Dempsey, Martins: Two stars, one orbit
Clint Dempsey has to slow down. He just can't maintain this pace, can he? If he did so over 2400 minutes (just under 27 games), he'd score 40 goals – 13 more than the single-season record Chris Wondolowski tied two years ago. Maybe Dempsey has rediscovered his Fulham form, because after Saturday's two-goal performance – part of the 4-1 win over Colorado that vaulted Seattle to the top of the Western Conference – the US captain is up to eight goals this season – seven in four games since returning from suspension.
Scoring twice within seven minutes of halftime, Dempsey tripled the one-goal lead Lamar Neagle gave Seattle just before intermission, his spinning pass at the top of the penalty area ahead of his first goal adding a level of difficulty to a game that's become too easy this spring. Yet for all the acclaim his individual exploits have begun to renew, it was Dempsey's connection with his strike partner that made a lasting impression on Saturday. For the fourth week in a row, the Dempsey-Obafemi Martins combination proved unstoppable.
This isn't merely a case of two players whose talents transcend Major League Soccer coming together, though that's part of the charm. Those talents have combined to form something greater than its parts, the players' eagerness to feed off each other creating a barrage of first touch, quick movements that have beguiled opposing defenses. Seemingly never more than 10 yards from each other and in constant motion, Dempsey and Martins are two stars in a mutual orbit, their binary system having already produced 11 goals this season.
Through two months of the season, the combination's been so brutally effective, it's irresistible to think back to last year, remember Dempsey's struggles, and wonder how things could have possibly gone so wrong. But that's why Eddie Johnson was still around. Sigi Schmid had to try and fit him in with Martins and Johnson. That's why we saw Dempsey in midfield, an accommodation for the team's two other forward stars. That's why we saw the team stumble.
This year, Dempsey's back in his ideal spot – the first time he's played this role since leaving Fulham. Supporting a Premier League-quality forward, Dempsey's back to producing Premier League-quality results. In MLS that means an early record pace. Narrowed down to Seattle, that means the top strike tandem in the league. RF
Montréal, San Jose leaves winless; Portland left behind
The quartet of futility was halved on Saturday, with two teams leaving the shrinking ranks of MLS's winless. At Stade Saputo, a Zac MacMath gift laid out for Felipe Martins allowed the Impact to break through, with Philadelphia's continued troubles in the final third conceding a 1-0 win to Montréal. Across the continent, San Jose's refrain from a difficult opening schedule allowed the Earthquakes to claim victory in Santa Clara, with former Benfica attacker Yannick Djaló volleying home his first league goal in the 66th minute.
If the Timbers could claim a win Sunday in Houston, the rise of the winless would be complete. Chicago, one of three teams given the weekend off, would be alone – the only team with a "0" in the win column. Given the problems Houston had in New Jersey midweek, falling 4-0 to the Red Bulls, Portland had reason to think the believe it showed last week in Salt Lake would translate to victory at BBVA Compass.
Unfortunately for the Timbers, Brad Davis was back in the lineup for the home team, the U.S. international's ankle injury coinciding with the recent spell of Dynamo impotence. Three weeks ago, with Dallas visiting BBVA, Davis assisted on a 41stminute Ricardo Clark equalizer before leaving at halftime. In the three-and-a-half games that followed, Houston failed to score a goal.
Sixteen minutes into Portland's visit, the returning captain helped end his team's drought. Putting a 16th minute ball in behind Portland's defense, Davis set up Will Bruin to end Houston's scoreless streak at 335 minutes, with the Dynamo threatening to end its six-game winless run.
From Portland's point of view, the goal marked the seventh time in eight games the Timbers have given up the opener, an unfortunate fact only partially offset by Gastón Fernández's 33rd minute equalizer. Though the goal gave the Timbers 57 minutes to capitalize on the struggling Dynamo, a combative Houston proved as strong through the final whistle. Despite the Dynamo's midweek embarrassment and Portland's performance last week in Utah, despite the hope the 2013 Timbers will eventually answer 2014's call, Portland continues to find ways to drop points. RF
DC United and Dallas learn different lessons of history
After a winless start in 2012 DC United hosted FC Dallas at RFK Stadium and blew them away with a 4-1 victory that kickstarted their season and eventual run deep into the playoffs.
DC weren’t winless going into Saturday night’s home game against Dallas — in fact they had two wins and two draws from their previous four games. But there’d been an unedifying, if necessary pragmatism about some of their work in that sequence, with goals snatched on the counter and then defended with sometimes desperate rearguard actions. And while DC had broken the sequence of winless games that had followed them from the awful 2013 season, they hadn’t yet produced a performance to suggest they’d truly moved beyond the ghosts of that time — transformed squad or not.
Anyway, on Saturday night DC United beat FC Dallas 4-1 and produced at least one half of attacking soccer and positivity to beat the team who started the evening at the top of the MLS Supporters Shield standings. In fairness, in acknowledging that, you have to also acknowledge that FC Dallas were playing with ten men for all four of D.C.’s goals after Zach Loyd stupidly earned himself a second yellow that could easily have been a straight red for a studs up lunge.
In his absence and with their goalscorer and principal creative outlet Mauro Diaz subbed off the field, Dallas had settled into a defensive shell that isolated Fabian Castillo upfield and invited DC on. Faced with what was almost a training ground scenario, DC not only rattled in four goals (including two goals and an assist for Fabian Espindola), but produced a second half performance of such dominance that if their season goes on to resemble 2012 more than 2013, once again “the Dallas win” will be looked back on as the day the team found not only the points but their confidence as an attacking force.
Dallas meanwhile, have their own self-destructive history to contend with after this weekend. After a stellar start in 2013 they’d faded badly and missed the playoffs, and now they find themselves in the middle of a potentially treacherous East coast road trip (New York are up next week) without Loyd and, perhaps even more worryingly, without Michel, given a straight red for lashing out at Chris Rolfe late on.
That’s particularly alarming given that Michel and Diaz have scored or been directly involved in 82% of Dallas’s goals this season, and if the latter’s subbing off turns out to have been for an injury that keeps him out of the New York game, Dallas could be without their most influential creative personnel just as they seek to ensure their recent history of faltering doesn’t become a pattern. GP
Bradley Wright-Phillips caps a sick four goal week
New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips began the week doubtful for the Houston game with flu-like symptoms and ended it having taken his personal haul for the week to four, after his hat trick against the Union (the first English player to achieve this feat in MLS) was followed by a confidently taken turn and shot to level Saturday night’s road game at Columbus Crew.
Before that game New York’s newly potent offense had scored 6 goals in 2 games, matching their combined total for the previous six games. The Red Bulls have had no problem making chances, but their profligate finishing has cost them lot of points already this season, and put the focus on a creaking defense and the goalkeeping heroics of Luis Robles.
The successive home victories against the Union and the Dynamo had made the Red Bulls points and goals for columns look a little more impressive, and they duly started in confident fashion against the Crew, only for the first half to become a microcosm of their season before those victories — failing to score when dominant and giving up yet another clumsy penalty to fall behind.
Having handed Columbus the initiative, New York pushed forward in the second half, and were decent value for their point after Wright-Phillips made his intervention — and will have been happy enough to take something from a Columbus side who have taken something from all their games but one this year.
Indeed, following Sporting KC’s surprise loss to New England (inspired by Teal Bunbury’s injury time “Remember me?” to his former employers), the Crew’s point was enough to take them top of the East, even though they haven’t won in three games. Having absorbed the attacking ideals of Gregg Berhalter, the Crew are now looking to take the next step. Wil Trapp continues to impress stepping forward from defense, Higuain is a constant menace when teams drop concentration and forget to close him down at a safe distance from goal, and they even had the novelty attacking tandem of Bendell (6’7”) and Oduro (67 shades of hair) to finish the game with. They’re not the finished article yet, but they look like a team that will develop more nuance as the year goes on.
For New York, that nuance is a stated objective — Mike Petke wants the virtues of continuity from 2013 to translate to greater invention and more attacking play from his full backs in 2014. The results of the last ten days have extended a license to experiment that was in danger of being revoked when New York was still winless. Yet for all that a point on the road against this version of Columbus was a decent result, Petke will be aware that with better finishing it could have been more. For now Wright-Phillips and (fitfully) Thierry Henry have made things look a lot healthier, but in defense and in the team’s general ability to convert its chances, there are still some lingering symptoms of an early season malaise. GP
RSL hold familiar failings up to the light
Saturday night was Real Salt Lake’s season rewritten as a cartoon — their best attacking half of the season, that started with them threatening to blow Vancouver Whitecaps away, was followed by a second-guessing defensive performance that ended with them conceding an unlikely equalizer with the last kick of the game, only a few minutes after allowing what looked like a consolation goal for the Whitecaps.
What promised to be a battle of the playmakers, and playmakers called “Morales” at that, was derailed for Vancouver before a ball had been kicked on Saturday night, when their Morales —Pedro — did not travel due to a back injury. In his absence the midfield diamond Vancouver have been experimenting with when he’s in the side, was converted back to a 4-2-3-1.
RSL kept the diamond midfield that their tradition has been built on, and promptly demonstrated its value as they cut Vancouver apart in the opening ten minutes. By the time a bewildered Whitecaps team began getting Manneh and Mattocks running at the RSL defense, Salt Lake were 2-0 up and looking value for more — a second minute Joao Plata goal having been followed up by a sublime finish by Alvaro Saborio.
Vancouver stuck to their task, with Kenny Miller trying to steady less-experienced team mates. Miller’s uncertain contractual fate with the Whitecaps hasn’t affected his professionalism, and he was visibly directing those around him as the game settled in the first half.
But there was little joy for the Whitecaps in the first 45 minutes. They did demonstrate their ability to open up defenses in flashes, but seemed confounded by RSL’s relentless work rate and support for each other in defense. Salt Lake have remained unbeaten in the league without always playing well, but the opening half boded well for a statement performance.
And then…nothing. The second half saw Salt Lake sitting back and eventually allowing the Whitecaps back into it when Mezquida (subbed on for a disbelieving Miller) was first to a Mattocks shot Nick Rimando could only parry. Still, Salt Lake looked to have edged the game when Sebastian Fernandez hit a speculative shot from distance in the fourth minute of injury time, and watched in delight as it knuckled under Rimando’s dive to give the Whitecaps a share of the points, and deny RSL the chance to go top on goal difference.
It was a repeat of a lesson Salt Lake have repeatedly failed to learn — their inability to hold leads means that a team who might have been out of sight at the top of the West (even after what was on paper perhaps the toughest start of the schedule), are instead still unbeaten, but not unstoppable. GP