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Monday, 6 June 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Weekend Round 12 – Of Late Drama, Stellar Goalkeeping, Honours Even, the Return of Casey Conor, the San Jose-Houston axis, and a New Record for Futility in Year One.

     Though week twelve saw only 12 goals in 11 matches there was plenty of action to behold. Late drama in New York saw Columbus rookie Rich Balchan erase an early Mehdi Ballouchy goal, leveling the score at 1-1 in the 92nd minute. Fellow first-year Crewman Justin Meram found space behind substitute right back, Matt Kassel, the highly touted academy product who replaced the injured Jan Gunnar Solli (hamstring) in the 28th minute. Meram exploited Kassel’s inexperience down the flank and cut a ball across the top of the six-yard box. The clever pass was met by the onrushing Balchan who slammed it past Red Bull keeper Greg Sutton for his first career MLS goal. Ballouchy’s strike in the 9th minute had given New York the lead; Solli found Rodgers on the right-hand side of the pitch, he cut out towards the touchline dragging defenders with him and threaded a ball through a tangle of legs to Ballouchy. A deft chip over a scrambling Will Hesmer nestled in at the far-post. The New York squad decimated by international call-ups could only name four players on the bench and only made a single substitution; though Thierry Henry returned to action should the injury to Solli prove serious this could be a lean month for the Red Bulls. Columbus’ frustrations in-front of goal continued as designated player Andrés Mendoza missed two glorious chances while looking nonplussed at the action around him. 

     Two men very much involved in the action Saturday night where goalkeepers Kevin Hartman and Matt Reis, as Dallas hosted New England. Dallas, whose shut-out streak of 531 minutes was ended last week against Houston, started a new one. Though he was not overly worked – required to make just 2 saves- Hartman collected his MLS-record 100th clean sheet, Reis on the opposite side of the pitch was a busy man. He made 8 saves, as Dallas fired 19 attempts his way. Though the Hoops made his night somewhat easier by wasting glorious chances both high and wide as they found advantage with their positive play down the left-hand side, his heroics were spoiled by a mistake of his own making. When Fabián Castillo played a ball into space deep behind New England’s left back, fellow Dallas forward Marvin Chávez collect the ball, tied the covering AJ Soares in knots as he sped towards goal via the byline. Expecting Chávez to cut the ball across goal, Reis cheated away from the near-post, opening space for Marvin to rifle in short-side. Chávez, who had turned down a Honduran National Team call-up to stay with his club side, scored the only goal as Dallas stretch their unbeaten streak to nine matches with this 1-0 victory at Pizza Hut Park. New England’s futility in-front of goal continued as they were shut-out for the sixth-time in their last nine matches en route to their third straight loss. The loss of Marko Perović to season-ending knee surgery and recent addition Benny Feilhaber to a high-ankle sprain has not assisted their attacking endeavours. Shalrie Joseph, who similarly turned down international duty to remain with his club, will hope to lead his team to better results in the coming matches.   

     Goal scoring was a problem for many teams this weekend, as only 8 of the 18 teams in action found the back of the net. In three matches honours were even as neither team registered a goal in 0-0 draws. Friday night’s clash between Los Angeles and DC was an unspectacular if unsurprising affair. LA was without their Donovans, Ricketts and Landon, both lost to Gold Cup duty, while DC’s Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty were still not match fit. The 0-0 result will suit both sides as LA maintained their four-match, 411 minute shut-out streak, while DC remain unbeaten in five matches and could celebrate the strong defensive display as their backline was comprised entirely of first-year professionals.

     Saturday night’s opening match between Toronto FC and Sporting KC was similarly a dull 0-0 spectacle. The highlight of the match was the endless taunting of Teal ‘Judas’ Bunbury for disservice to the Canadian National Team and the half-time squirrel run. Coming off a shellacking at the hands of Philadelphia and without key men Julian de Guzman, Alan Gordon, Jacob Peterson and Adrian Cann, the clean sheet will help calm the nerves of the frazzled TFC squad, while Sporting, having endured a ten-match road trip to kick off the 2011 season will be satisfied to get a point in this their last match before they open their new Livestrong Sporting Park on Thursday.

     Chicago’s new head coach Frank Klopas’ first match in charge could not stem the tide of poor results. Their winless run stretched to ten matches with this 0-0 draw against Seattle, furthering their record run of bad form. Positives for Klopas were the clean sheet – their first in nearly a month – the continued strong play of keeper Sean Johnson and new recruit Cristian Nazarit, as well as the return to action of Patrick Nyarko from concussion troubles. The two sides traded chances early, Seattle’s local youngster Lamar Neagle, getting his first professional start after scoring a screamer last week, had a sure-headed goal batted away by Johnson in the Chicago goal, while Kasey Keller tipped a long-distance bomb by Daniel Paladini just over the bar. Freddy Montero continued his spell in Sigi Schmid’s doghouse as he again was left on the substitute’s bench for lack of production to be brought on in the second half.

     Yet another draw in Colorado as the Rapids hosted the Philadelphia Union. This one had some history to it as Colorado collected their sixth consecutive draw setting a new single-season record and tying the all-time record (2004-05 San Jose Earthquakes). Colorado has been battling injuries all season adding Marvell Wynne and Joseph Nane to that list of those affected. This 1-1 draw was heartening in that Casey Conor, also known as Conor Casey in his third appearance, and second start since returning from injury. Casey set the Rapids in the ascendancy as Philly hard-nosed defender Danny Califf put a heavy hand on the shoulder of Pablo Mastroeni, pulling him down, causing the referee to point to the spot. Casey, not lacking in confidence sent the experienced Faryd Mondragón diving while he Panenka’d the ball cheekily down the middle. The lead did not last long, as 3 minutes later in the 66th Danny Mwanga, scorer of a brace in last week’s demolition of TFC, picked up the ball from Sébastien Le Toux, cut infield and lashed a shot into the Colorado net. The Union are now unbeaten in three matches, sitting atop the Eastern Conference.

     San Jose continued their climb out of the Western Conference basement with a solid 2-0 victory over Houston at Buck Shaw Stadium late Saturday evening. The battle of the Quakes as the former team, relocated in December of 2005, traveled to battle the new one, who resumed play in the 2008 season. San Jose’s reputation as a second half team continued as they netted two. Steven Lenhart’s diving header off a deep, defense-splitting ball from Steven Beitashour gave the new-Quakes the lead in the 69th minute. His first tally for his new club was the eventual winner, reinforced by a stoppage time strike from the returning Simon Dawkins in the 91st. The on-loan Tottenham midfield creator was slid through alone by a smart Sam Cronin pass as Houston pressed for an equalizer. Dawkins, returning from calf compartment troubles, finished past Dynamo keeper Tally Hall with a low shot to the right side confirming the victory. Dynamo had plenty of chances in the match, but Earthquakes keeper Jon Busch made 6 saves, while his teammates blocked 4 shots to preserve the result.  Houston are now winless in seven matches, struggling to consistently find goals, while continuing to search for an offensive presence to spark their attack. San Jose are unbeaten in five matches, including a three-match winning streak at home as they climb to within a point of sixth-place having languished in the bottom of the West for most of the season.

     Speaking of languishing in the West, Vancouver set a new record for futility in an expansion season as their winless streak continued to thirteen matches. Changing coaches was meant to inspire a reformation of the squad; though it is too early to condemn the change, results since have been very similar to those before. Salt Lake, who relinquished their home-match unbeaten run last week against Seattle, was looking to get back on track having suffered since their defeat in the CONCACAF Champions League Final. Though their defense has held strong in not allowing a goal in 409 minutes, they had not scored one either in 271 minutes until last week that is. Real took the match to Vancouver, who seemed unable to maintain possession. The tie was decided in 32nd minute when Jean Alexandre just broke the offside trap and cut in on goal, popping the ball over the keeper and in at the far-post. Fabian Espindola doubled the lead in the 79th minute as an Alexandre pass put him through on Joe Cannon in the Whitecaps goal. His low shot across Cannon went in at the far-post, bringing life to the subdued Espindola, who had been in anguish since failing to score in the aforementioned final. A much needed victory for the Royals on the back of strong performances from Alexandre, Espindola and Warner, who filled in Javier Morales’ attacking midfield role, bodes well as they attempt to establish their dominance in the West. While Vancouver’s continued stumbles of playing well but not getting results, can only be soothed in the knowledge that two more players - Michael Nanchoff, the highly-touted rookie out of Akron and the experienced Peter Vagenas - got their first appearances of the season; adding depth and experience to the stretched Whitecaps squad. 

The Fine Print

The lone remaining match of the weekend saw Chivas USA enjoy the return of two key players as they combined to defeat Portland Timbers 1-0. Marcos Mondaini, returning from a suspension for the bad tackle that led to the injury of Javier Morales, ran onto an inviting low cross from Paolo Nagamura, fit again after a calf strain, to score the match’s only goal. Portland’s poor road form continues with the loss, as Chivas will be happy having collected 4 of 6 points on offer this week at home, where they have struggled for results.

The 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup is underway; many clubs are missing several key players.

The lone mid-week match saw Chivas USA host Vancouver in a 1-1 draw.

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

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