Three big midweek games had significant playoff implications on Wednesday night, as Seattle's struggles continued, San Jose and Vancouver kept their outside playoff hopes alive, and Sporting KC failed to overtake New York in the East.
Seattle 1-4 Vancouver
The playoff picture, and certainly the Supporters' Shield picture continues to look murky after Sigi Schmid asked for a reaction from his Seattle Sounders team to the weekend's traumatic 5-1 loss to Colorado Rapids, and duly got one...from a clearly encouraged Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Whitecaps, led by some wonderfully composed finishing from 18 year old Kekuta Manneh, were 3-0 up after 53 minutes, as the striker completed a hat trick of coolly taken one-on-one chances to stun the home crowd.
The Sounders briefly rallied through a Mauro Rosales goal 10 minutes later, but pressing forward in search of an unlikely comeback they were caught with a sucker punch as the Whitecaps broke through Nigel Reo-Coker, who looked to have run out of space until poking a hopeful shot through Michael Gspurning's legs for 4-1.
The stats are alarming for the Sounders. They were unbeaten in 14 at home, and are now winless in four having looked in pole position for the Supporters Shield. Most alarmingly, a team that has made its late season identity one of defending all over the field has conceded nine goals in the last two games. Even at 2-0 down at half-time (technically an improvement on being 4-0 down at the same stage against Colorado) they were in trouble. As Seattle Times writer Joshua Mayers pointed out during the game, the Sounders are 0-21-0 (including playoffs) when down by that score.
Vancouver meanwhile have put themselves back on the edge of the playoff picture, especially with the Rapids losing in San Jose. They're still a long shot and their retreat into an amorphous deep-lying mass after their third goal nearly allowed the Sounders an unlikely route back into the game — two minutes after Rosales made it 3-1, DeAndre Yedlin had a great chance to make it 3-2 when one-on-one on the overlap, and there were other looks for Seattle as the Whitecaps left men open even in their own box.
Seattle must now attempt to regroup under the most testing circumstances — a visit to local, and now Supporters Shield, rivals Portland on Sunday. They'll cling to small consolations — 40 minutes from Clint Dempsey after three games out with a hamstring injury, and a cameo from Steve Zakuani, who has missed half the season with a sports hernia injury. With Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans still absent on international duty at the weekend, the Sounders need every able body they can get.
For the Whitecaps meanwhile, Wednesday's results mean that a mini-playoff series begins right now. They have two games left and ironically enough those games are a road and home series against Colorado. Were the two to split that series, the path may yet open up for San Jose to sneak in.
San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 Colorado Rapids
From five goals against Seattle Sounders to zero shots on goal against San Jose Earthquakes, Colorado Rapids were brought down to earth with a very particular type of bump at Buck Shaw Stadium on Wednesday night, as they missed out on the chance to put some distance on the sides below the playoff red line and plunged themselves into a head-to-head battle with Vancouver Whitecaps to get across the line into the playoffs.
The Rapids were under pressure from the start in San Jose, but looked to be holding on, even as that pressure intensified in the second half. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin continued to demonstrate why he has taken the number one slot this campaign, with a number of key saves, though around the hour mark he needed the assistance of a spectacular double save from his defender Drew Moor, who beat out shots from Chris Wondolowski and then Alan Gordon while prone on the line.
Irwin could not stop Wondolowski's 69th minute winner though. Having saved one attempt from a quickly taken free kick, Irwin was beaten by another powerful near post header from the resulting corner, as Wondolowski finally got into double figures for the season, after struggling to get near last year's record-equalling tally.
But Wondolowski's recent goals have been as crucial as any of that 2012 run, and they have meant that San Jose kept their season alive from what looked an unlikely position a few short weeks ago. They have momentum to take into their October 20th clash in LA. Colorado now face a trickier run-in than they'd have liked against Vancouver — another team back from the dead.
Houston Dynamo 0-0 Sporting Kansas City
In Houston, the visit of Sporting KC had a playoff feel, with the end of the regular season so close and the teams starting the game seeded to meet yet again in a conference semi-final series that has seen Sporting eliminated in both the last two years. It hasn't all been Houston in that time frame of course — Sporting took great pleasure in ending the Dynamo's record unbeaten home run and have had the better regular season record. In fact a win for Sporting, coupled with New York's dropped points at the weekend, would have put Peter Vermes' team back on top of the East, and indeed the Supporters Shield running.
Both teams had lost key attacking elements to international duty, in Boniek Garcia and Graham Zusi. But arguably it was the defensive loss of Matt Besler for Sporting that made the most difference in the first half, as Houston, and Will Bruin in particular were able to fashion several good scoring chances, only for a combination of Bruin's streaky form in front of goal this year and Jimmy Nielsen's keeping, to hold the scores level. Besler's replacement Ike Opara played well enough and was a constant threat going forward for set pieces, but other than the usual threat from Seth Sinovic's long throws, the absence of Zusi for corners and free kicks blunted Sporting's attack and encouraged the Dynamo, at least in the first half.
The second half was more even, or perhaps more ragged, as both sides set about thwarting each other and such few chances as there were tended to come from ricochets and turnovers in a congested midfield. No goals though and Sporting's title destiny in the East remains out of their own hands, while Houston's failure to open up a gap gives encouragement to the chasing pack, particularly Montreal Impact, who may be stuttering badly, but will feel they have every chance of closing a two point gap to third with two games in hand. That would feasibly drop Houston into the wild card game, though with Philadelphia, New England and Chicago lurking, albeit a little more distantly, the Dynamo are far from confirmed in their playoff spot after Wednesday's result.