Breakthrough week for Whitecaps, supporters in Cascadia
During pre-season, when Major League Soccer sought to trademark "Cascadia Cup", fans of the league's three Pacific Northwest teams responded by forming the Cascadia Cup council – an umbrella organization that would have standing to represent supporters' claims to own the term. Then, when it was initially ruled that nobody could trademark a regional term like "Cascadia," the issue reached a kind of amicable stalemate, one that was cemented last week.
On Thursday, the CCC announced an agreement with Major League Soccer that affirmed the fans' ownership of the cup, an agreement that assuaged supporter concerns a trophy they'd created would be taken out of their hands. At the same time, Major League Soccer was able to get the supporters to agree that any attempts at monetization would require unanimous approval of the CCC, Major League Soccer, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps. Any fear MLS had that the growing "Cascadia Cup" brand could veer out of their control were also, ultimately, placated.
Considering there was also a Cascadia Cup match on Saturday, it was a big week for MLS's pre-eminent (if three-team) rivalry, one that took on a new dynamic after the result at BC Place. With an early, turf-aided goal from Kenny Miller followed by Darren Mattocks' late insurance, the Whitecaps had their first MLS Cascadia Cup win, a 2-0 victory that vaulted the team to fifth in the Western Conference.
Put aside the cultural and business politics of the north-west's hardcore fans and that result becoming the biggest takeaway from this week's Cascadia developments. One year ago, Vancouver was undermining their strong start through a series of curious roster moves, tossing away a straight in hopes of drawing a full house. That left the Whitecaps stumbling into the playoffs and approaching 2013 with questions about their general direction. How committed was Martin Rennie to a formula that submarined last year's team
Just like most organizations, Vancouver has learned and evolved. They cut Barry Robson early in the season and reincorporated Camilo Sanvezzo into their starting XI, yet they've also brought in Nigel Reo-Coker, stuck by Kenny Miller, and, curiously, dumped Alain Rochat on DC United – three decisions that look like (or, are) moves from a year ago. While it appeared Rennie would have to chalk up 2012 as a learning experience and move in a completely new direction, the 38-year-old has merely tweaked, retaining the good from last year's demise to fuel this year's ascent.
With 13 points from their last five games, Vancouver now sits fifth in the West, five points above their more ballyhooed neighbors. RF
Anor's busy week ends happily, but the Timbers' run is over
In the end, Portland Timbers did everything to make sure that this game was about them despite the scoreline. Even down to 10 men early, after a straight red to Pa Modou Kah in the 11th minute, the Timbers remained ambitious and still looked to play their possession game deep into the second half – repeatedly robbing the Crew midfield and demonstrating a degree of organization that should give any rival fan thinking of celebrating the snapping of their 15 game unbeaten streak pause for thought.
The Timbers have scored nine of their 28 goals in the moments immediately after half-time, and even a goal and a man down, Caleb Porter was trying to balance his side to dominate rather than bunker. He asked six of his remaining outfield players to remain compact, with Zemanski patrolling in front of the back four, while the other three were moving, dropping deep and generally tormenting a nervous Crew midfield en route to 55.8% of possession, and if in the end it wasn't quite enough for the Timbers to force a 10th draw of the season, it was enough to provide some encouragement even in defeat.
The Crew into this game sick of a similar sentiment. In the course of a week they had twice pegged back Sporting KC only to lose, then Bernardo Anor had stepped out of the shadows to give the Crew a late headed lead in LA, only for the Galaxy to come back and win through two late penalties – one conceded by Anor himself. Anor at least ensured his side ended the week on a high after he headed another early goal against the Timbers that turned out to be the winner, and ensured that the Crew ended the week on a high and still within a win of the Dynamo in the final playoff place (though having played a game more). Yet perhaps because of that recent experience of losing tight games, and perhaps also because of a few inexperienced though perfectly able performers in the side, and not least because this Timbers side and their coach are looking like the real deal, the Crew looked nervous all the way over the finish line. GP
Houston finally back on the scoresheet, in the win column
It was 59 minutes before Ricardo Clark broke through Saturday night, though the Dynamo's pains transcended their hour-long stalemate with Philadelphia. Last year's MLS Cup finalists hadn't scored a goal since 1 June at Columbus, a 299-minute run ended by Clark's diving header. Ultimately the game-winner in Houston's 1-0 win over Philadelphia, the midfielder's second of the season ended a seven-game winless run.
The severity of that run had dropped the Dynamo to fifth in the East, a stature which spurred faint panic, although little of that was coming from the team itself. Dominic Kinnear and staff are on the front lines for a squad which, since May, has had to deal with the loss of their two best players (Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia juggling international commitments with fitness concerns), suspensions to both their center-backs, the wane of Will Bruin, and now Bruin and Corey Ashe's losses to the Gold Cup. With Calen Carr just starting to train after knee surgery, Houston's been without Kinnear's ideal XI all season.
Houston's not the only team forced to manage fitness issues, and the Gold Cup has nicked a number of teams. Their issues, however, have been compounded by small performance downturns all over the field. Tally Hall and Bobby Boswell were worthy of Best XI consideration last year, while in 2013, they've merely been very good. Ricardo Clark was expected to develop into a greater offensive threat after his return, something that hasn't happened, while Bruin, Davis, and Garcia – the key to Houston's attack – have all failed to match last year's lofty statures. Those factors have left Houston unable to push on from last year's fifth place finish.
There have been bright spots. The loan of Andrew Driver has helped offset the absences of Davis and Garcia, Ashe and Kofi Sardokie have shown the potential to develop into the league's best set of fullbacks, while Giles Barnes put in a strong performance on Saturday night. Still, with Kinnear's full team unable to assemble until late July, the Dynamo may have to stay in survival mode a little bit longer.
At the onset of the season, Houston looked like a conference title contender. Still within reach of Montréal at the top, the Dynamo could yet claim the East's one-seed. But more and more, it looks like the path to a third consecutive MLS Cup final may end up a familiar one – that of a high seed trying to provide new context to a middling regular season. RF
Some familiar names are climbing the standings
The long hot MLS summer often has the paradoxical effect of cooling early-season winning streaks – in their wake often throwing up a team or two who go on a brief winning run that in turn may fall away in the fall, and rather more quietly seeing perennial challengers that have been bubbling under begin to find their groove.
This time last year, the Galaxy were just at the start of the dramatic comeback that would see them dominate the second half of the season and win MLS Cup, while in the East, teams like Chicago, Houston, Montreal and Columbus were briefly flaring in form before bunching behind the early pacesetters and ultimate conference winners, Sporting KC.
This season, there have been as many questions as notes of praise when it comes to both Sporting and the Galaxy. Sporting have added the goals of Bieler, but looked disjointed in other areas and strangely unconvincing at times in front of their passionate home crowd. They've been in and around the playoff spots without always suggesting that it's been by more than default at how other teams around them are doing (or failing to do). The Galaxy meanwhile had to start the season without Landon Donovan and recalibrating a midfield that may not have been built around David Beckham, but was certainly built knowing it would have to be a platform for him when it wasn't carrying him. Mike Magee scored early season goals but was then shipped to Chicago in exchange for the hope that Robbie Rogers will become the wide threat they want him to be. There've been scares and defeats – and in midweek only a couple of rather fortuitous late penalties stopped Columbus Crew from plundering all three points.
The Crew didn't win though and nor did Dallas on Sunday night – beaten by another two late LA goals and now without a win since May 25, when they edged San Jose. The Galaxy created numerous chances. On Sunday it was Robbie Rogers who seemed to do everything but score. In previous games Gyasi Zardes has added to the LA shot count without scoring. Common to those games though has been the fact that even without Donovan the Galaxy make chances, even if their conversion rate might still be a cause of concern for Bruce Arena. They patiently battered Dallas all night, with Keane inspirational, until eventually Sarvas got on the end of a chipped cross at close range to break the Dallas resistance, before Jimenez added a second.
Meanwhile in Chicago, where Magee had hit the ground running following the Rogers trade, the Fire finally lost a game with him in the team – to a Sporting KC side who continue to not make it easy on themselves at times, and who have not recorded a shutout since mid-May, yet have seven points from nine this week and find themselves a mere point back of Montreal in the East, albeit having played two games more. In the West, the Galaxy sit in third, four points behind RSL on the same number of games. Both sides are finding ways to win, and perhaps remembering what that feels like just when it begins to matter. GP
The US Gold Cup warm-up did its job
There's sometimes been a tendency for US sides under Jurgen Klinsmann to drift through friendly games without ever doing anything seriously wrong and never doing much seriously right – the desire to avoid mistakes and play to the system seeming to outstrip the desire for individual players to force their way into selection contention by transforming the game. In relief, it can also mean that even moderate individual ambition looks like a dynamic intervention – after the particularly dreary 0-0 with Canada by an MLS-dominated US lineup that opened the US team's 2013 schedule, there was a degree of buzz around Benny Feilhaber that from a distance seems more about the novelty of him actually running at defenders and trying to get crosses in than any particular success rate with that endeavour. But compared to his lackluster peers on the day, Feilhaber looked the real deal.
So what do we take from Friday night's warm-up game for the Gold Cup, where the US struggled throughout the first half to break down a stubborn Guatemala team, only to break out in the second half and beat the visitors 6-0?
Well, setting aside for a moment the return of Landon Donovan and his passing of an unprecedented 50-goal international milestone for a US player, perhaps the chief beneficiary in terms of painting a vivid splash of second-half color over a wash of first half grey laid down by his team mates, was Stuart Holden, and to an extent, Mix Diskerud. The two came on at half time for Beckerman and Torres, and where the latter pair had looked all caution and lateral movement, Holden and Diskerud did a passing impression of the more dynamic alternating destroyer/creator roles currently filled by Bradley and Jones in the first-choice team. The US were a much more fluid proposition in the second half, largely due to the prompting of the deep midfield pairing and in particular Holden's vision and first touch.
Afterwards Kyle Beckerman in particular came in for a lot of criticism, some of it fair, though in truth Holden looked better and he looked worse because of the different ways they go about their jobs and the fact that other less remarked tactical adjustments were only made towards the end of the first half – Beasley moved forward, and Donovan began drifting inside from the congested right field, presenting more outlets for the midfield players behind and around them. Holden and Diskerud were beneficiaries of these changes as much as instigators, though they played the game they inherited very well.
That said, Holden's full return looks to be moving encouragingly ahead of schedule and to go back to Donovan, his two goals (friendly against a dispirited opposition or not) were perfectly timed to get a milestone that was a distraction as much as an inspiration out of the way now. And both their performances had the hallmark of players with something to prove – which is the basic mandate for every player in this squad from Klinsmann. The warm-ups are over. GP