BY JUSTIN FERGUSON
The standings in Major League Soccer stayed the same at the top end, with both conference leaders widening their point lead during a wild Week 19.
We begin our recap this week in the always entertaining Western Conference, as the league’s top two teams met at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday night.
League-leading San Jose, undefeated in the friendly confines of Buck Shaw, has been a surprise this season. Last week I compared their offensive output this season compared to last season, a huge turnaround. Now, after this week’s outburst, San Jose’s attack is officially better in 20 games than they were in all 34 of their games last season.
But, that’s not the only area where San Jose has drastically changed this year. The 2011 ‘Quakes lost a boatload of low-scoring affairs, matches that were just a goal away from turning into points. This season, San Jose has become that “Never Say Die” team of the league, constantly orchestrating comebacks and last-second goals. Frank Yallop’s bunch has turned from a bland cellar dweller to an attack-heavy, thrill-a-minute league leader in a matter of months.
“It’s a different team this year. We have guys on this roster that fight and do not take any game for granted. We have been like this since the start of the season and we are seeing the results,” ‘Quakes defender Jason Hernandez told reporters.
The second-place squad, however, has surprised no one this year. Before the season began, most experts predicted Real Salt Lake to be near the top of the table.. A veteran squad led by one of the league’s best coaches, RSL has surprised no one with their brand of possession-based soccer this year. While there have been a few hiccups along the way (including that three-game losing streak that was snapped last week), RSL has proven to among the best in the league, entering Saturday night’s contest only one point back from the ‘Quakes.
However, as Jason Kreis told reporters after the game, veteran RSL has lacked discipline all season.
The Claret and Cobalt have been near the top of the standings all year, but they have also been near the top of the foul count charts. RSL is second in the league in both fouls and red cards this season, a surprising attribute of a highly experienced squad. Most would think that an older team would have more discipline and less fouls…and they would look less like a Montreal and more like a Columbus in the area of bookings.
In San Jose and Real Salt Lake’s contest at Buck Shaw earlier this season, Jamison Olave was sent off in the second half for a challenge on Steven Lenhart, swinging the door open for a San Jose comeback. (Fabian Espindola was also sent off in that match for RSL.)
So it came as no surprise when, after Kyle Beckerman was sent off in the 57th minute, a 1-0 lead exploded into a 5-0 win for the red-hot ‘Quakes.
It was a straight red for Beckerman, a stupid move in the midst of a near brawl at midfield. After Sam Cronin wasn’t whistled for a hard tackle on Javier Morales, the USMNT defensive midfielder went straight for Cronin. The usual pushing and shoving ensued, but then “BeckerDreads” committed an unpardonable sin on a soccer field: He hit a referee in the head. It likely was unintentional, but nonetheless, he did, trying to swim his way from the referee that was trying to hold Beckerman back. The elbow connected, and it was an early exit for the RSL captain.
Kreis’s reaction said it all. He couldn’t bear to look at another instance where his team lost control and caused them to be down a man. The team was already missing two regular defensive starters due to injury, and this ejection was the nail in the coffin. True, the refereeing was poor (for both sides, if I may add), but you never try to take matters into your own hands by shoving an opponent. Also, you NEVER strike a referee.
You know what happened next. San Jose smelled blood and attacked, overloading the undermanned defense of RSL en route to a four-goal rally. Chris Wondolowski got the two goals he needed to cap off a hat trick (he had opened the scoring in the first half), with Alan Gordon and Simon Dawkins adding to the twenty minute scoring frenzy.
It was an uninspired performance from RSL, especially after the red card. When Gordon knocked home the rebound from Victor Bernardez’s rocket off the crossbar, it was apparent on everyone’s faces for the visitors that there weren’t going to be any comebacks on Saturday night. For a team that had recently bounced back from a tough losing streak and had a chance to take the league’s top spot, this was a disaster for Salt Lake.
“Some of our guys sleep-walked through the game tonight. It doesn’t get much bigger than this game and I don’t know how our guys didn’t get up for it,” Kreis later said. “Our team has lacked discipline this season and that especially showed after we went down a man.”
With the win, San Jose left zero doubt that they are the best team in Major League Soccer so far this season. Everyone is raving about Wondo and the attack. But that’s not the only thing that should put fear into the rest of the league. After an injury-filled start to the season, the preferred back four are finally playing together again. I believe that the two consecutive shutouts that we’ve seen from San Jose are just the beginning. Unlike other rising teams in the Western Conference (cough, Los Angeles and Seattle, cough), San Jose has a more solidified defense. Pair that with the league’s best attack (by far), and you’ve got the makings of a runaway Supporters Shield favorite.
Similarly, in the Eastern Conference, a second-place side watched their deficit grow larger thanks to a match-altering red card.
D.C. United, playing some of their best soccer in years, headed down to the sparkling new BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday night to face the Houston Dynamo. For the first 15 minutes, it was all DCU. All-Star Chris Pontius unleashed a couple of great shots on goal for The Black and Red, products of great midfield play.
But in the 17th minute, DCU goalie Bill Hamid charged on Dynamo striker Macoumba Kandji, who was loose in the box. Hamid dove and clipped Kandji, resulting in a straight red for the keeper. The Dynamo would cash in on the penalty try as Ben Olsen’s club was reeling, scrambling to try and stay in the match down a man.
Just like the San Jose-Real Salt Lake match, the red carded team had little chance after the decision. Houston would tack on three more goals before the final whistle blew, crushing DCU with a final score of 4-0.
Dominic Kinnear’s team threw men forward and wore out the smaller defense. Backup goalie Joe Willis made some great stops in the match, but DCU had very little chance of coming back in this one. In what might have been star Geoff Cameron’s final game for the club (a deal sending him to EPL side Stoke City should be finalized any time now), Houston took advantage of a rookie mistake and rode it all the way to a blowout win.
“I wasn’t that pleased with (our play after the red card),” DCU coach Ben Olsen explained to reporters after the game. “I thought we could have been meaner, I thought we could have been angrier.”
When asked about the team’s offensive effort, one in which they only got a single second-half SOG, Olsen said that “not everybody was working as hard as they could…there were some guys out there that gave it their all and I was proud of them, but it wasn’t every guy out there putting in the effort and that’s very alarming.”
Another pointless performance in Houston for United (who has an all-time record of 0-7-1 in the Space City) was just what the doctor ordered for Eastern Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City, who soundly beat the Columbus Crew 2-0 on Saturday. The SKC win and DCU loss gives the Heartland club a three-point lead in the East.
Following its semifinal U.S. Open Cup win over Philadelphia, SKC continued their good form on Saturday. Jacob Peterson scored early for the visiting squad, and Teal Bunbury scored a late insurance goal to seal the deal in the 82nd minute. But it looked like SKC only needed one goal to get the victory, as All-Star goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had an excellent game between the pipes.
Sporting dominated the new-look Crew, who had several new starters in the lineup. Some benchings, like injured Danny O’Rourke and Milovan Mirosevic, made sense. But others, like Sebastian Miranda (who had started in 50 straight games for Columbus prior to Saturday’s game), did not. Robert Warzycha brushed off the press’ post-game concerns, saying that former starters like Miranda were simply beaten for their spots during the week.
As a result of Warzycha’s tinkering, the Crew was shutout for the sixth time this season. Phrases like “poor passing”, “miscommunication”, “not shifting” and “bad positioning” were repeated by several different players after the game. You can understand changing up the lineup for a mid-table team when facing a conference leader, but not to this extent. While SKC played like a well-oiled machine, Columbus were simply parts spread out on the field.
Dysfunctional opposition, red cards and shutdown defending. These were the ingredients to wider leads for the league’s top two teams in Week 19.
ONE FOR THE AGES
The other major story from this past week in Major League Soccer action was the wild game out in Portland on Saturday night. I had argued on Saturday afternoon on a few message boards that NBCSN should have picked up the San Jose-RSL game instead of Portland-LA.
Shows how much I know. The national TV audience got to watch a far better game.
The Timbers came out with a lot of fire in their first match post-John Spencer’s departure. The fans at Jeld-Wen were raucous as always, bringing the noise for the full 90.
And it was a dream start for Portland, as midfielder Kalif Alhassan slung a great cross into the box for scoring machine Kris Boyd. Boyd knifed through that shaky Galaxy back line and nodded it past Josh Saunders for a third-minute goal.
Portland started the game in interim coach Gavin Wilkinson’s new 4-2-3-1 formation. Darlington Nagbe played the attacking midfielder role behind Boyd, and Lovell Palmer joined captain Jack Jewsbury behind Nagbe. This new look didn’t pan out they way it was supposed to for Wilkinson’s bunch. Jewsbury and Palmer argued about positioning throughout the first half, and Palmer was quickly subbed out in the 46th minute. And while Nagbe was supposed to be the playmaker on the ball in that formation, it was an out-of-position Jewsbury that played that role in the match.
Sadly, that wasn’t the only bad decision Wilkinson made for this match. His attire made him look like he had gotten ready for Sunday School a day early.
David Beckham, back from his suspension and Wimbledon vacation, looked like he had something to prove in this match. One analyst commented that Becks needs to get suspended more often, as he has played harder post-suspension throughout his career. He took advantage of bad marking by the scattered Portland midfield in the 19th minute. With tons of space 35 yards out, Beckham tried a ridiculous bending shot. It flew into the net, silencing the Jeld-Wen crowd for a moment.
But he wasn’t done. A few minutes later, off of a free kick, Beckham hit his trademark shot: Up over the wall, down on the other side, and spinning away from the goalkeeper. Just like that, Los Angeles was up 2-1 on the home team.
Los Angeles would cash in two more times in the first half, blowing by Portland’s high line. New Timbers defender Kosuke Kimura was whistled for a penalty after getting burnt on a long throw-in, setting up a Landon Donovan goal. Then Donovan would set up the fourth straight goal for the Galaxy, fighting through the back line and playing a beautiful ground cross to Robbie Keane. Donovan’s 100th MLS assist would give the Galaxy an incredible 4-1 lead.
Portland had been celebrating an early 1-0 lead. In the span of ten minutes, they were torched for four straight goals.
Four goals in ten minutes. San Jose’s four goals in 20 minutes (with a man advantage) isn’t as impressive anymore.
Kimura would somewhat redeem himself late in the second half, breathing a bit of life back into the Timbers. When a Kris Boyd shot wasn’t cleanly handled by Saunders, Kimura rebounded with a goal of his own, capping off a wild 4-2 first half.
Unfortunately, the second half was more pedestrian than the first. Los Angeles kept applying pressure to that bruised Timbers defense, and Keane broke through for his second goal in the 64th minute. Sean Franklin’s cross was right on the money, and the Irishman got another easy tap in. Kris Boyd would score on a bouncing free kick that skidded past Saunders (despite the win, it was not the best game of his career) in the 70th minute.
Those two goals were the final fireworks of the game. Los Angeles would jump into fifth place, the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with the 5-3 win. If they can get this kind of output week in and week out from their Designated Players, the Galaxy still could make a run at the top of the standings. Bruce Arena should suspend Beckham right now and lift it right before the next match. A ticked off Becks always plays better, just keep him away from rival teams’ mascots.
For Portland, it was a sour start to their new era. The Timbers gave up five goals in one game for the first time in franchise history. “Organizationally, we should have been a lot better,” Wilkinson said of the defensive breakdowns. “But I think we’ve been through a lot this week. I’ll take the blame for this one, there’s been a lot happening in the last week.”
But Captain Jack Jewsbury didn’t think that the regime change was to blame. “The reality is the majority of the guys in this locker room have been through changes before. Obviously it’s difficult the first two days, but then you get on with it. I thought we came out and played pretty well and then the key guys that we talked about before the game, Landon and Keane and obviously Beckham, when you give them space and free kicks it’s going to be dangerous. And they took advantage of them tonight.”
Timbers fans, I told you last week not to give up on the season. Your team still has a chance to bounce back this year. It’s never easy in the first game after a firing, especially when you play a star-studded team like Los Angeles. If Wilkinson can get the problems sorted out in the midfield and the backline, Portland can still make a run at the playoffs.
However, if they drop a couple more results inside their home fortress, it may be time to panic. But give it a few more games, Timbers Army.
The rest of the story…
Toronto FC 3, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
New Toronto man Terry Dunfield, who was traded from Vancouver to Toronto three days before this Wednesday night battle, got on the end of a Torsten Frings corner to secure a win for TFC. Vancouver thought they had secured a point with a 90th minute header from Darren Mattocks (one of the most athletic plays I have ever seen on a soccer field), but TFC managed to get the dramatic winner. One of the best games of the week…watch the highlights here.
Philadelphia Union 2, Montreal Impact 1
Zac Macmath and Donovan Ricketts made superhuman save after superhuman save in this match, but both teams finally broke through late. Scoring didn’t start until the 82nd minute, and very few expected captain Carlos Valdes to get the late winner off of a quick throw-in. The youthful Union continue to impress under John Hackworth.
Toronto FC 1, New England Revolution 0
Luis Silva’s eighth minute goal stood up for 82 long minutes as New England suffered a frustrating loss at home. The Revs’ five-match unbeaten streak was snapped, but Toronto walked away as a bigger loser: red-hot scorer Danny Koevermans tore his ACL during the match, and will be out for the rest of the season. Huge loss for a team on the rise.
Chicago Fire 1, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 0
It was a week to forget for ‘Caps fans. First the heartbreaker to TFC, then the Le Toux-to-NYRB trade, and finally this crushing loss to Chicago. Veteran Pavel Pardo scored a tenth minute goal that held up, with the Vancouver offense generating nothing of note. The Whitecaps played their usual brand of tough defense, but Sean Johnson and the Fire backline proved to be even tougher.
FC Dallas 2, Colorado Rapids 1
The streak is finally over. For the first time in three months, The Hoops got a win. Colorado dominated the scoreless first half and got the opening goal in the 50th minute. But the visitors would strike up a big comeback thanks to an equalizing assist and a game winning goal from youngster Fabian Castillo. Maybe this will get FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman to take a gamble on his huge stock of homegrown players…what does Dallas have to lose?
New York Red Bulls 2, Seattle Sounders FC 2
Seattle took advantage of a fresh Fredy Montero substitution and a no-sub strategy from Hans Backe to equalize in the second half of this one. Extreme heat (by New Jersey standards) may have had something to do with sloppy play, and NYRB just looked exhausted in the second half. But Backe didn’t use any of his subs in the second half, and Seattle was able to escape with a big road point.
K&G’s MLS Player of the Week: David Beckham, Los Angeles Galaxy
Vintage Beckham performance on Saturday night: back-to-back beautiful distance goals and a dominating performance from the midfield. One could argue that Wondo should get the award because of his hat trick, but two of his goals were against a ten-man squad. Beckham’s quick fire brace sparked a first half riot for the Galaxy, and you aren’t going to find two prettier goals this week in MLS.
K&G’s MLS Goal of the Week: David Beckham’s 36-Yard Laser Guided Missile
That being said, Beckham’s first goal wins our GOTW award. The free kick was impressive, no doubt, but this one was from farther out…and, well, it wasn’t a free kick. Not enough pressure on Beckham allowed him take aim from waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back, shutting down the entire city of Portland for a moment. Masterful celebration, too.
K&G’s MLS Quote of the Week: TFC Interim Head Coach Paul Mariner
“Someone’s going to have to step up and become a goal scorer for us…you know Luis (Silva) has two (goals) in two (games), you can see what a good player he is…there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Uh, Mr. Mariner…PETA’s on line one.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR THIS WEEK
Tomorrow night (Wednesday), Seattle kicks off the summer World Football Challenge here in the States, a nine-game series of matches that pit some of the world’s best clubs against each other and against MLS competition. In front of what will most likely be a full sellout crowd at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders will host the Champions of Europe, Chelsea FC. Special note: Sounders club legend Roger Levesque will retire after the match tomorrow night, capping off a long career in the Pacific Northwest…Toronto FC will also be involved in the WFC this week, hosting Liverpool at BMO Field on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how Liverpool plays this one, first game back from a disappointing 2011-12 campaign. TFC can start to solve their cat-skinning problem on Saturday…Huge slate of Wednesday night games include two afternoon games, for some odd reason. NYRB hosts Chicago at 1 PM ET and Chivas meets Portland at 1 PM PT. I guess MLS is taking a page from baseball???…Two rivalries headline the weekend’s action. A plateauing New York squad has a chance to get some big momentum going against one of the league’s hottest teams, Philadelphia. Match will be at 2 PM ET on ESPN, should be a great one. And, later that evening, Los Angeles will look to avenge their loss earlier this season to city rivals Chivas USA. Chivas’s bye week last week couldn’t have come at a better time, as several starters look to get back to full fitness in the coming days.
Justin Ferguson is a sports journalism student at Auburn University that has a birthday tomorrow. Which one of you can get him a plane ticket to Seattle for tomorrow night’s match against Chelsea? You can follow him on Twitter @theoneandonlyJF.