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Sunday 16 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Midweek Round 31 – Of Hope Extinguished Early, Doubling-Down, a Rally Too Late & the Playoff Mountain Looming Large.

    The two midweek fixtures scheduled for round thirty-one of the MLS season, like most of the remaining matches, had important playoff ramifications. Six goals, one red card, two teams inching closer to elimination, while another clinches their postseason berth, and the wooden spoon changes hand.

     The action kicked off in Chicago where the desperate Fire hoped to boost their playoff profile by beating Brimstone Cup rivals Dallas. Fresh off a disheartening US Open Cup loss to Seattle just eight days previously Chicago hoped to return to the form that had seen them climb back into the postseason reckoning – unbeaten in four; only one loss in their last nine – while Dallas found themselves in the midst of a four-match losing streak, having been held scoreless over that stretch – three hundred and sixty minutes in total, ten shy of a club record.

    The Fire were without hat-trick hero Marco Pappa, who represented Guatemala on Tuesday, but compromising their winning formation as Patrick Nyarko slotted into Pappa’s position on the left, making room for Diego Cháves to pair with Dominic Oduro up top. Sebastián Grazzini – having missed most of the USOC Final due to injury – returned to his playmakers role in the midfield, while Dan Gargan and Corey Gibbs were both playing their 100th MLS match in their usual stations on the backline.

    In a physical contest, Dallas got the better of the leggy Fire midfield, bossing the early play and creating numerous chances while stifling the explosive Chicago attack. Following the wasteful misses of Jackson and Marvin Chávez, young Fire keeper Sean Johnson was called upon to make a wonderful save low to his right, improbably getting a strong hand to a low drive from Jackson that was bound for the goal.

    It was the veteran Gargan who saved the Fire next, clearing a bouncing ball off the goal-line from a weak Chavez effort. But it was all for naught as Dallas were gifted an opener before the half was done. A long throw from Ugo Ihemelu found a seam through the rows of defenders, allowing Jackson to sneak behind Jalil Anibaba and collect the ball at the edge of the area. His low shot from the left-side of the box caught Johnson in goal off guard and snuck under a weak hand to open the scoring.

    Chicago had a chance to go into halftime even, as Nyarko’s near-post run to meet a low driven right-sided cross from Oduro caused Dallas some trouble, but did not result in a goal. Dallas quickly doubled their advantage in the opening passages of the second half. Villar delivered an out-swinging right-sided corner kick into the heart of the Fire’s box; Zach Loyd headed it down into the path of Daniel Cruz. Cruz with his back to goal stopped the ball, popped it up and hooked it over his shoulder arcing into the corner of the Chicago goal.

    A bitter pill made harder to swallow for Chicago as midfield general Pável Pardo was shown a straight red card for a desperate, emotion laden tackle from behind on Villar in the seventy-eighth minute. The sole red in a match that also generated seven yellow cards, two of which will see the Fire short-handed for their next do-or-die match this weekend, as both centurions Gargan and Gibbs will be unavailable due to caution accumulation, as will Pardo will the suspension that accompanies his expulsion.

    Grazzini did pull a goal back late for Chicago in the final five minutes of regulation time, picking up a square ball from Orr Barouch on the left side of the penalty area, cutting back towards the centre and lashing a frozen rope into the top far corner of the Dallas net; the 1-2 score-line some small consolation to the Chicago faithful on a night that appeared to doom their campaign. The Argentine who has transformed the side from a dire side who could now win, to the hottest team in the league since his arrival celebrated by kissing the badge as he ran back to the centre circle to push for another in the moments remaining. A good portent for next season, should the attacking midfielder return.      

    The three points clinched a postseason ticket for Dallas, while putting Chicago’s fate into the mercy of others. The playoff spectre looms large.

    Just as that match was being decided the other was kicking off in the Pacific Time Zone as Vancouver attempted to lift themselves from the bottom of the standings, while DC began their four-match audition for the playoffs.

    Vancouver, still high from winning their first match at BC Place over an understaffed Salt Lake the week before to snap a three-match losing streak, started the exact same lineup. DC – losers of two straight – needed the points to push themselves into the playoff picture, as they trailed the final spot by five points.

    DC, like Chicago, found themselves the victim of some early brilliance by the Whitecaps attackers. A deep left-sided cross from Jordan Harvey, playing in the midfield rather than at left back, in the first minute of play curled dangerously towards the far post where Camilo was lurking to touch it in for a simple finish and an early lead.

    Though stung by the early deficit DC pressed back, Harvey nearly gifting them a goal back when his poor clearance went right to Stephen King only for his shot to be blocked by his teammate Blake Brettschneider and prompt the offside flag to be raised.

    The two sides traded chances – a Camilo knuckleballer was not handled by Bill Hamid and bounced dangerously into the goalmouth before it was eventually cleared, then an Andy Najar cross from the right was inches too high for Brettschneider to direct it on target, sailing high instead – before a Marc Burch free kick sailed over the bar to bring the first half to a close.

    The second began much like the first with Vancouver stunning DC with another strike in the first minute of play. This time it was a left-sided cross from Alain Rochat to the far post for the head of Long Tan. The Chinese player became the first from his country to score a goal in MLS as his header took the slightest of deflections off the challenging defender before slamming in off the underside of the crossbar.

    DC’s heads did not go do, as they soon pulled one back from a wonderful delivery of their own – a long free kick from Santino Quaranta to the centre of the box found the head of Brandon McDonald who nodded the ball across Joe Cannon in goal, in at the left post; due in part to some poor marking of a set piece by Vancouver.

    Nizar Khalfan came within inches of scoring his second goal in as many games when his rocket shot from outside the box could only find the side-netting. The Whitecaps were spared any further defensive blushes when an apparent handball by Jeb Brovsky - blocking a Burch shot in the seventy-sixth minute - was not spotted by the officials.

    The 2-1 result withstood the final minutes of a tense match, as Vancouver were able to pull themselves from the bottom of the league – leapfrogging New England, who now take that mantle – and see them win consecutive matches for the first time this season. DC United still has time to correct their outlook for the season, but time and matches are beginning to run out.

    A full slate of matches will be played over the weekend, as every side takes to the pitch in an attempt to sort out the final standings.
The Fine Print

Tuesday night saw both the US and Canada take to the pitch in international action. Canada were held 0-0 at BMO Field in Toronto by a desperate Puerto Rico side, but still remain in control of their own destiny in their group of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The US fell 0-1 to Ecuador at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey to a late strike from Jaime Ayoví in a friendly match.

Montreal Impact have added to their coaching staff - bringing in former MLSer and USMT assistant coach Mike Sorber to join Jesse Marsch – and their roster - announcing the signings of former Internazionale defender Nelson Rivas and 2011 MVP Hassoun Camara, as well as notifying several key players – Ali Gerba, Phillippe Billy, David Testo, and others - from the 2011 roster that they will not be with the team come 2012.

Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter announced his intention to retire at the end of the season. The Jersey-native spent time in Holland, England, and Germany before returning Stateside to join Bruce Arena’s Los Angeles squad in 2009. His experience has been invaluable for the side during a rebuilding period that has seen them go from hopeless to Cup hopefuls. His intentions are to remain involved in the game as a coach in some capacity, a role he has been playing on field for the Galaxy.
Sporting KC played a late-season friendly hosting CD Guadalajara on Wednesday night – a 2-2 draw - as part of the deal reached between the two clubs that saw Omar Bravo join the American side last season.

Chicago v Dallas 1-2; Vancouver v DC 2-1.

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