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Monday 17 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Weekend Round 31 – Of a Fitting Farewell, Never Say Die, Mendoza (Exclamation Point), Red Bulls Red, & One Chair Remains.

    An action-packed penultimate round of weekend fixtures spread over three days; every team accounted for as the right to battle for the MLS Cup was on the line. Only eighteen goals scored, three decisive away wins, two draws, a single red card – more on that later – and two huge calls made on a weekend when most referees put away their whistles doing their best to allow the teams on the field to decide the outcomes.

    The storyline of the weekend took place late Saturday night as a whopping sixty-four-thousand-plus people crammed into CenturyLink Field to take in the Heritage Cup decider between Seattle and San Jose. The cup, a nod to teams who kept ties to their former NASL incarnations – though Vancouver and Portland declined to participate, at least this season – played second fiddle to a momentous, historical occasion as Kasey Keller, the forty-one year old veteran of England, Spain, Germany, and four World Cups – could have been five – played the final regular season home match of his professional career. Having decided to hang-up his gloves at the end of the season and not wanting to be a distraction come playoff time an evening of fan-appreciation turned into Keller-admiration night as Seattle came from behind to defeat San Jose 2-1.

    The match was effectively a dead-rubber as Seattle could neither catch Los Angeles, nor realistically be caught by Salt Lake, and San Jose was already eliminated from the playoffs. All that remained to fight for was a second consecutive Golden Boot for Chris Wondolowski. He duly obliged given an opportunity midway through the first half, a sloppy touch by Seattle centre back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado fell to Rafael Baca who one-touched a through-ball behind the Columbian defender for a streaking Wondo. The striker calmly collected the ball and raced down the right in on Keller, slotting his finish low across the helpless keeper in at the far post.

    The Sounders failed to mount much of a comeback until two events conspired to reverse their fortunes. First, Mauro Rosales, the Argentine bargain-buy of the season was subbed on – returning from an MCL injury – and then Keller showed just what an excellent keeper he is still.

    In the sixty-fifth minute - moments after Rosales had come on - San Jose broke into the Sounders end. Khari Stephenson found himself in on goal at the left-edge of the penalty area, but Keller raced out to challenge, blocking his shot in the process. The ball rebounded to Wondolowski, but his shot is foiled by Keller diving to his right, getting a hand on the effort, still some twelve yards from his goal-line. Next to try was Simon Dawkins, the Spurs loanee’s attempt was again stopped by a retreating Keller diving to his right at the edge of his six-yard box, before finally closing down that rebound, snuffing out a follow-up from Wondo. A majestic quadruple-save, a veritable one man wall, the Sounders and their fans were inspired.

    It was then the little Argie’s turn to light up the night. In a five-minute span his tricky play down the right flank shredded the Earthquakes defense to turn the result for Seattle. The first - a nifty through-ball to youngster Sammy Ochoa to guide a shot to the short-side in off the base of the post, the second - a ball into Brad Evans in acres of space in the centre of the pitch. Evans in turn found Lamar Neagle at the top of the arc, who spotted Fredy Montero slicing through the San Jose defensive line. Montero lashed a shot to the right post, finding the side-netting in the eighty-seventh minute, celebrations ensued, a night that will go down as legend.

    If that late drama to cap the evening seemed overwhelming, it was perhaps overshadowed by what had preceded it by some few hours.

    DC hosted Chicago and bore witness to a match whose final five minutes will live in infamy – or ecstasy, depending upon from which side it is recalled. The two sides with the most work to do to earn a postseason berth took the pitch and battled for a long ninety minutes of regulation time – no quarter given, nor asked for – without either side making headway.      

    As theorized in the opening paragraph the referee’s had decided – or been told – to let the teams decide the outcome on the pitch, but a moment of madness in the end, a reflex of old habit rearing its ugly head prompted a spasm of a whistle from the official as Gonzalo Segares tapped at the ankle of Santino Quaranta near the end-line. Again a DC player feel to the ground, again the referee reacted in the desired manner, and Dwayne De Rosario stepped to the spot with no time remaining.

    Despite the best efforts of Yamith Cuesta to put off the in-form taker De Ro calmly sent Sean Johnson flinging in the wrong direction before stroking his fifteenth of the season into the yawning twine; not daring to miss he wisely stayed far from the dangerous corners preferring power to precision. It seemed the Fire was cooked, and DC had fortified their resolve, but that was not how it was to be.

    The fourth official called for four minutes of stoppage time, Chicago needed only two to draw level, a right-sided Patrick Nyarko cross squeaked through to the goat, Segares, he deftly pulled it back to Sebastián Grazzini bang centre at the edge of the eighteen-yard box, his snapped volley curled high into the net at the left post. That’s one.

    Two minutes on, Orr Barouch, the young Mexican-trained Israeli spotted Segares streaking downfield and chipped a ball over the top for the newly redeemed to run after. The Costa Rican left-back effort to keep the ball in and cut back to the centre of the box was rewarded as the pass squeezed under Bill Hamid, to Diego Cháves to poke into the empty net; that’s two. The Fire bench rolled and kicked in delight at the 1-2 result, as the young DC side looked for answers in every direction at their incomprehensible collapse in those final four minutes of madness.

    Both sides find themselves with the faintest of chances for progression; it shall be decided soon enough.

    A touch of redemption for Segares – saved the blushes of having given up that potentially fateful penalty kick – paralleled another player’s awakening as the least-interested man in the league all of a sudden became animated some kilometres away in New England.

    Andrés Mendoza, the mercurial Peruvian striker had been the bane of the Columbus Crew fan’s season. Maddeningly inconsistent. Frustratingly selfish. The embodiment of the proverbial heartless, journeyman-mercenary. But something clicked as a fit-again and rolling Columbus visited Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and outhustled New England 0-3.

    Not only was Mendoza scoring – his twelfth and thirteenth of the season - but he was enjoying it celebrating brazenly, come alive at last. A good portent for a Columbus Crew that has struggled in recent weeks; Mendoza’s fire, and the continuing fitness of Chad Marshall and Eddie Gaven could bode well for a fruitful postseason campaign.

    A Peruvian brace – each setup by Emilio Rentería; firstly with a flicked header over the top coolly sized up and slotted home, then with a low, goalmouth cross to the far post emphatically smashed high into the net – either side of Dilly – or Dilaver, if one prefers – Duka’s first MLS strike saw the Crew rout the last-placed Revolution en route to securing their inclusion amongst the final ten.

    If DC’s late penalty kick was unexpected in a weekend where the officials did their best to not be involved, then the red card dished out to New York’s Thierry Henry was shocking. Though probably rightly deserved, his expulsion in the twenty-seventh minute for violent conduct – a clumsy/intentional knee in the back of Roger Espinoza – all but decided the outcome of yet another important match with playoff ramifications.

    The short-handed Red Bulls could scarcely mount a challenge as Sporting twice capitalized on Graham Zusi corner kicks – goals from Teal Bunbury and CJ Sapong – to defeat New York 2-0.

    Kansas City and Columbus clinched their playoff berths with wins over New York and New England respectively, as did Houston on Friday night with their 2-0 win through goals from Andrew – André – Hainault – a near post header from a Brad Davis left-sided free kick – and a Danny Cruz thirty-yard rocket – cutting in from the right-side touch-line – on either side of halftime over Portland. Colorado’s draw with Salt Lake saw them through, as did Philadelphia’s 1-1 draw with Toronto – goals again on either side of half from Sébastian Le Toux and Ryan Johnson for Philly and TFC respectively.

    It was the best night of action yet, but the race for the one remaining playoff spot is still on. Four contestants remain in contention for that final chair, one more week before that music stops. 

The Fine Print

Colorado and Salt Lake battled for the rights to the Rocky Mountain Cup on Friday night at DSG Park. A hard-fought 0-0 result saw Salt Lake retain the trophy for the fifth straight season as they won their home match through a Fábian Espíndola goal back in April. It was an ill-tempered affair that saw five yellow cards and some thirty-six fouls, largely by Salt Lake.

Dallas continued their good form since the international break wrapping up a second straight victory – having defeated Chicago midweek. A 2-0 win over Vancouver through goals from Marvin Chávez and Brek Shea leaves the Whitecaps resigned to becoming the fourth club in MLS history to go through an entire season without an away victory, joining the 2003 Los Angeles, 2005 Salt Lake and the 2009 New York sides to previously be branded with that mark.
Conversely, Los Angeles repeated their 1-0 win over Chivas in their home leg of the SuperClasico to complete the entire season undefeated at home. Chad Barrett again scored the lone goal of the match, as Juan Pablo Ángel – starved of service all night - could do little to inflict damage on his former employers.

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

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