MLS: Thierry Henry and Obafemi Martins light up high-scoring weekend

DC stun Sporting, Seattle put four past Portland and Henry puts on a master class in a thrilling MLS programme

One half of Henry is more than enough

You had to feel a little sorry for Callum Mallace and Andres Romero. In another game the former’s exquisite first-half pass to set up Dilly Duka’s opener, or the latter’s brilliant finish to a sharp Montreal counter-attack, would have been great individual memories to justify the price of admission at Red Bull Arena.

You could even feel a little bit sorry for Bradley Wright-Phillips, whose 19th and 20th goals of the season equalled and then eclipsed Juan Pablo Angel’s regular season record for the Red Bulls – the second, in the 90th minute, tilting the man of the match award his way. Yet for all that, and for all that the speculation will now begin about whether Wright-Phillips can catch the MLS record of 27 regular-season goals, he too was making a guest appearance in someone else’s show.

Thierry Henry had one of those nights, or rather one of those halves, against the Montreal Impact – a team he has scored against each time he has played them, and who saw the game turned against them thanks to the switch-flicking second-half interventions of the New York captain.

Henry’s beautifully timed diving header, then a beautifully placed shot off the post, had already overturned Montreal’s half-time lead when he turned provider for Wright-Phillips to get his first of the night. And while New York ultimately needed that third, if not their fourth goal, in many ways the damage had already been done. Montreal’s midfield looked in awe of Henry, who used the resultant time on the ball to flick and prod and generally taunt his brittle opponents throughout the second half. Wright-Phillips may have broken the goal-scoring record, but on the latest installment of what may well be a farewell tour for Henry, this was his night.

This was also a night that was in many ways the Red Bulls’ season in microcosm – a wealth of attacking threat and absent-minded defending. At one point goalkeeper Luis Robles was screaming in frustration at his defence, when Marco di Vaio was allowed to run through a huge gap in the back line and force the keeper into a reaction stop with the score at 2-1. Montreal should arguably have never been close enough to scare the Red Bulls in this way – having played a strong side in the Champions League in midweek, this was something of a second string line-up for the Impact and the Eastern Conference’s basement club, having started confidently, were soon on the back foot.

Despite that, Duka’s breakaway goal had given them a half-time lead, only for Henry to seize his moment before setting up Wright-Phillips for his.

Wright-Phillips is just the latest beneficiary of Henry as provider — in previous seasons Kenny Cooper and even Luke Rodgers benefited from space purchased with defenders’ attention to Henry, and as Montreal’s Patrice Bernier noted to me after this game, Wright-Phillips has maximised the potential to make runs in anticipation of Henry the provider, a role the Frenchman has been playing more often than not this season.

He hasn’t confirmed his retirement at the end of the year, but Henry is playing like a man savouring every moment of whatever time remains. GP

DC finally make a statement

For much of last season it was hard to think of DC United as Supporters Shield contenders this season, as they stumbled to record levels of ineptitude at the other end of the standings. You would think their turnaround, which has seen them hover solidly in the Eastern playoff zone, would be more widely and loudly discussed, but other than some general approving nods in DC’s direction, and some crediting of coach Ben Olsen for adding experience in the offseason to complement the young players he’d blooded when it became clear the 2013 campaign was a wash, DC have not been treated as a side who have truly announced themselves.

In part that was because of results against the other top contenders – when DC came up against the other 2014 frontrunners, results had been disappointing. A couple of weeks ago RSL turned them over comfortably in a 3-0 victory in Utah while Seattle, without their World Cup stars, beat them at RFK Stadium at the end of June.

And of course there was the fact that Sporting KC had moved past DC ominously to a familiar spot at the top of the East, further eclipsing attention on them.

Not after Saturday. DC went into Sporting Park and blew Sporting away with three first-half goals in eight wild minutes, with Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe – players considered surplus to requirements at New York and Chicago – opening the scoring before Perry Kitchen, one of the players emblematic of Olsen’s faith in youth, added a humiliating third in a big win for United.

New York came away from Sporting with a similar win last year, during their run to the Supporters Shield and behind a similar display of sharp counter-attacking soccer, picking off Sporting’s pressing style. This latest setback had Peter Vermes for once refusing to stick up for his defenders as he blamed them in his post-game comments and hinted he would be considering changes.

Ironically for Sporting, this defeat came at a time when the early season personnel strain of suspensions, injuries and international duty had largely lifted from their defence, so there were few excuses for how they fell apart. Indeed they had made no changes from the line up that won 4-1 against Toronto. But despite early pressure they never recovered from Espindola’s early goal, or figured out how to deal with DC’s smart runs into space.

DC now occupy the space above Sporting in the standings at the start of a big week for them – their road trip takes them to in-form LA on Wednesday before they host New York at the weekend. They will go into each of these games knowing that everybody is paying attention now. GP

Slump? What slump?

Coming in to the latest Cascadia derby, for once in an underwhelming season for Portland and a stellar start for Seattle, Portland were in the ascendancy.

A decent August for Caleb Porter’s team had been consolidated with the arrival of the latest solution to the team’s long-running centre-back problem, Liam Ridgewell from West Brom. Seattle, meanwhile, had been getting worrying signs of last year’s collapse as the teams around them began hauling in a once formidable lead and set of games in hand. They had last won away on 28 June and perhaps more worryingly, the exhilarating early season tandem of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins had seen the goals dry up. Even an emphatic 6-0 Open Cup victory over Chicago hadn’t kick-started their league form, as a defeat in Salt Lake was followed by a home draw with strugglers San Jose.

So you could have forgiven Seattle for dreading a visit to their not-so-beloved rivals on Sunday afternoon, while Porter’s men had a chance to finally make their way into the playoff slots – a scenario completely unlikely after they failed to win in their opening eight games.

Instead, Dempsey and Martins clicked, with the latter in particular in scintillating form – opening the scoring with an opportunistic finish from point-blank range and capping the Seattle goals with a mazy individual effort that saw him dribble or stumble past the Portland defence before pushing the ball perfectly past Donovan Ricketts.

Portland, who had struggled with Seattle’s countering (Dempsey made a gut-busting run from defending a set-piece at one end of the field to score at the other end for the Sounders’ second) and wide play, did get on the scoresheet twice in the second half with the introduction of the physical Fanendo Adi up front, after Maxi Urruti had failed to make headway. But they never got within a goal of the Sounders and Porter’s assertion that the game was closer than the scoreline suggested was putting a brave face on evidence of some familiar frailties at the back.

For Seattle, some familiar attacking threats picked a perfect game to click again. The usual dog-eat-dog scenario in the Western Conference may mean that the Shield is far from a certainty, but with the traumatic memories of last season’s run-in still fresh (a misery that was compounded on the turf at Providence Park in the playoffs), this was the perfect moment and perfect venue for the Sounders to steady themselves, and for their stars to come good again. GP

LA make their own luck

Robbie Keane wasn’t even watching when Marcelo Sarvas scored the Galaxy’s second goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Irish striker had turned his back on the play having whiffed his shot, striking none of the ball and all of the air. Yet his mishit somehow found the path of Sarvas, who angled a shot across goal and into the bottom corner. However, although both Galaxy goals were somewhat fortunate there was nothing lucky about their win over the Whitecaps.

Bruce Arena’s side was even more dominant than the 2-0 scoreline suggested, turning in what might have been their most controlled and complete performance of the season. This wasn’t even the Galaxy at full capacity, yet at no point did the Caps look even vaguely threatening.

The result kept LA’s charge going, with a sixth win from nine league games. Such a streak shows that the final three months of the Galaxy’s campaign are about more than just a farewell roadshow for Landon Donovan. As far as LA is concerned, they need to reassert their status as the league’s predominant franchise post-David Beckham. Arena and the Galaxy have a point to prove.

Vancouver’s midfield deficiencies gave LA the freedom to dictate the pace and direction of the contest, but against better sides Arena must recognize his team’s strengths and weaknesses; their strength is found in the fact they haven’t drawn a blank in 15 games.

In Keane, Donovan and Gyasi Zardes LA have the league’s best and arguably best-balanced front line, though their defense is shorthanded through injury and general weariness. As the performance against Colorado in midweek showed, the Galaxy must embrace their attack if they are to improve on 2013’s limp challenge.

“There’s a lot of talk in the locker room and even during the game that we are chasing the Supporters’ Shield,” Sarvas said, conveying the atmosphere within the Galaxy squad at the moment. “Now that we are so close, we can’t step back.”

By the time this weekend comes around LA could be top of the standings, given Wednesday’s makeup game against DC. And with the club’s three designated players all in form, and the Galaxy’s track history of peaking at the right time, such a rise to the top would be an ominous development for the rest of the league.

The Whitecaps never looked like leaving LA with a result. They were level for just five minutes before Donovan netted the opener, making the most of a Keane cross-come-pass to slide home at the back post. The rest was something of a formality, with Vancouver still looking for their first ever win at StubHub Center. GR

Chicago fired up over missing out on Jones

Robbie Earnshaw scribbled his pen through soccer’s unwritten “muted celebration” rule, celebrating his goal against former club Toronto FC by literally going head over heels. Yet despite a credible 2-2 road draw there was to be dejection for Chicago later in the weekend.

Despite the Fire having chased Jermaine Jones for much of the summer, MLS and its magic eight ball envelope allocated the USA midfielder to the New England Revolution instead. The signing of Earnshaw has eased the reliance on Mike Magee for goals but Jones was the player the Fire really wanted and, furthermore, needed. Certainly from a soccer perspective, they needed him more than the Revs.

“We thought he’d be a great fit in Chicago,” Frank Yallop said following the league’s decision on Jones, masking his frustration. Indeed, Jones would have been the rarest of signings – the kind that both serves a function and provides a statement. Chicago’s somewhat stagnant midfield needs a shot of intensity and energy from somewhere, especially if they are to make the most of Earnshaw’s running. Jones would have brought that.

Now Yallop must make do with a top-heavy team. The narrative for the rest of the Eastern season has been cast, with the Fire and New England direct rivals for the final playoff places. Will Jones be the difference between the two sides?

A year ago Toronto might have been satisfied with a point against the Fire. But that was pre-Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Tim Leiweke. That was pre-expectation.

The way TFC gave up a stoppage-time equalizer, after taking a late lead themselves, was not befitting of a side with title aspirations. Defensive breakdowns continue to cost Ryan Nelsen’s team, as they have for much of the season. Toronto have kept just one clean sheet in their last 12 MLS games, with injuries to Steven Caldwell and Justin Morrow accentuating the issues at the back.

“That second goal was just horrendous, to tell you the truth,” Nelsen ripped on his side’s defense after the draw. “When an opposition player gets down to that end line, we’ve got to have midfielders right on top of our backline defending our box. But we were spectators.”

“A team that expects to go deep in playoffs can’t give up those type of goals,” said Mark Bloom. Indeed, there is much for TFC to straighten out before the playoffs come into sight.

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