Portland are now looking at national bragging rights
We know by now that a Timbers vs Sounders game is going to be a spectacle, though occasionally in the past when you got beyond the tifos, the chanting, and the frenetic pace of local rivalry games, what was left was often a parochial affair in terms of its implications, given Portland's early struggles to dent the Western standings since entering the league. Not so Sunday night's game. Portland have taken a quantum leap this year, so that what was at stake was the lead in the West with two games to go, and what may turn out to be a Supporters Shield decider. Fans in Salt Lake, Kansas City and New York were watching developments at Jeld-Wen Field with interest.
What they saw was an entertaining game in classic derby mode – congested battling midfields, a red card, struck woodwork and ultimately a new leader of the West, as the Timbers leapfrogged the Sounders by sending them to their third successive defeat.
But there were many more subplots to this game than Kalif Alhassan's winner. After successive heavy defeats Sigi Schmid rang the changes in defense by dropping Djimi Traore, and in goal with Marcus Hahnemann replacing Michael Gspurning. But perhaps the biggest gamble, and one that came within a bar's width of paying off, was starting a clearly struggling Clint Dempsey. With less than quarter of an hour gone Dempsey capped an opening period dominated by the Sounders with a header that crashed off the bar. It would have been his first goal for the Sounders, but instead he became something of an expensive passenger, clearly playing hurt until eventually being pulled out of the game in the second half.
His replacement Steve Zakuani would also be thwarted by the woodwork in second half stoppage time as his shot was partly blocked by Pa Modou Kah, before cannoning off the bar. By that time Seattle were down a goal (Alhassan's low drive into the corner coming just before half time) and also down a man. Amid chaotic scenes Ossie Alonso saw red for elbowing Will Johnson in the 74th minute — the Portland man making very sure the momentum of Alonso's arm was visible as he took a knee, before letting the inevitable chaos unravel behind him, job done. Alonso will miss at least Seattle's trip to Dallas, and his departure may have signalled the last post for the Sounders' playoff challenge, even though an inch here or there might have made the difference on the night. Luck didn't break the Sounders' way though and Seattle have lost three in a row for the first time since 2010.
Portland meanwhile were celebrating a win that may not have been enough to win them the Cascadia Cup (Sunday's result means Vancouver take that trophy), but right now their eyes are on bigger prizes.
The subs were the saving grace for the USA
On one level it's understandable that the USA's performance against Jamaica should have been so lackluster. With qualification already assured and a party atmosphere prevailing at Sporting Park for the last home game in competition before the World Cup, it's possible to see why it could be easy for the team to lose focus in a game whose scoreline wouldn't affect the USA's destiny.
But on another level — the level Jurgen Klinsmann apparently occupies — qualification is one stage of a progressive arc, not a destiny in itself, and the games against Jamaica and Panama actually offered an additional opportunity to hone the squad that will eventually represent the US in Brazil. So on an individual level at least you might have expected a sense of urgency — looking at previous squads and players coming into form at just the right time, there are between 40 and 50 players with realistic chances of challenging for places, and a few current incumbents, in defense in particular, who won't exactly be resting easy in the knowledge their place is assured.
Yet until the second half nobody really seized the chance to make any sort of compelling case for themselves. Making his first start Aron Johannsson looked like redundancy alongside Jozy Altidore and despite some neat first touches to create shooting chances, didn't do much with those chances. Mix Diskerud looked more comfortable in the late reshuffle from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 that pushed him forward, but for much of the game he and Jones looked on different pages. As it was, an unfamiliar Jamaican side, seeing out their own disappointing campaign by blooding new talent like Colorado's Deshorn Brown up front, didn't have quite the cohesion to turn their high press into a potent threat, and the US weren't unduly tested, but the subs on the US bench were doubtless treated to a running monologue of dissatisfaction from their coach as sloppy passes, sluggish movement and indifferent finishing began to mount up.
Said subs changed the game. First Graham Zusi came in for an uncharacteristically sluggish Donovan at half-time and while the hometown player's impact wasn't instant, he added some set piece menace, and eventually the opening goal. That came after Edgar Castillo and Sacha Kljestan had entered the game and taken the US to a more familiar shape that allowed Diskerud forward and Zusi to find more space to run at a stretched Jamaican offense. He got his goal with a smart piece of opportunism and positioning and shortly afterwards, Castillo, who'd instantly started making a nuisance of himself on the overlap from left back, cut back unselfishly for Altidore to tap home, in what had otherwise been an unremarkable match for the Sunderland man.
Repeatedly in this last year Klinsmann's in-game subs and tactical adjustments have made the difference in games, giving the lie to his reputation as more of a motivator than a tactician, and Friday evening was no exception. But that motivational aspect shouldn't be underestimated, not should its place in the longer strategic game being played by a coach with one eye on managing a complete World Cup cycle. In the past couple of weeks Klinsmann has made one or two tweaking comments about his team, designed to adjust expectations for this stage of the campaign — but always with an eye to the future. He will have been disappointed that so few of his players on Friday seemed capable of moving beyond the achievements of the recent past.
Mexico's magnificent saviour
You really can't overstate how important Raul Jimenez's 85th minute goal for Mexico against Panama was. Having missed a second half penalty to make it 2-0, and having conceded an 81st minute goal to put them back to a horribly familiar home scoreline against their chief rivals for qualification, El Tri looked in disarray.
2013 has been horrible for Mexico. Winless at home in the Hex, bounced from the Gold Cup and finally axing their coach at a moment when the thinnest of margins existed between them and the ultimate indignity of failing to qualify for the World Cup. Neutrals have watched their unraveling with a progressively less sure conviction that Mexico would eventually come good, while the team themselves seemed to play with an equal conviction that they were cursed — heads dropping at every setback, and everyone from Chicharito back vulnerable to worrying drops in form.
When Panama equalized it looked like the same old story for Mexico. The crowd that had been singing in relief moments earlier, were getting set to double down on the fury that had greeted each successive Azteca disappointment in this qualifying round.
Enter Jimenez and his jaw-dropping goal to win the game. Under the circumstances and pressure it was a brilliant goal and with Mexico unable to collectively play themselves into self-belief, had another potentially vital function. It may be that this was the type of wake-up call that did what Mexico's collective attempts to play themselves out of a nightmare had not — jolted Mexico with a sharp reminder that their current position is an aberration. The path to Brazil is still tricky, but it no longer looks cursed.
Battered New England still in hunt thanks to Goncalves
In the 97th minute of last week's game with New York, New England defender Andrew Farrell was ordered from the field to deal with blood coming from a wound he'd picked up moments earlier. With the Revs already down to ten men, they conceded a goal on the subsequent set piece as Tim Cahill exploited the space in the box.
This week, a bruised New England traveled to slumping Montreal, where the injuries continued in rather more serious fashion. But while it's hard to talk about a "good result" on any day when your striker picks up a horrible broken ankle (as Saer Sene did in the first half) or his replacement is forced off the field later in the same game, at least New England left with a positive scoreline that temporarily pushed them into the playoff spots.
The man who made the difference was Jose Goncalves, whose 31st minute goal at the back post was only one part of another strong performance from the center back. Goncalves has been a rock at the heart of the New England defense all season. His goal may only have been his second of the season, but it's what he's done at the other end that has defined his year and his role, never more so than in a physical road game where he led by example and refused to be bullied.
Goncalves had his moments in attack, other than the goal, stepping forward again to smash a dipping shot from distance that rocked Montreal keeper Troy Perkins back on his feet midway through the second half, but it was in his familiar role, as players went sprawling around him, that Goncalves made his principle contribution. The defender brought discipline to the New England backline to nullify the threat of the prolific Marco di Vaio, who has made a late career art form of ever finer margins for playing off the last man's shoulder. With little room for error Goncalves didn't make any and Montreal continued their streak of being unable to buy a goal, let alone a win at home. Right now they look shot, and things don't get easier with a midweek trip to the Galaxy to play the current game in hand they have on the three teams behind them, none further than a point back.
New England meanwhile, kept themselves in an incrediby tight Eastern playoff race and may yet take a spot at the expense of the Impact, or at least force a return trip in a potential wild card game. They'll have striking problems now with Sene gone for the season and Imbongo a doubt, but the main question mark against the run-in has always been whether the defense would regain the defensive solidity they'd built around Goncalves throughout the year, and which had slipped a little in recent weeks. Saturday's shut out bodes well for the Revs' final two games of the regular season against Columbus Crew.
Kenny Cooper mirrors his side with too little too late
Remember Kenny Cooper? Thierry Henry's erstwhile strike partner exited back to Dallas in pre-season, and with Blas Perez already at the club and Eric Hassli joining as well, it looked like the Frisco team were going to be one of the more potent strike forces in the league. And then … nothing much. Dallas won games early on, with contributions from their midfield at least as important as the vaunted trio; Hassli was a bust and Perez was in and out of the side with international duty, suspensions, injuries etc. And Cooper? Cooper went from last season's 20-goal man back to being what he's been in recent seasons – an enigma. Still a finisher on his day, but no target man for the size of him, and prone to dry patches in front of goal.
Cooper had made 17 starts and 11 substitute appearances before Saturday night's visit of Chicago Fire, suggesting Schellas Hyndman had questions over what he can do for this team. Cooper hadn't scored in 15 games until last week, when he came on as a half time sub for Mauro Diaz against RSL, to score and salvage a point, before this week bringing FC Dallas, at one point 3-0 down to Chicago Fire, to within a goal, by scoring twice in the last half hour (again after coming on as a sub for Diaz).
That was as close as Cooper and Dallas got though, as their competitive season ended on Saturday night. They'd needed a win to stay in remote contention for a playoff spot and ended up making it all too easy for a Chicago team trying to stay in touch with their own playoff rivals in the East. With Philadelphia's late equalizer in DC, Chicago now join Montreal and the Union on 46 points with New England just one behind. Dallas meanwhile, join Chivas USA in the West's "nothing to play for" pile.
Dallas's slump seemed dramatic, but in truth a favorable early schedule possibly had them artificially elevated as spring became summer. And Cooper was just one player in a squad that never looked like exceeding the sum of its parts on paper, and that lacked the belief to dig themselves out of trouble when it came. David Ferreira was not the force he once was, Michel's set piece threat seemed to arrive then depart, and any time the injury-prone George John was out, the defense seemed to fall apart around his absence. When questions of motivation and organization arise it's inevitable fans look to the coach to fix them and it didn't happen. Schellas Hyndman may have some awkward questions to answer if he expects the Hunts to maintain their longstanding loyalty to him this off-season.