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Friday, 21 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Midweek Round 32 – Of Capital Disappointment, Desperation, Controversy, a Fateful Own-Goal & All Aboard - Playoff Bound.

    Two vitally important midweek matches kicked off round thirty-two of MLS action. Three goals – one an own goal - and two others chalked off; desperation and controversy, as the partition goes up at the playoff party.

    Wednesday night saw two teams take the field in desperate need of points to continue their postseason dreams. The rescheduled date – due to Hurricane Irene – served to heighten the stakes as DC and Portland took the field on a drizzly evening at historic and decrepit RFK Stadium.

    DC - mired in a four-match losing skid - needed to win their remaining two matches to have a chance, and hope that New York fell on Thursday. Portland - on a mission to become only the fourth expansion side to make the playoffs in their inaugural season – took to the pitch radically reformed dropping their season-long affair with a standard 4-4-2, in its place a 4-3-3 with James Marcelin backing up the central midfield pairing of Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chará, while Kalif Alhassan and Eric Alexander patrolled the flanks looking to service Kenny Cooper up top.

    A strategy that paid dividends early as the Timbers took the lead in the twenty-fourth minute. An overlapping run from Rodney Wallace on the left proffered Cooper a chance to rectify his horrible miss last weekend versus Houston. Wallace’s looping cross found Cooper in behind Brandon McDonald at the edge of the six-yard box for a near-post header. Portland drew first blood; DC could sense their mounting doom.

    The match turned desperate as the two sides combined for forty-eight shot, peppering their opponent’s goal at every opportunity. It was Dwayne De Rosario who drew DC level with slightly more than a quarter of an hour remaining. Some good hustle and passing in the midfield pushed the Portland defenders back, Josh Wolff found De Rosario on the left-side of the box with his back to goal, only Eric Brunner stood in his way. 

    De Ro muscled his way around the big defender and lashed a shot from a sharp angle to the short-side. Troy Perkins could not handle the blast, and the match was back on. De Rosario’s sixteenth of the season put the Golden Boot solely in his grasp, for the time being at least.

    Chances multiplied as both sides abandoned caution and pushed for the full points. DC thought they had earned a penalty kick when De Ro – almost single-handedly willing his side on - powered into the Portland area only for a tangle with Futty Danso led to the Canadian falling as he attempted to play the ball. Perhaps it was DC’s reputation for diving that denied them, but even Timbers’ keeper Perkins wore a nervous smile as he prepared for his goal kick.

    Portland took the initiative as DC’s defense faultered. Three quick chances to go ahead came their way: Chará cut a ball back for Brian Umony who hit the bar from four yards; Bill Hamid then raced off his line to close down a poor touch from Bright Dike – who clattered the DC keeper; minutes later Hamid made a pair of desperate saves - deflecting an Umony shot wide and getting a pair of strong hands to a Dike shot from the edge of the area - to keep his team with a chance.

    DC in desperation charged up-field for their turn at a flurry of chances: a game-winning goal was properly ruled offside as Perkins strayed out to challenge De Ro. His lofted ball found Blake Brettschneider’s head, then the back of the net, only for the linesman’s flag to turn joy to misery. Another chance saw De Ro’s shot blocked by a possible handball as Eric Brunner dove to his left to block a goal-bound effort after Dwayne had poked a loose ball past Perkins and attempted to finish into the open net.

    Two minutes on De Ro again found space on the right, sending a low square-ball across the goalmouth for Joseph Ngwenya to tap in to the unguarded cage. Ngwenya’s weak attempt was foiled by a diving block from Brunner who dampened the effort for Perkins to touch away. The ball fell to Brettschneider, but Perkins was again equal to the task.

    The match ended 1-1; DC’s season was over, but Portland retained the slimmest of chances.

    Until Thursday night that is, as New York played their final match of the season, holding that final spot, in need of points to seal the deal with the knowledge that should they win, they’d be in.

    Their challenge: to defeat a Philadelphia side that was undefeated in eight matches, pushing for the Eastern Conference Championship and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Somewhat uncharacteristically Piotr Nowak granted starts to a pair of youngster in the midfield rather than rely on his veterans. Zach Pfeffer and Amobi Okugo patrolled the centre of the park in a five-man midfield, while Sébastian Le Toux played up top alone.

    New York – without the suspended Thierry Henry – were handed a gift in the eighth minute, albeit one borne of hard work. Jan Gunnar Solli, their tireless right-back, raced past the Union defense and from the end-line sent a looping cross to the middle of the box. The speedy Jamaican Dane Richards rose highest, catching the Philly centre-backs flat-footed, only for his header to ricochet off the left post.

    Fortune smiled upon the Bulls as the ball caromed off the woodwork only to bounce off the back of the sprawling Faryd Mondragón and end up in the Philadelphia net.

    New York had the touch of luck they needed, and they were not about to give up that lead. The match descended into a physical battle as each side subjected the opposite to some crunching challenges. Chances were exchanged as well: a bad Brian Carroll back-pass let Joel Lindpere in, only for Mondragón to snuff out the danger, while Pfeffer laced a drive from distance on New York keeper Frank Rost.

    The second half continued as the first had ended, only with more intensity. Tim Ream sent a header wide from a Lindpere corner, before Luke Rodgers squandered a golden chance to seal the victory when a Richards shot fell to him six-yards out only to slice it high and wide of the target. The physical play compounded as the match wore on, Rafa Márquez left his mark on Michael Farfan, only for Brian Carroll to tag a bite into the ankle of Teemu Tainio in return.

    Philadelphia thought they had equalized in the sixty-seventh when Le Toux’s free kick floated untouched into the net, only for the offside flag to claim that Carlos Valdés had strayed and effected the actions of keeper Rost.

    The match fizzled out, Philly knew it was not to be their night, and New York used every ounce of their experience to close out the result.

    A fortuitous 1-0 win in their last game of the season sees the Red Bulls clinch the tenth playoff berth, shutting the door on Portland’s chances.

    The ten finalists are set, how they line up is still to be decided. This weekend, all will be revealed.      

The Fine Print

The CONCACAF Champions League group stage came to an end as Match-day six saw Toronto, Seattle, and Los Angeles move on to the quarterfinals - to be held in early March. Toronto played their best match of the season heading into Dallas and coming home with a 0-3 win. Seattle lost at home to Monterrey, but still progress, while LA snuck a 0-1 result over CD Motagua on Thursday. The other MLS side in action – Colorado – fell 2-0 in Mexico to Club Santos Laguna, ending the Rapids hopes of moving on to the next round.

DC v Portland 1-1; New York v Philadelphia 1-0.

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