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Monday 24 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Weekend Round 32 – Of Final Tables, Play it Again Mr. Chaves, Feed the Wond, & Say Goodbye to Robertson, In Style.

    The final weekend of MLS league play, eight action-packed matches to determine the final standings and setup the playoff brackets. Twenty-nine goals scored – including a spectacular back-heeled own-goal and a blast from forty-yards – and two late red cards – both for second cautions; two draws and three away wins. 

    The weekend started at the bottom with two matches that would determine which team would be considered the worst in the league. The wooden spoon - an undesirable award - went to Vancouver as they fell 1-2 to Colorado, while New England, by earning a point in a 2-2 draw at Toronto, drew level on points and moved above the Whitecaps based on head-to-head results - a home win and a road draw.

    Vancouver – in search of their third-straight home victory - took the lead rather fortuitously in front of a sold-old crowd early in the second half. Alain Rochat’s free kick curled dangerously towards the far-post as numerous players tried to get a touch on it – one of those dangerous balls that a keeper must wait on in case there is a touch. Unfortunately for Matt Pickens, he was made to look quite foolish as the ball glided unmolested into the corner of his net just as he pulled his hands back, momentarily losing his positioning and thinking it was heading wide.

    Colorado – desperate themselves for the win – quickly found some good fortune of their own as ten minutes on a free kick on the edge of the area proffered them an opportunity. Jeff Larentowicz lined up a seeing-eye shot that found its way through a sloppy wall, a tangle of legs, including those of Vancouver keeper Joe Cannon to level the match.

    More good fortune smiled upon the Rapids when with six minutes remaining, Wells Thompson lined up a spectacular attempt from outside the box. It took the slightest of deflection off Jay DeMerit and arced up, lofting out of reach of Cannon’s efforts to paw it away.

    The three points saw Colorado secure home-field for the wildcard match, while condemning Vancouver to a wooden-spoon season.

    New England however, having already guaranteed a new club record for fewest wins in a season was hungry to prove their standing wrong. Mired in a five-match losing streak, but welcoming to fitness Rajko Lekić, - who could finally pair up top with Milton Caraglio - the Revolution came out on a mission creating several early chances.

    The pair of big men up top was causing the improved Toronto defense trouble, while Benny Feilhaber and Shalrie Joseph were formidable in the middle of the park; the wide play of Monsef Zerka and Ryan Guy too was impressive. Where has this team been all year?

    Despite New England’s impetus it was Toronto who took the lead, a lovely ball from Julian de Guzman found Danny Koevermans in space on the left in behind the backline of the Revs. He spotted Nick Soolsma’s near-post run, cutting back an inviting ball for his countryman to neatly finish low to the short-side.

    New England did not wait long to make amends, before the half a left-sided Feilhaber corner kick to the front-post found a streaking Zerka, who had broken away from his marker. The recently acquired attacker’s well-placed header rocketed into the roof of the net. The two sides entered the half level.

    The Revs came out and grabbed the lead in the first minute of the second half. A poor turnover in Toronto’s half allowed Feilhaber to surge down the right, his low cross to the back-post found Caraglio, and his sliding finish capitalized on a sluggish Toronto start to the half.

    The home side pushed hard for an equalizer, but had to wait for the final ten minutes to rectify the deficit. A left-sided cross from Eric Avila was flicked on by Gianluca Zavarise to an unmarked Koevermans for a back-post finish of his own.

    The 2-2 result was reminiscent of when the two sides met on the final day of 2007, TFC’s inaugural season when a last minute strike from Danny Dichio drew the match and sparked a joyous pitch invasion. The crowd was less-enthused with the result on this day, but took comfort in a strong second half of the year, progression in the champions’ league and dooming their Canadian cousins to their ignominious fate.

    Colorado’s slight chance of grabbing a top-three slot in the West with their win necessitated a Salt Lake loss to Portland. Though Portland fought well to claw the result to 1-1 off a late back-post sliding finish from centre-back Futty Danso in stoppage time, it was not enough to overwhelm a spectacular opener from Álvaro Saborío, who latched onto a long ball from strike partner Fabián Espíndola and delicately touched it over a flailing Troy Perkins in the Portland net.

    The single point ensured the guaranteed spot – third in the West – for Salt Lake above Colorado, who must now contest a midweek wildcard match, though at least it will be in the thinned air of DSG Park.

    The East, unlike the West, was completely up for grabs with all teams in action having a chance to take the title.

    That potential drama was quelled when Kansas City strong-armed DC to a 0-1 win at RFK Stadium; grabbing all three points - to rise beyond the reach of their rivals - fittingly on a goal from defensive stalwart and All-Star, Matt Besler. The big man - one half of their integral central defensive pairing - found himself in the attacking box when the second-phase of a Graham Zusi corner fell to his feet after Kei Kamara’s header had rebounded off the post.

    A skillful turn and smash, one that any striker would have been proud to tally, gave Sporting the lead in the ninth minute of the second half, and despite the best efforts of Dwayne De Rosario, Andy Najar and Josh Wolff - whose header off the bar was the final action of the match - that one goal was enough to seal up the Eastern Conference regular season plaudits.

    Columbus – one of those banking on KC losing to snatch the title - fell back into the wildcard positions despite a two-match winning streak when they fell to 3-2 Chicago in the Windy City. Another late special from Diego Cháves – one similar to that which won their dramatic match in DC last week - sealed the fate of the Crew who had fought hard to climb back level.

    Rookie defender Jalil Anibaba twice popped up in the first thirty minutes to head home the first two MLS goals of his career, firstly from a wonderful left-sided delivery from Pável Pardo, then from a similar cross from fellow centre-back Cory Gibbs. A pair of well-placed header to go with the forty-yard blast he unleashed in the US Open Cup in the summer, not a bad goal-scoring record for a highly-touted defender.

    Columbus leveled matters with a pair of goals in six minutes through Emilio Rentería - with a lovely side volley - and Dilly Duka – scoring again the weekend after grabbing his first in the league – who pounced on a botched clearance from the first-half hero Anibaba and smashed it high into the top corner from six yards.

    It took Cháves only one minute to tap a rebound from a Dominic Oduro shot into the yawning cage to reinstate Chicago’s lead and end Columbus’ hopes of avoiding a midweek fixture.

    Dallas too had to win to have any hopes of avoiding the wildcard matches, but in the most bizarre match of the weekend they fell 4-2 in a filled-to-the-rafters Buck Shaw Stadium.

    San Jose declared their intentions to help their man, Chris Wondolowski, to the Golden Boot early; registering their first shot in the opening minutes. Despite all efforts to put the ball on Wondo’s foot, it seemed everyone else was finding the twine.

    Simon Dawkins bagged a brace – through an individual effort from the edge of the area smashed high into the top corner of the short-side and by pouncing on a ball knocked off the foot of Wondolowski to finish into an unguarded net. Rafael Baca netted his first in the league, diving to head home an excellent left-sided curling cross from Steven Beitashour – who collected his team-leading seventh assist of the season.

    It was Baca’s hard work that finally got one for Wondo as the dynamic midfielder tussled with Jair Benítez near the end-line as the pair chased after a well-weighted ball from Sam Cronin. The Dallas defender bundled the San Jose attacker to the ground, sending him sliding into the sign hoardings and earning his side a penalty.

    Wondolowski stepped to the spot and powered his shot in off the hands of backup keeper Chris Seitz to draw level with De Rosario on sixteen goals for the year. Despite a succession of chances to move ahead, another was not to be; Seitz twice robbed the striker of his go-ahead goal, the crossbar denied a further attempt. De Rosario claimed the award as the tie-breaker was assists and DeRo’s twelve dwarfed Wondo’s paltry three.

    All four of San Jose’s goals came in a mad twelve-minute span between the twenty-sixth and thirty-eighth minutes. Dallas - still reeling from their disappointing midweek loss in CONCACAF to Toronto - grabbed one back in added time before the first half closed.

    George John’s header - after Jack Stewart had put a left-sided Daniel Cruz corner kick back into the area - gave Dallas some hope for the second half. Their momentum was lost with the break and the match played out until Ruben Luna grabbed a second in the final minute of regulation, collecting a Benítez cross popped up by Bruno Guarda at the far-post, controlling with his chest and lashing it into the top right-hand corner.

    Dallas too must shake off the cobwebs of a difficult close to their season and prepare for a midweek wildcard clash in order to move on in search of a second straight cup final appearance.

    As shocking a result, though more comprehensible, was Houston’s 3-1 demolition of a second-string Los Angeles.

    It was a big night for the team in orange: their final regular season match at Robertson Stadium - home to their dynasty - as they will begin next season in a fancy new soccer-specific stadium downtown

    LA rested all of their starters with the exception of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who is still gaining match-fitness after missing much of the season to injury. Houston wasted no time taking advantage of their opponents’ inexperience, but it took a wonder-strike from long-range artist Adam Moffat midway through the first half to break the ice.

    Moffat seized a turnover in the centre of the pitch and smashed a frozen rope to the top right corner of the goal. Ricketts was helpless as the ball flew into his net; nobody could have stopped that goal-of-the-week blast.

    The LA keeper was again abused three minutes into the second frame, unsighted he did not react when Bobby Boswell found himself on the edge of the box with the ball – headed down by Moffat from a Brad Davis corner kick – at his feet. The defenders’ low shot made the screened keeper look quite the fool as it rolled meekly, unchallenged into the bottom right corner.

    Davis again played provider in the final quarter of an hour, as he served up another of his inviting cross to the far-post for a soaring Carlo Costly to prod home. Davis’ seventeenth helper of the season sets him as the top-giver in the game, while the large Honduran finally notched his first MLS goal. Just in time for the postseason.

    Chad Barrett played provider to grab a late-consolation goal for the Galaxy as he collected a through-ball from Michael Stephens following a midfield turnover and unselfishly squared it for sixteen year-old striker Jack McBean to side foot his first professional goal past a pair of sprawling defenders in his first MLS match.

    And so concludes the final weekend of the regular season schedule. It has been another exciting year of MLS action, but it has only just begun.

    Playoffs begin in earnest on Wednesday night when the wildcard round pits Dallas against New York in Texas. Thursday night will set the bracket for the playoffs-proper following the conclusion of hosts – Colorado - versus visitors – Columbus.   
The Fine Print

The lone match of the round with absolutely no consequences heading into it may prove to have the biggest ramifications for the playoffs. Seattle moseyed into Los Angeles’ HD Center and handily dispatched of Chivas 1-3. Fielding a full-strength side, in hopes of getting the club used to being victorious at the HDC – site of this year’s MLS Cup Final – Seattle were dealt a blow in the tenth minute when a clash of knees between Ben Zemanski and Mauro Rosales saw the Argentine playmaker stretchered from the field having reinjured the same knee that saw him miss several matches in recent weeks. A spectacular dragged, back-heeled own goal by Andy Boyens brought the second half to life following an uneventful first. The Sounders then added two more in a five-minute span from Álvaro Fernández and Sammy Ochoa, before Victor Estupiñán – he of a fifteen-goal boast* at the draft – headed his first of the season in in the final ten minutes.

Midweek Review

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

* apparently it was 25-30, and not 15 that he predicted.

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