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Thursday 19 May 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Round 9 - Of Cascadian Cups, Galactic Earthquakes in California, High Earners Paying Off, Philadelphia’s Young Stars & a Power Outage in New York

     The Seattle Sounders vs. the Portland Timbers, the big derby MLS has been waiting for played out to a 1-1 draw late Saturday night.  This first match of the Cascadian Cup played in the pouring rain of Seattle, was a lightning paced battle, though it failed to live up to the unreachably massive expectations surrounding the event. The slick turf at Qwest Field did little to assist the proceedings as the ball proved difficult to control leading to a midfield duel in which neither side could claim dominance. The undoubted highlight was the massive tifo display arranged by the Emerald City Supporters that covered a whole end of the stadium, paying homage to their ‘Decades of Dominance’ over their Pacific Northwest rivals. The large patch of Timber’s Army who made the short trip did well to not be smothered by the incessant noise of the home fans, especially as their numbers were limited to some 500 or so fans. The match was played in good spirit, neither side receiving a booking, though the forearm smash by Osvaldo Alonso on Diego Chará was evidence of the fierceness of the competition. Seattle took the lead off a well work goal by Álvaro Fernández in the 52nd minute. Portland’s nemesis, Roger Levesque swung a ball in from the right hand side, which collapsed the Timber’s defense onto Fredy Montero, who won the header, flicked on to the unmarked streaking Fernández, who slotted past a hapless Troy Perkins. Portland responded quickly, in the 65th minute their captain, Jack Jewsbury, caught the Seattle backline napping with a free kick, floating a ball onto the head of defender Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso, a carbon copy of the goal the two had combined for against Philadelphia last week. The Timbers have used set pieces to their advantage, scoring 8 of their 12 goals from free kicks and corners. Unveiling their Rose City Red second kits, the Timbers did well to earn themselves a point in the hostile confines of Qwest, and the hoards of Rave Green clad fans left disappointed at not continuing their supposed dominance. Comments to the media have spurred on the budding rivalry, with Portland’s Head Coach, John Spencer openly mocking the use of excuses such as weather and injury by his counterpart in Seattle, Sigi Schmid. Sunday, July 10th, note that date; the return fixture goes down in Portland.

     Los Angeles and San Jose, both built from their midweek 1-1 draws with Philadelphia and Vancouver respectively, to secure big wins on the weekend, simultaneously laying beat downs on their opponents late on Saturday night. Los Angeles exploded upon a hapless Sporting Kansas City defense, still reeling from their daunting 10-match road trip from hell as their new stadium is completed, for their first 4 goal output of the season in this 4-1 victory. An own goal off the boot of LA defender Omar Gonzalez began the scoring, but was quickly rectified by a Landon Donovan penalty kick to close the first half. Donovan extended his goal scoring streak to 5 games, netting 7 consecutive Galaxy goals in the process, firstly as David Beckham won the aforementioned penalty, then, moments into the second half earning the lead, a give-and-go interplay with Chad Barrett allowed Landon in alone on KC keeper Eric Kronberg. Barrett again played provider for LA’s third goal of the night, a neat little header laying the ball behind the Sporting backline for Juan Pablo Ángel to run onto and collect his second goal for his new squad. Beckham put a cap on the evening with a trademark free kick; memories of Greece as the ball found netting for his first of the season.  Meanwhile in San Jose, the Earthquakes were having their own fun. A 3-goal explosion in the second half earned them their first win in 7 matches. It took just 12 minutes for the Quakes to destroy the hard earned defensive solidity of the Columbus Crew, who had allowed only 3 goals in their last 7 matches, were rocked as Chris Wondolowski registered for the 3rd consecutive match. Steven Lenhart, playing against the club who traded him in the offseason, extricated a modicum of revenge having assisted on the first goal, he netted one of his own; his first of the year. Khari Stephenson closed the match with an unstoppable volley, bringing the score to 3-0 for the Earthquakes; the Crew could mount no comeback in the remaining half hour.

     Offensive difficulties in Philadelphia are leading to an interesting problem for Head Coach Piotr Nowak, does he stick with the experienced heads that have allowed his team to be some defensively disciplined success or does he give in to the fans clamouring to see the inclusion of the squads’ trio of young attacking stars? When building the club from scratch last season Novak made several choices with the future in mind, the drafting of Danny Mwanga, first overall, and Jack McInerney, seventh overall, as well as the acquisition of Roger Torres from América de Cali, it was clear that attack was going be a central feature of the team. However, this season results have come from defensive performances that have seen the Union in 6 matches decided by a 1-0 score line, 4 wins and 2 losses. With Sébastian Le Toux failing to live up to his production of last year and Carlos Ruiz yet to really click with his new team, Philly has been bringing the youngsters on in the second half to breathe life into the attack. Mwanga scored his first of the season on Wednesday, a late equalizer capitalizing on a poor back pass by LA’s Sean Franklin to earn a 1-1 draw. However on Saturday when Mwanga and Torres started Philadelphia was overrun by the FC Dallas attack, falling 2-0, their worst defeat of the season and only by more than a single goal. 

     While Philadelphia battled with differing paths, some of the leagues high earners stepped up to pay off the investment their teams had made in them. Fabián Castillo, the 18 year old Columbian, set up Dallas’ first, as he played an inviting ball across the goal mouth for Brek Shea, and scored his second of the season with a delightful header from a Jackson Goncalves cross, helping FC Dallas earn the 2-0 victory mentioned above, thus extending their undefeated streak to 5 matches, while not allowing a goal against in 309 minutes of action. In New England, newcomer, Benny Feilhaber, and long time standout, Shalrie Joseph, combined to defeat a weakened Vancouver Whitecaps team. Feilhaber, who was fouled by Wes Knight, won the spot kick, while Joseph converted it earning the Revolution a 1-0 victory. Moments later Feilhaber wrongly had a goal ruled offside, it would have been his first for his new club, and doubled their lead, but it was not to be.

     The final match to close the weekend’s action took place Sunday night in New York with the Red Bulls hosting the Goats of Chivas USA. A power outage caused a 30 minute delay to kick off; when the game did begin New York was caught napping by a re-energized Chivas. Justin Braun, making his first start of the season, bagged his first goal just 6 minutes in, curling a beauty past the stranded Bouna Coundoul. Thierry Henry replied shortly in the 21st minute, with his 5th goal in as many games, only for Braun to pounce on a loose ball in the box in the 31st minute to put Chivas back in the lead. Dwayne De Rosario rounded out the first half scoring, bringing the teams level in the 35th minute; Luke Rodgers was brought down in the box by Heath Pearce, allowing DeRo to net his first for his new club and New York’s first from the penalty spot, having missed two previous chances. A blockbuster back-and-forth first half came to a close with both sides level at 2 goals apiece. The return of midfield stopper, Teemu Tainio from injury to the Red Bull line up did little to solidify a team worn out from their midweek friendly in Montreal versus l’Impact. New York who had only allowed 3 goals in their last 8 matches combined were stunned as Braun completely his hat trick with a tap-in in the 56th minute, winning his side their 2nd road match and registering their 3rd win in their last 4 matches with a final score of 2-3. After struggling early on under new Head Coach, Robin Fraser, Chivas USA has found some consistency in their lineup, a rhythm to their performances and some positive results. The first home defeat for New York was the shock of the weekend, the unheralded Goats return to the West Coast triumphant and buoyant as they prepare to face their Los Angeles rivals, the Galaxy, in next weekend’s Superclásico.  

The Fine Print

     The midweek clash between FC Dallas and Toronto FC, which ended 1-0 on a suspicious penalty call, has brought to light one of more ridiculous trends with which an MLS matchup could have to deal.

     Toronto FC’s late collapse in their weekend fixture versus the Chicago Fire to draw 2-2 was a sign of both TFC’s weakness and the fixture congestion both Canadian teams are dealing with this time of the year. Though it should be noted that the Fire, have been rebuilding well under Head Coach Carlos de los Cobos, and refused to give up, even in the face of a stunning 2-0 deficit, the second goal coming from a Jon Conway howler. Chicago battled the terrible wind and rain to get back in the game via a spectacular Marco Pappa free kick from just outside the box, then leveled on youngster Orr Barouch’s first ever MLS goal. The Fire had chances to win the game, and may well have if not for the heroics of TFC’s Stefan Frei.

     Vancouver has their sights clearly set on the upcoming Voyageurs Cup tie, choosing to rest several key players as they visited New England. Good news for them that captain Jay DeMerit back is back to fitness, but is it wise to forsake league position in search of domestic and continental glory?

     The DC United – Colorado Rapids match was dominated by another atrocious performance by referee Terry Vaughan.  A phantom penalty call to make up for an earlier blown call, a possible last man red card offense, and general ineptitude marred a 1-1 draw, that both sides will be glad to have behind them. DC has reason to worry as both strikers, Charlie Davies (hamstring) and Josh Wolff (groin) left the match, though their defensive realignment, moving Akron standout and rookie defender, Perry Kitchen to right back and slotting homegrown Ethan White beside Dejan Jaković in the middle, has allowed them to be less open at the back, limiting their opponents to just 2 goals in their last 3 matches. Colorado were pleased to welcome Conor Casey back to fitness, his second half substitute appearance was a joyful sight for Rapid eyes tired of the carousel up top as injury has laid bare their striker contingent this season.

     Real Salt Lake continues to sputter as they battle the comedown from the high of their CONCACAF Champions League Final and the low of the season ending injury to their midfield attacking centrepiece, Javier Morales. As expected Collen Warner stepped in to fill the role of Morales, while their 0-0 draw at home to the Houston Dynamo maintained their 29-match unbeaten run at Rio Tinto Stadium, the lacklustre performance (13 shots, 1 on target) did little to encourage their fans that a return to normal was imminent.  

     With the league in full swing, the Voyageurs (Nutrilite Canadian Championship) and US Open Cups hotting up and the CONCACAF Champions League preparing to move into the next phase, the impending national team call ups for June’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and July’s Copa America will be an unpleasant imposition for many MLS squads with some teams likely to lose up to 5 players.

Philadelphia v Los Angeles 1-1; Dallas v Toronto 1-0; Vancouver v San Jose 1-1; Toronto v Chicago 2-2; New England v Vancouver 1-0; DC v Colorado 1-1; Dallas v Philadelphia 2-0; Salt Lake v Houston 0-0; Los Angeles v Kansas City 4-1; San Jose v Columbus 3-0; Seattle v Portland 1-1; New York v Chivas 2-3.

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