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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Weekend Round 22 – Of Breakout Goalkeepers, Le Toux on Target, & Old Friends, Now Foes.

     Eight matches played; twenty-three goals scored; three draws – one scoreless; two red cards – one straight. These are some of the stories behind the numbers of round twenty-two of MLS.

     If last week’s headlines lauded the heroics of a quartet of youthful goal-scorers, this round the praises of a trio of strong, fledgling goalkeeping performances must be sung.

    Toronto FC’s Miloš Kocić was given his league debut after mixed results in the opening series of the CONCACAF Champions League. A catastrophic blunder that gave Real Estelí a precious away goal in the first leg was countered with a strong performance in Nicaragua. With Stefan Frei nursing a knee injury Kocić was entrusted to mind the nets backstopping Toronto to a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, their first win in six matches.

    Good fortune guided the twenty-six year old Serb through a nervy beginning as both Kyle Beckerman and Fabián Espindola had shots rattle the crossbar. As Toronto’s outfield players gradually asserted some control on the match, Miloš played more comfortably; showing his athleticism as he leap into the wind –seeming to soar – as he gathered a blast from Salt Lake striker Álvaro Saborío midway through the first half.

    Given a one-goal lead by a low, untouched, Joao Plata-cross that rolled agonizingly past the Salt Lake keeper and into the net at the far post, Kocić stood tall and earned his side the three points with a spectacular diving save on Will Johnson in the dying moments of the match. Johnson, unmarked on the edge of the box struck perfectly a side-volley that screamed towards the bottom corner of the Toronto goal, only for TFC’s keeper to dive across and calmly snuff out the danger.

    A clean sheet – Toronto’s first since their last win – man of the match honours, and a congratulatory hug from the aforementioned Frei were just rewards for a first MLS match well played.

    Kocić was expected to deputize for Frei heading into the round, but neither Joe Willis nor Chris Konopka were forecast to start for DC and New York respectively.

    With Bill Hamid suspended for his sliding challenge on Eric Avila last weekend, and Steve Cronin struggling with hands of concrete in his substitute appearance that same match, twenty-three year old Willis took over the reins in the DC goal.

    Though the 4-0 score line implies a rout, the first half was a close affair and was it not for an important sequence involving a Camilo free kick Willis managed to tip onto the bar followed by three or four interventions in a mad goalmouth scramble Vancouver may well have taken the lead.

    Soon after DC’s Chris Pontius opened the scoring, the first of his brace a sliding far post finish to a Dwayne De Rosario-cross. Andy Najar doubled United’s lead minutes into the second half, a byline run led to a hopeful shot that somehow squeaked through Vancouver keeper, Jay Nolly’s legs.

    Willis again came to his side’s rescue - sliding out and blocking the net in the sixty-sixth minute - when a left-sided Jonathan Leathers-cross to Eric Hassli sought to mirror Pontius’ opening goal. The Frenchman could only slam the ball in the well-positioned keeper, nullifying the chance.

    Pontius’ second and a late Stephen King strike rounded out the scoring as DC’s debutant keeper also collected a clean sheet en route to victory in his first MLS match.

    Though not fortunate enough to complete the triumvirate of rookie clean sheets New York’s Konopka - a surprise inclusion to the starting eleven preferred over the inconsistent Bouna Coundoul with Frank Rost injured – made several key saves as the Red Bulls fought back for a 2-2 draw in Chicago.

    Thierry Henry opened the scoring with a classy, curling shot from outside the box before Dominic Oduro and Sebastián Grazzini quickly replied - a clever counterattack and rebound conversion respectively - to put the Fire ahead before the half. Joel Lindpere leveled the score in the second half before the twenty-six year old New Jersey native ensured the result with a fine save on Chicago’s Orr Barouch in the dying minutes.

    Three young keepers - each playing their first MLS match - aided their sides in getting results; meanwhile Sébastian Le Toux played a key role in his Philadelphia Union’s 2-2 draw at home against FC Dallas. 

    Last season was a banner year for the Frenchman; acquired in the Expansion Draft from Seattle he joined the Philadelphia Union leading them in goals and assists, as well as, to a respectable freshman campaign. While the Union are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, Le Toux has struggled to find the goal-scoring form that made him such a favourite to the River End SOBs.

    Though he still leads the team in assists – with eight – and has been integral to their ascent up the table, he had been limited to a single goal. That was until Saturday night. A Le Toux-brace twice allowed Philly to equalize having fallen behind to goals from Maicon Santos and Brek Shea.

    Santos pounced on whiffed clearance from Carlos Valdés to loop a shot over the out of position Faryd Mondragón, while Shea, ever the predator, followed in a Marvin Chávez finish that nutmegged the Union keeper only to hit the post and lay waiting to be tapped in. 

    The first penalty was called on Ugo Ihemelu who chased down and challenged Justin Mapp bringing him down as he was breaking in on goal; a touch too vigourous was the defending for the referee’s liking and Séba stepped up placing the ball low to the keeper’s right. Kevin Hartman in the Dallas goal guessed properly, but could not manage a touch on the well struck shot.

    With time dwindling and up a man – Dallas’ George John had been sent off for a second bookable offence – Gabriel Farfan was bundled over from behind by Jackson handing Philadelphia a lifeline to stay within striking distance of the East-leading Columbus Crew. Le Toux again stepped to the spot, again his a low, hard shot to the keeper’s right, this time sending Hartman the wrong way, tying the match at twos.

    Freddy Adu was a non-factor in much of the action throughout his sixty minutes on the pitch, though as he becomes accustomed to his new teammates his addition to the offensive platoon of Veljko Paunović, Danny Mwanga, Jack McInerney, Roger Torres, and a now-firing Sébastian Le Toux bodes well for coach Piotr Nowak attempts to lead his club to the playoffs at only the second time of asking.  

    Reunions all around: Le Toux and goals, Tom Soehn – Whitecaps interim Coach and Director of Soccer Operations – and former employer DC United, and Houston Coach Dominic Kinnear and his former assistant, current Portland Timbers Coach John Spencer.

    While Soehn’s homecoming proved a miserable undertaking, Spencer’s started brightly as his side came out strong. Eddie Johnson capitalized on a misread by Andrew Hainault outpacing him to a Diego Chará pass only for Tally Hall in the Houston net to slide out and put a big hand on the lifted attempt.

    The two sides had made a trade recently, all three players included in it – Adam Moffat to Houston; Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer – were on the field. Moffat proved his worth with a highlight reel strike from almost forty yards, before some clever passing from a throw-in played Brian Ching in to slot past Troy Perkins to double the lead. Ching could have had a second when his soft header appeared to just sneak over the line before Perkins controlled it, but it was not given.

    Portland were able to grab a goal back through their Captain, Jack Jewsbury, but wasted chances from Kenny Cooper and Sal Zizzo allowed Houston to ride their lead to the three points with the 2-1 victory.

    Spencer spent just short of four seasons as assistant to Kinnear and Coach of the Dynamo Reserve side before he left to take the helm at Portland midseason last. The two Glaswegian-born men became fast friends and still have a healthy respect for each other’s abilities on the touchline. Though the homecoming was not as sweet as Spencer may have liked, rested assured it remained a pleasant encounter.

    Another eventful weekend of MLS matches in the books. Midweek league action, as well as, the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions’ League which begins on Tuesday night.

The Fine Print

Seattle drew Chivas USA 0-0 in a lacklustre opening fixture for the weekend. A superb performance from Chivas keeper Dan Kennedy was threatened only by a penalty kick from Álvaro Fernández that struck the post and rebounded harmlessly off Kennedy for a corner kick. The drama was saved for the final minutes as Lamar Neagle was certainly fouled in the box, tripped in the eighty-ninth minute as he cut towards goal by newly acquired David Júnior Lopes. Seattle were denied a second penalty kick by the referee who bizarrely appeared to point to the spot before waiving play on bemusing the Sounders and their home crowd alike. 

New England’s first half lead from a late Benny Feilhaber blast was overpowered by a three-goal second half explosion from hosts, the Columbus Crew. A Kevin Alston own goal, followed by a Julius James corner kick header, and a clever passing play that ended on the foot of the healthy again Emilio Rentería caught the Revolution napping in the second half as Columbus won 3-1 reinforcing their lead atop the East.

San Jose took the lead at home but still fell 1-2 to Colorado as controversial decisions and a bad day for Sam Cronin conspired to rob them of a result while stretching their winless streak to eleven matches, a new club record. It was the fourth time in this spell that they have blown a lead, as Joey Gjertsen’s opener was offset by a Caleb Folan penalty kick - awarded when a sliding Cronin’s trailing arm was judged to have handled the ball – and a Jeff Larentowicz free kick that went through the porous wall after the Earthquakes had been reduced to ten men when Cronin lunged recklessly into Pablo Mastroeni.   

Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps announced managerial appointments midweek as Jesse Marsch and Martin Rennie will head the two Canadian clubs respectively next season. Montreal will join MLS as the nineteenth expansion club, while Vancouver will hope to put a difficult first season behind them.  

Los Angeles Galaxy have added Robbie Keane to their stable of DP’s forcing them to ship Juan Pablo Ángel across the hall to fellow Home Depot Center tenant’s Chivas USA.

Changes to the DP rule designed to encourage youth signings were announced that reduce the amount of cap hit per DP on a sliding scale from the current level of $335,000 to $200,000 and $150,000 for players aged twenty-one to \twenty-three and under twenty respectively.

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

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