner Don Garber asking him to consider the Bronx for the stadium site for its New York franchise.
The letter took a sideswipe at the neighboring borough of Queens by noting the difficulties that have beset the league's attempts to get a stadium deal done at its preferred venue of Flushing Meadows:
"It would appear that there is little enthusiasm for world class soccer in Queens"
ran one particularly choice line from Diaz Jr's somewhat grandstanding note.
The irony of course is that regardless of where MLS end up building a new stadium (and the ownership involvement of the New York Yankees hardly helps the chances that the neighboring Mets will lift the logistic obstacles they've set in place for the proposed Flushing deal), the Bronx is likely to see plenty of MLS soccer in the immediate aftermath of the proposed 2015 arrival date for NY2. It's more than likely that Yankee Stadium will be a temporary home for the new side until a dedicated stadium can be built. But Diaz Jr's proactive, if mischievous, offer to open dialog with Commissioner Garber adds another voice to the clamor of political interests surrounding the new team before they've even kicked a ball.
One would-be expansion team who continue to kick a ball with notable success is Orlando City. They too have had their share of setbacks in their attempts to secure the stadium that Garber has insisted is a prerequisite of expansion status (except in New York apparently...), and Florida politics can be as messy to negotiate as anything in New York. But on the field the USL Pro side continue to draw decent crowds, and as their defeat of defending champions Sporting KC in this week's US Open Cup 4th round (to go with their 3rd round victory over Colorado) showed, they're doing plenty to keep their profile as high as it can possibly be, despite competing for attention with not just New York, but the potential high wattage of interest generated if David Beckham gets serious about Miami. If the latter should happen, expect the back and forth in New York to look like so much genteel parochial chatter, as the Florida parties jostle for position.