Monday Postgame: Turning into the stretch run ...
It was a somber week off the field as the nation commemorated the 10th year since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and MLS mourned the loss of Bobby Rhine, 35, a former player and broadcaster who was one of the most beloved figures in FC Dallas history.
But anyone seeking a spiritual lift could do worse than the on-field action of Week 26. The league entered the final quarter of its regular season with a playoff chase so tantalizingly poised, all it needed was that signature call from the world of horse racing: “And down the stretch they come!”
The Galaxy strengthened their position on the rail, Real Salt Lake started to make their move and the former pacesetters in the East (Columbus, Philadelphia, New York) slipped back in the pack.
It was another busy, fiery week as there were 30 yellow cards and five reds. There was also an eight-goal shootout, a hat-trick and a pair of shock results.
Let’s take another look.
Best of the West
The most anticipated matchup on the schedule this week was the Saturday-afternoon meeting at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field between Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake, two bona fide title contenders riding hot streaks.
Seattle were 7-0-1 across all competitions during the month of August, and Real Salt Lake were winners of two straight, looking to gain ground in the West.
It was a well-played, exciting game, but it got off to an odd start: The first half featured an uncharacteristic goalkeeping gaffe by Seattle veteran Kasey Keller (he hooked Fabián Espíndola’s cross into his own goal), two red cards and a missed penalty by Sounders star Mauro Rosales.
The Argentine winger bounced back to set up Seattle’s equalizer in first-half stoppage time, cutting the ball back for Fredy Montero, but Sounders FC would suffer a rare home loss after Álvaro Saborío’s 56th-minute strike made it 2-1 and stood up as the game winner.
(Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando preserved the lead in the 69th minute, employing the little used “face save” to stop Seattle defender Tyson Wahl’s shot from point-blank range.)
RSL moved to within a point of FC Dallas and three of Seattle with the win, and with two games in hand on all three teams ahead of them, Salt Lake can’t be counted out of the Supporters’ Shield race just yet.
The Galaxy maintained the pace in that chase with a 1-0 win over Colorado on Friday night. Landon Donovan scored the game’s only goal, moving into a tie with New York’s Thierry Henry for the league lead with 12.
In the first half, LA looked as good as they’ve looked all season. They might have scored several more if not for the heroics of Rapids keeper Matt Pickens, who finished with eight saves.
Waning in the East
Henry stayed tied with Donovan atop the goals list despite a prime opportunity to fill the net and help New York to a much-needed three points on Saturday.
Winless in their previous seven games, and clinging to the 10th and final playoff berth, the Red Bulls faced Vancouver, the team with the fewest points and the most goals allowed in the Western Conference.
On paper, it was a great chance to boost their playoff prospects before a demanding stretch of games (FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and fellow playoff contenders Portland).
In reality, it was more evidence of New York’s recent struggles. They came out flat, went down a goal in the 23rd minute and down a man just before halftime, when defender Jan Gunnar Solli received a debatable red card for pulling down Camilo.
But the ejection seemed to wake up the Red Bulls, and after the introduction of Juan Agudelo just past the hour mark, New York took it to the visitors. The young US international scored an equalizer seven minutes after coming on, and the Red Bulls pushed hard for a winner after that but never found one.
It was a record-tying 15th draw of the season for the Red Bulls, and kept them winless in eight straight games. With DC’s win at Chivas USA (more on that shortly), New York are now on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Union have followed a similar path. Leading the East for much of the summer, Peter Nowak’s men have tumbled to third—just two points clear of the 10th and final playoff spot—thanks to an eight game winless skid since July.
The Union tied twice this week, making a spectacular three-goal rally to draw New England 4-4 on Wednesday, and then scrapping to a 0-0 tie with Portland on Saturday.
Columbus, the East’s co-leaders, have also suddenly lost their way. The Crew followed up last week’s 6-2 drubbing in Seattle with a shocking 4-2 home defeat to Toronto FC, the last-place team in the East.
While the former top three teams in the East stumble, two erstwhile strugglers are trending upward.
DC United—who were 2-3-1 after a 4-0 loss to New York on April 21—got three goals from Charlie Davies on Saturday to beat Chivas USA 3-0. The win boosted them past those same Red Bulls into the 10th and final playoff spot. The Black-and-Red also have at least two games in hand on every other team in contention for the playoffs.
Their big win came at a cost, though, as attacker Chris Pontius—who assisted on all three of Davies’ goals—suffered a fractured tibia and may miss the rest of the season.
Sporting Kansas City also won 3-0 this week, blanking fellow East contenders Houston with two goals from US international Teal Bunbury and one from rookie C.J. Sapong. The win lifted SKC, who began the season 1-6-3, into a tie for first with Columbus.
Almost as shocking as Columbus’ loss to Toronto was New England’s 2-0 stunner over 2010 MLS runners-up Dallas at Gillette Stadium.
Shalrie Joseph and Rajko Lekic scored for the hosts, who snapped a seven-game winless streak with the win. FC Dallas have lost two of their last three.
At a raucous Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday night, San Jose halted their franchise-record winless streak at 13, dropping Chicago 2-0 on goals by Chris Wondolowski and Ramiro Corrales.
The victory actually kept the Quakes in the playoff picture—just barely—but they’re probably not too concerned with the shifting field of contenders above them. The Quakes were just happy to pick up their first win since June 11.