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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Weekend Round 26 – Of a Long Time Coming, The Davies-Pontius Complex, & Playoffs Bound?

    After a long break in play of various lengths, all eighteen teams were in action. Nine fixtures comprised the weekend action of round twenty-six; twenty-two goals, five red cards – four direct, two draws, and plenty of playoff implications.

    For two clubs this weekend brought about achievements their fans have long been waiting for – wins.

    In the case of Toronto FC their 2-4 victory over the Crew in Columbus was momentous for several reasons. A first road win of the season for a side that has been struggling to rebuild itself with a new philosophy, not enough to resurrect the hopes of a postseason run, but plenty of encouragement that the future will be brighter.

    First half goals from Nick Soolsma and Ryan Johnson - on the second phase of a corner kick and a towering header - gave the Reds a lead before a back-and-forth second half, sparked by a collision between Toronto keeper Stefan Frei and Columbus striker Emilio Rentería.

    Tommy Heinemann pulled one back, slamming a Robbie Rogers square ball high into the TFC net. Julian de Guzman then reinstated the two-goal lead bundling Josh Gardner off the ball at the top of the Crew box and placing a low shot into the corner past Will Hesmer. Andrés Mendoza ensured a nervous ending drawing the Crew back within one smashing a well-worked ball high past Miloš Kocić deputizing for the injured Frei. The fit again Danny Koevermans finalized the result winning a footrace with Hesmer to collect a long de Guzman pass on the right, rounding the keeper and floating a curling effort into the unguarded cage.

    Not only their first road win, but also their first ever over Columbus - their nearest American rival – it also clinched their first ever Trillium Cup, the trophy awarded to the club who takes the season series between the two sides; a draw at home and this win gave TFC four points to Columbus’ one. A night of three firsts that Toronto fans have long awaited, tempering some of the negativity that embroils some sections of the support.

    San Jose too achieved that which has long eluded them – the full three points. Before their match with Chicago the Earthquakes had gone thirteen matches without collecting a win, dating back to June 11th; a streak that has seen their playoff aspirations crumble as they mire in the basement of the Western Conference.

      Goals in each half from Chris Wondolowski and Ramiro Corrales – from a well-placed Rafael Baca cross and a nifty give-and-go at the top of the box - gave the Quakes a 2-0 home win over a Chicago side that recently pulled themselves out of their own ten-match winless streak. The Fire had found some good form since that long awaited win, going on to be unbeaten in four.

    Though too late to be considered in the playoff race, a positive result can go a long way to restoring motivation to a dressing-room and carrying a team into next season with confidence.

    One team on that cusp of relevance is DC United, a difficult season full of changes and injuries has seen United struggle to find the form of long ago that made them the flag-bearers of MLS. They find themselves on the outside looking in, though with enough matches remaining to make a good challenge of the race.

    Again for DC it’s one step forward to steps back, as a commanding 0-3 win in Los Angeles over a struggling Chivas USA side was paired with yet another injury, this time to the influential Chris Pontius.

    Pontius was instrumental in the victory, having played the key set-up role in each of Charlie Davies three goals; each similar to the others with Davies on the receiving end of a glorious pass that found him staring at a wide open net needing only to prod the ball towards it.

    The injury, which occurred in the sixty-ninth minutes, was the result of Pontius diving into a challenge with David Júnior Lopes. The Brazilian appeared to reach the ball first before the crunching collision of legs and was harshly shown a red card, despite Pontius being in the wrong for committing to a ball already lost.

    With Heath Pearce already injured, and Lopes now suspended, Chivas face the daunting task of reversing a string of results that have seen them shutout in their last three matches and six of their last ten all told.

    Despite the loss of Pontius, DC looks poised to make a strong playoff push with long-time injury loss Marc Burch returning, Josh Wolff almost ready, while Davies and Santino Quaranta regain their form and build a rapport with midfield talisman Dwayne De Rosario.

    With only five weeks remaining in the regular season DC United in not the only team looking to surge into the playoff picture.

    Los Angeles became the first side to clinch a berth with their 1-0 victory over a weakened Colorado side. Landon Donovan’s low curling strike precipitated by some lovely cross field passing by Sean Franklin and Chad Barrett was enough to overpower the Rapids side shorn of their preferred strike partnership – due to draining international travel - and defensive stalwart Drew Moor – due to yellow card accumulation – just weeks removed from setting a new Iron Man record for consecutive complete matches.

    Key to the match and the Galaxy’s championship aspiration was strong play from Uruguayan striker Paolo Cardozo – providing depth, pace, and guile at the forward positions – and the return of Donovan Ricketts from the forearm injury that saw Mike Magee tend the goals in San Jose some matchdays ago.

    Juxtapose the Western Super-club’s fortunes with those of their eastern rivals, New York. Their 1-1 come from behind draw with the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps extended their winless streak to eight matches.

    With only one win in their last thirteen matches New York has plummeted down the standing and now finds themselves in real danger of missing out on the postseason festivities. A Vancouver side, having accepted their fate is looking to play out the string with some strong performances, earning contracts and places in next year’s squad.

    In earnest the Whitecaps could have won the match, were it not for an early Camilo goal ruled off for a phantom foul, and the second half heroics of Juan Agudelo heading in a Rafa Márquez cross to cancel out a goal-of-the-week pop, turn, and fire Davide Chiumiento strike in the first half.

    The football gods repaid the loss of the early strike with a harsh red card on Jan Gunnar Solli for hauling down Camilo, though the harshness is debatable, and overshadowed the fact that Márquez could well have been sent off for a forearm to Chiumiento and an ugly tackle from behind on Eric Hassli just minutes apart.

    The two headline matches leading into the weekend, those with the strongest playoff implications were the two second- versus fourth-place conference battles between Seattle-Salt Lake and Kansas City-Houston. With the restructured playoff system, the top three teams in each conference get a bye to the playoffs proper, while the wildcard teams duke it out amongst each other for progression. 

    Salt Lake carried out a professional road performance earning a 1-2 victory to pull themselves within three points of the Sounders ensuring a tense Western Conference race, while Houston fell further behind KC, who climbed into a tie for first in the East.

    An entertaining, event-filled match in Seattle that saw a bizarre Kasey Keller own goal, a Mauro Rosales missed penalty kick, a pair of strikers – Fredy Montero and Álvaro Saborío – doing what they’re paid to do, five yellow cards, and two dismissals; truly the match of the weekend.

    In Kansas City however, a one-sided match was played out as Sporting dominated Houston from the opening whistle, a Teal Bunbury brace and a third from CJ Sapong resulting in a 3-0 scoreline. Carlo Costly saw red for an unnecessary, frustration-laden tackle on Chance Myers in the sixty-four minute leaving his team to plod on short-handed leading to two extra goals for KC.

    Houston is yet to win a match on the road and could not even muster a single shot on target, though Costly did have a chance to level the score at one when he struck the post after a clever turn allowed him to cut into the box and lash a shot low to the far post.

    All in a highly entertaining round of MLS action full of playoff implications and team’s struggling to close out the season with enough positives to build on for the next.

The Fine Print

After hosting a barnstorming draw on Wednesday night Philadelphia drew Portland 0-0 in a tame match punctuated by moments of intensity. Much like New York, Philadelphia has stumbled of late – winless in seven - after surging to the top of the table in the early stages of the season and now find themselves clinging to a postseason place by slightest of margins. All the action occurred in the final ten minutes as both sides saw their best chances for victory emerge and dissipate as Danny Mwanga volleyed a Justin Mapp cross against the bar for Philly, while Kenny Cooper squandered a counter-attacking opportunity rolling his shot inches wide of the far post. Zac MacMath rebounded from a depressing first start to collect his first clean sheet as a starting keeper.

New England, rebounded from their three-goal collapse midweek for their strongest performance of the season earning a 2-0 victory over Dallas – who have not won in Gillette Stadium since 2003. Goals either side of half time from Shalrie Joseph and Rajko Lekić broke the Revs seven-match winless streak. There could have been more as Milton Caraglio wasted two gilt-edged chances. Having learned to not take their foot off the pedal regardless of how strong a lead New England kept pushing the entire match, not giving a tired Dallas side a chance to get back into the match.

MLS Matchday Live has lowered their price for the remainder of the playoff stretch. The promotion code is readily available on Twitter. Feel free to ask if required.     

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

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