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Sunday 11 September 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Weekend Round 25 – Of a Faltering Union, the Dragon’s Finger, & a Two-Hundred Million Dollar Sandpit.

    Only two matches in an abbreviated international break fixture list. Seven goals, no ejections, a tasty draw on a terrible pitch, and Salt Lake rounding into form.

    The lone Saturday fixture was originally scheduled for April 23rd but was moved to give Salt Lake the best chance to continue their run in the CONCACAF Champions League. There has been no official statement regarding the coinciding of the empty weekend with the beginning of World Cup Qualifying in the CONCACAF region, but regardless of intent it was a worthy endeavour.

    Philadelphia, the surprise frontrunners at the beginning of the season, has gradually fallen back into the pack. Their form – heavily dependent on a strong defensive unit – has suffered since the peculiar trade of left back Jordan Harvey to Vancouver for allocation money. The loss of Harvey has necessitated the fielding of either of the Farfan Twins – Michael and Gabriel – in the left-sided defensive slot, not to say that the failings reside in them, but the altering of a stable and successful system does now seem an odd decision to take.

    Pairing those defensive frailties with a complex, evolving attack that at times seems to lose itself in its intricacies has seen the Union plummet down the table mired in a five-match winless streak – their longest of the season. With so many interchangeable pieces – Danny Mwanga, Sébastian Le Toux, Roger Torres, Jack McInerney, Veljko Paunović, Justin Mapp, and now Freddy Adu – and the constant tinkering of Piotr Nowak, it will take time for the attack to reach its potential potency. The last few weeks have seen strike pairings of Mwanga-Paunović, Mwanga-Le Toux, Le Toux-McInerney, Le Toux-Paunović, Paunović-McInerney, etc. The use of inverted wingers – Mapp on the left and Le Toux on the right - has been experimented with, as has a lop-sided formation with no real right-sided midfielder. Adding to the confusion Paunović regularly drops back, while Adu likes to cut in from his position on the flank. The interchangeability of a striker-less formation can be devastating to defenses, but is far more difficult to implement that the simple game of the now departed Carlos Ruiz.     

    After Salt Lake scored their two goals in the opening twenty-six minutes - from a Kyle Beckerman blast off a well-worked short corner kick routine and a towering near-post Chris Schuler header - the match was pretty much over, though at times Philadelphia did look dangerous. Le Toux did collect his first goal of the season from the run of play volleying an early left-sided cross from Mapp, a sign of the system coming together perhaps.

    The loss of their goalkeeping stalwart and defensive marshal Faryd Mondragón to a finger injury required rookie keeper Zac MacMath to make his first league appearance of the season. Despite a pair of attacking substitutions the Union could muster few chances, which went begging when they did appear.

    Salt Lake too have been in a rocky patch of form for most of the season to be honest, hovering mid-table in the West, never taking advantage of their dwindling matches in hand due to the Champions League run. Despite a long injury list and several international absences a professional 2-1 home victory, largely off the hard work of captain Beckerman, could be a portent of a playoff run building.

    The Monday fixture saw Los Angeles travel across the country to take on Kansas City. Both sides were short-handed due to international call-ups but the crowds at Livestrong Sporting Park were still treated to a raucous back-and-forth affair.

    Sean Franklin notched the first of his brace midway through the first half with a tidy volley after Omar Gonzalez floated a header back into the area from a half-cleared corner. Júlio César responded with fifteen minutes left pouncing on a loose ball following a Graham Zusi corner kick, volleying the ball in the short side. Franklin completed his brace two minutes later, having been played in clear on the right by David Beckham, rolling the ball under the onrushing Jimmy Nielsen. Franklin now has four goals in his last six matches since being moved into the right-side of midfield from his usual right back position.

    Aurélien Collin thought he had equalized only for his header to be ruled offside by the slightest of margins, setting the stage for more late drama at KC’s home ground – by now a regular occurrence. In the ninety-first minute Frankie Hejduk handled a César cross and Omar Bravo converted the penalty from the spot sending Josh Saunders the wrong way and slotting it to the goalkeepers left.

    The 2-2 draw was a fair result for an entertaining game that could have been better were it not for the sorry state of the Livestrong pitch. Revenue generating events such as concerts - namely Farm Aid – have wrecked havoc upon the newly laid grass at the two hundred million dollar ground, reducing the once pristine pitch to a chewed, hay-like consistency. The hot summer weather, combined with heavy use and extracurricular activities have created a quagmire, though a long offseason to set down roots and some cooler weather should return the surface to its virgin qualities in time for next year.

The Fine Print

The US Open Cup Final has been set as Chicago and Seattle progressed through the Semi Finals with 2-1 and 1-0 home victories over Richmond and Dallas respectively. The Final is set to take place on October 4th at Seattle’s Qwest Field. Chicago got goals from Sebastian Grazzini and Dominic Oduro before Yomby William pulled one back for Richmond at Toyota Park. Fredy Montero scored the lone goal for Seattle in a hard fought battle at Starfire Sports Complex in nearby Tukwila, Washington.

Salt Lake v Philadelphia 2-1; Kansas City v Los Angeles 2-2.

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