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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Weedend Round 29 – Of Resting for the Cup, Contenders Waking Up, Late Drama Ending Tied & the Big Match.

    Another full slate of nine weekend matches spread over Saturday and Sunday comprised the fixture list for round twenty-nine of MLS action. Pink was everywhere as MLS recognized Breast Cancer Awareness with special balls, shoes, towels, and sweatbands. Nineteen goals, four draws, two away wins, two more sides eliminated from playoff contention, and a lone red card; these are stories behind the numbers.

     The round began on Saturday afternoon as Houston hosted Chicago in the baking heat of the Texas sun. Two sides in good form – Houston unbeaten in three and Chicago winners of three straight – played out a 1-1 draw, as they had when they first met in April. Goals ten minutes apart from Colin Clark for Houston – pouncing on a loose ball in the second phase of a Brad Davis corner kick – and Dominic Oduro for Chicago – outpacing Bobby Boswell to a Baggio Husidić pass and knocking past Tally Hall with the outside of his right boot – cancelled each other out, though Houston had the best chances to take the full points.

    Some fine keeping from Sean Johnson – particularly on a Boswell header from a corner - and some wasteful indecision – Calen Carr screwed a ball that was neither shot or pass wide of the post when in acres of space down the right – preserved the result for the Fire.

    While Oduro returning to the side that sent him packing after an early season miss and netting a goal – his twelfth of the season – would normally have been the story, it was Chicago coach Frank Klopas’ decision to rest five starters for Tuesday’s US Open Cup Final that really dominated the narrative.

    Chicago’s opponents for the upcoming final also took the opportunity to give some of their first teamers a break as they hosted New England, winning 2-1. The makeshift Sounders squad overcame early pressure, a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside and a well-taken Diego Fagundez goal - unmarked in the middle of the box to direct a Benny Feilhaber corner kick goal-ward with a powerful header in off the underside of crossbar on his first professional start – via a Fredy Montero brace on either side of the half.

    Montero’s first came less than a minute after New England had taken the lead, pouncing on a mishit back-pass from Ryan Cochrane and lacing a shot from the left-side of the box across the helpless Matt Reis into the side netting. The eventual winner came just three minutes into the second half, as a long Kasey Keller kick found its way to Nate Jaqua who deftly chested it into the path of the in form Columbian to slot it under the charging Reis.

    Montero’s hot streak continues heading into Tuesday’s final, as his brace takes his season totals to eleven goals and eight assists, with five and three having come in the last six matches.

    The US Open Cup promises to be an exciting final as both sides come in good form, with key players rested, and hungry for the trophy.

    While the cup contenders rested, two sides in desperate need of pulling their act together got off to winning ways.

    Colorado, last year’s champions, were at risk of slipping out of the postseason hunt.  A dismal few weeks have seen the Rapids without a win in their last five matches. Coach Gary Smith’s much criticized decision - to rest players and not even travel with his squad to Central America midweek for CONCACAF action - paid off as a contentious match saw Colorado hold onto a 1-0 win, despite losing Miguel Comminges to a second yellow card for the final fifteen minutes.

    Dallas too had been mired in a slump – losers of three straight – and suffered yet another setback, this time at the hands of a former hometown hero. It was Dallas native and former defender Drew Moor who rose highest to meet an out-swinging Sanna Nyassi corner kick in the first half for a towering near-post header to register the only tally of the match.

    Columbus too once sat in a lofty, assured position atop the Eastern Conference, only to have a three-match losing streak – winless in six all told – drag them back into the chasing pack and at risk of missing out.

    Goals on either side of half time – both from Daniel Woolard who redirected a Dwayne De Rosario free kick into the gaping goal and had a Andrés Mendoza pin-balling shot carom off his leg and into his own net – saw Columbus and DC level at one. It was up to fit-again Eddie Gaven to win his side the much needed points, a diving header from twelve yards, sent a wonderful Sebastian Miranda right-sided cross rocketing into the DC goal.

    DC, themselves grasping at faint playoff aspirations, poured forward in the closing minutes, and if not for a fine save by Will Hesmer on Andy Najar, and the crossbar foiling another Najar attempt would have found themselves escaping Crew Stadium with at least a point. 

    Late drama was avoided in Columbus, but could not be stopped from ensuring two other matches with important implications ended honours even.

    Two goals in the final five minutes of regulation time saw San Jose first kindle and then relinquish their faint playoff hopes.

    An uneventful match turned on its head, as yet another Steven Beitashour pinpoint right-sided delivery found Chris Wondolowski ghosting in at the far-post for a simple tap-in to give the Earthquakes one hand on the full three points. However, they fell asleep on the ensuing kickoff, allowing CJ Sapong to muscle his way skillfully through several defenders to chip a ball in behind the defense for Teal Bunbury to latch onto.

    Bunbury, in alone for the third time on Jon Busch, changed his method, striking the ball across the keeper rather than attempting for the short-side from twelve yards out to level the score at ones. The match ended 1-1, a result that maintains Kansas City in first in the East, though full points would have given them some reassuring distance between themselves and the pack, while virtually ending any hopes for the Earthquakes.

    Unlike San Jose, Chivas’ last-minute goal kept them within reach of the final playoff positions. Having fallen behind the Union via an opportunistic Justin Mapp strike – Freddy Adu pressured a poor pass from Andy Boyens, forcing a turnover which allowed Mapp to walk towards the Chivas net uncontested to smash a left-footed belter from just above the arc – Chivas used some fine ball movement to set up a Juan Pablo Ángel headed equalizer at the far-post.

    Blair Gavin found Michael Lahoud in space on the right flank, his lofted delivery picked out the deadly Columbian peeling off his defender in the ninetieth minute to even the match. Ángel’s sixth goal in his last four matches maintained his goal-per-game rate for the Goats, allowing them to draw Philadelphia 1-1 to keep them within striking distance of the wildcard spots.

    The headline contest of the round was undoubtedly Saturday night’s meeting between Los Angeles and Salt Lake.

    The two Western Conference powerhouses came into the match at the Home Depot Center progressing in opposite directions. LA – unbeaten in six, having not allowed a goal in two hundred and seventy minutes of action – on the verge of clinching consecutive Supporter’s Shield and riding high off a last minute midweek win over Morelia in the Champions League, while Salt Lake - losers of their last two matches by a combined score of seven-to-one – were without their captain Kyle Beckerman due to red card suspension.

    A chippy match ensued as the two sides racked up forty fouls and six yellow cards as play was stifled by tactical obstruction and strong defense. It was not until the stroke of half time that Salt Lake edged in front.

    Javier Morales, in his first start since the gruesome ankle injury that saw him miss most of the season, delivered a delicious out-swinging corner kick from the right-side to the near-post for Fabián Espíndola to flick across the goal in at the far-post.

    LA came alive in the second half as Salt Lake’s tired legs and indecision got the best of them. Chad Barrett capitalized on that sloppiness as a ball lofted by David Beckham into the Salt Lake box held up near the end line. Neither Nick Rimando in goal or Jámison Olave dealt with the threat, as Barrett scooped the ball over the two frozen defenders into the net.

    It was Beckham’s delivery that again put the Salt Lake defense under pressure then his cross found Todd Dunivant streaking into the area. The defender sent the ball back into the danger area, hoping to find a teammate only for the ball to ricochet off the thigh of Nat Borchers and into his own goal.

    Both sides, exhausted from difficult weeks and a hard-fought contest allowed the match to run out without much further action. The 2-1 win for LA; a small measure of redemption for their heavy defeat at Salt Lake back in March.

    As the final whistle sounded some fireworks erupted between Beckham and Will Johnson which carried over to the sidelines as Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis gave the former England captain a piece of his mind.

    Nine matches in the books and one step closer to the final tables. With the FIFA international break MLS will see only a limited amount of action this week, as teams will give their players some much needed rest before the final push of the 2011 season.

The Fine Print
Toronto and New York battled to a 1-1 draw on a freezing cold night in the penultimate TFC home game of the season. A Danny Koevermans goal – his seventh in nine matches – gave Toronto the lead early in the second half, only for a touch of class from Thierry Henry, as he controlled a bobbling ball and fired it low into the net to draw New York level in the final minutes to maintain the Red Bulls grip on that final wildcard spot.

Vancouver welcomed expansion cousins Portland to the new home BC Place. The renovated ground witnessed yet another anemic Whitecaps performance that exemplified the two sides differing approaches to the season. Vancouver took the attacking initiative, but Portland scored on the counter, as Kenny Cooper struck a beauty that will go down in history as the first MLS goal at the grand, new-ish stadium. The 0-1 victory for the Timbers keeps them alive in the postseason picture, still on the outside looking in however. 

New England and Toronto both join Vancouver as teams eliminated from postseason contention, while no other sides have yet clinched their spot.

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

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