• New York Red Bulls clinch Supporters' Shield
• Portland Timbers win Western Conference
• Clint Dempsey's first goal not enough to beat LA Galaxy
In the first season of MLS, back in 1996, the then New York franchise lost their opening game to a last minute own goal by Nicola Caricola. As the years passed and one of the league's marquee teams failed to win a single trophy, the goal took on a life of its own as emblematic of the side's misfortune — the so-called "Curse of Caricola" was born.
On Sunday night, the Red Bulls took to the field with the chance to bury the curse for good. Never mind that on Saturday another last minute goal, for Sporting KC against Philadelphia, now meant that New York needed a win to take the 2013 Supporters' Shield — their fate was still in their own hands.
Six minutes into the game though, a hush settled on the sold out Red Bull Arena as one of the worst-case scenarios materialized. Mike Magee, one of many cast-off New York players to have gone on to winning teams elsewhere, was on the end of a parried Dilly Duka shot to give Chicago the lead. The fact that it was this particular ex-player returning to haunt New York had whispers of Caricola running through the stands, as New York looked jittery in the wake of the goal.
As we've noted before though, the Red Bulls under Mike Petke have shed some of their fabled flakiness. The coach had gone with Peguy Luyindula in midfield in an attacking-looking formation, and despite their subsequent vulnerability to the counter, it gave them an attacking outlet throughout the game as the erstwhile goal-shy forward embraced a role as provider. In the 24th minute he found Henry with a perfectly lofted pass that was chested down and fired beautifully into the top corner by the Frenchman, and the stadium breathed again.
18 seasons of fatalism is tough to dispel though, and despite going ahead early in the second half, as Sekagya and Tim Cahill followed in a Thierry Henry free kick to force the ball over the line, and despite Lloyd Sam curling in a third, it wasn't until Eric Alexander sprinted into the right of the box with just under quarter of an hour to go for a fourth, and Johnny Steele touched home an 83rd minute cross from Henry, that the New York fans and an emotional looking Mike Petke dared to allow themselves to believe.
Chicago would score the game's last goal, but for once the Red Bulls' demons had left themselves too much to do, and just like that the "curse" was lifted — though it may yet have one last sting. For all that Petke made all the right noises post-game that "after midnight tonight" the focus would be on the playoffs, such a cathartic victory for the organization brings the challenge of keeping focus for what he hopes will be the five remaining games of the season. For Sunday night though he was happy to toast Caricola ("poor guy...I hope he's enjoying a coffee and a cigarette back in Italy") and relish the fact that at 37 he'd become the youngest head coach to win a Supporters' Shield — and the only one from New York. GP
There was something unsettling about Diego Valeri's Saturday performance, particularly for those who thought they had a grasp on the Argentine's virtues. But during the Timbers' season finale in Carson, the league's assist leader had elevated to an entirely different level — his play that of a person seeing the game at a different, much slower speed. The calm and precision he showed while racking up two goals and one assist over the game's first 45 minutes hinted Portland's playmaker may have a gear he's kept in reserve throughout the regular season - a scary proposition for whomever meets the Western Conference champions in this month's playoffs.
Valeri entered his matrix in the 14th minute, his look away from Rodney Wallace before finding the winger behind Chivas USA's line reminiscent of a move you'd see on a basketball court. Though Wallace's chance would be saved, Valeri's try two minutes later would not, the number ten popping into the box to pounce on a blocked shot, calmly sliding it inside Tim Melia's right post. Thirteen minutes later, more right place, right time clairvoyance saw Valeri intercept a Jaime Frias pass and leaving the pursuing left back flying past him as he pulled up from 19 yards to chip Melia.
Five minutes later, Valeri ran onto a long ball behind Josue Soto and tossed Frias's relief side before setting up Wallace. Within 34 minutes, Valeri had scored twice, set up another, get a defender pulled, and given his coach enough space to justify preserving him at halftime.
With Valeri hobbled over the last two months, it's no wonder Caleb Porter elected to pull his conductor, Portland well on their way to a 5-0 win - a game that will be too easily dismissed as a typical battering of Chivas USA. But despite the Goats' lowly reputation, the hosts had held Real Salt Lake to a 2-1 mid-week result in Utah, providing a stark contrast between the performances of the West's two top seeds. RSL may have got a scoreless draw from Portland last weekend, but eight days later, the teams find themselves on different levels.
If Saturday's was an indication of the heights Portland can achieve with a healthy version Valeri, their Arengtine maestro may justify the Most Valuable Player whispers that were rekindled with Saturday's performance. Though that honor may end up Mike Magee's, Valeri's suddenly healthy enough to pursue his consolation in the postseason. RF
Were it not for New York's romp, the 2013 Supporters' Shield would have been settled by the strange circumstances in Chester, where a late equalizer from Jack McInerney had left Philadelphia drawn 1-1 in the final minutes. While that's a result the Union might take 33 other times a year, on Saturday it did them no good. John Hackworth's team needed full points to keep their postseason hopes alive, so despite their inability to consistently threaten over the preceding 90 minutes, Philadelphia were compelled to push on.
It was perhaps predictable that Kansas City made them pay, Lawrence Olum's first Major League Soccer goal into an almost uncontested net giving Sporting a 2-1 win, and temporarily vaulting them top of the table. Had New York failed to defeat Chicago, Philadelphia's all-or-nothing circumstances would have played a significant part in deciding the Supporters' Shield (as well as the potential location of the MLS Cup final).
Thanks to New York's brush with history, we can content ourselves with what we saw from Kansas City – a performance that, for better or worse, fits the stereotype that Sporting's acquired. The better part of that image: Kansas City's one of the league's most successful teams, twice taking number one seeds into the East's playoffs. The worse: Sporting's by far the league's most foul prone team, committing 46 more fouls than the league next-most whistled squad. That gap looks particularly grotesque when you see the space between the second (Toronto) and third (Columbus) is only five fouls. That they hold 54.6 percent possession (second in the league) speaks to the alarming rate at which they're drawing their whistles.
Given the success Kansas City's had with this approach, it's hard to fault their persistence, even if the acquisition of Benny Feilhaber hinted they would try something different this season. But with Olum starting in midfield alongside Oriel Rosell, Sporting's double-downed on their whistle-worthy ways. If their playoff run meets an intolerant official, Kansas City could be forced out of their game.
Consider that a caveat to the notion Kansas City will take the extra step this season – a proposal Sporting's talent makes it easy to support. Another potential caveat, however, was seen at end of their Saturday match. More than any other MLS team, Kansas City's willing to sit on a 1-0 lead, something that's led to a league best goals against. But as talent levels increase and Sporting meets more players capable of picking them apart (say, Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen), does it make sense to recoil so soon? Even the goal-challenged Union were able undermine that approach. RF
Though Landon Dononvan was on the cusp of history Sunday night (his next regular season goal leaving the icon joint-top of the league's all-time goal scoring charts), it was his national team captain who made a little personal history, with Clint Dempsey scoring his first goal since his much-publicized move to the Pacific Northwest. Although some uncharacteristically atrocious goalkeeping from Panamanian international Jaime Penedo could have been credited with an assist (leaving an open goal after misjudging a cross), Dempsey finally quelled concerns that he'd failed to make an impact on the scoresheet.
But Dempsey's goal won't be the most publicized of the night; rather, it's the tally that never was that will fuel Monday's conversations. That's because just before halftime Omar Gonzalez was deprived of an equalizer, the assistant referee failing to see his header touch down well inside Michael Gspurning's goal. The clearance from Osvaldo Alonso from a yard beyond the line should have been another hint, yet the goal was never given. In a game that could have relegated the defending champions to another first round playoff, Los Angeles went into halftime unjustly down, 1-0.
But the visitors would find an equalizer in the second half, yet the buildup to Robbie Keanse's 78th minute, turf-aided equalizer was just as telling as the result. Seattle, showing every insecurity that defined the six-game winless run they carried into the match, became too conservative too soon. While that approach might work when a team like Kansas City's facing Philadelphia, the LA Galaxy's talents left the Sounders sitting ducks. Keane's goal, blasted off the turf and into Gspurning's goal, felt more like an inevitability than a possible outcome:
It's a worrisome reality for a team that, just two weeks ago, still controlled their Supporters' Shield fate. Now, after a plummet that sees them reach the playoffs winless since September 13, Seattle's confidence appears shattered. Playing like a team hoping for help from the game's clock, the Sounder did nothing to slow down LA's second half pursuit. Instead of trying to kill off the match, they let themselves be subjected to it, conceded the inevitable equalizing goal.
It's understandable that a team six weeks without a win carries doubt, that's also a recipe for failure in the postseason. With potential matchups against Colorado, Portland and Real Salt Lake-LA's winner ahead, uncertainty could be the downfall of MLS's most-expensive squad. RF
There's a version of this season in a parallel universe where the Eastern Conference just goes on forever — with Houston, Montreal, New England, Philadelphia and Chicago swopping places week after week and nobody ever securing a playoff spot. But finally, as the schedule ran out, Philadelphia and Chicago were both eliminated from contention by the two teams at the top of the Conference slugging it out for the Shield.
We've covered Philadelphia's fortunes elsewhere, but for a brief heady moment in New York, Mike Magee's goal had the Fire in third place, and had given him an edge in the Golden boot race, only for an avalanche of goals in New York and Vancouver see his side eliminated from the playoffs and his personal quest derailed by the Whitecaps' Camilo Sanvezzo grabbing a hat trick against playoff-bound Colorado. With the Fire out of the playoffs, it's just possible that Magee may have lost the ideal stage to make his case for one of the wild card slots for Klinsmann's January camp. As it stands he remains the most effective MLS player never to get a call up.
The beneficiaries of those two losses were undoubtedly Montreal. The Impact's regular season skidded to an unconvincing halt in a 1-0 loss to Toronto, and they look particularly unthreatening wild card opponents in current form, especially facing a trip to playoff specialists Houston. After last week's round of results the Dynamo found themselves on the outside looking in, after a perfect storm of misfortune accompanied their 3-0 home loss to New York. On Sunday they took care of business in a 2-1 win over D.C. United, that gave D.C. the unwanted record of least number of wins by any MLS team in history. The winners of the Dynamo v Impact clash will face the Red Bulls.
But the side that look the most enigmatic coming into these playoffs is New England, who completed a double of back-to-back victories over Columbus, also on Sunday afternoon, thanks to a neat piece of improvization by the Stoke-bound Juan Agudelo. Jay Heaps has got his young Revs side, particularly the strike threat of Agudelo and Fagundez, playing without fear. They'll meet Sporting KC in the semis and if their opponents rest on their ability to squeeze through games they've got their noses in front in, the Revs could yet spring a surprise with the goals they can conjure on the break.
And we'll have live minute-by-minute coverage throughout the playoffs. Hope you'll join us for the first game between Seattle Sounders and Colorado Rapids on Wednesday night. GP