The two MLS Sunday matches offered the second- and third-place teams in each conference a chance to take over the top spot by winning, and in both cases, the home-field advantage meant nothing.
Kansas City knocked off the Fire, 1-0, at Toyota Park on a Jack Jewsbury goal and FC Dallas ended the remarkable home unbeaten streak of Chivas USA, 2-0, with goals by Kenny Cooper and Abe Thompson.
Tactics and personnel decisions played their roles in these decisions, yet both home teams conceded early goals and ultimately succumbed by shutout. Both teams had also sought to beef up their forward corps during the offseason and on Sunday, at least, were found wanting.
Chivas USA and FC Dallas, which played a 1-1 tie at Pizza Hut Park on the opening weekend of the season, took the field at HDC deprived of vital midfield elements. Francisco Mendoza and Sacha Kljestan were suspended; injuries sidelined Pablo Ricchetti and Juan Toja. The differing approaches used by the opposing coaches to deal with these absences dictated the outcome of the match.
Chivas coachPreki chose to use rookies Justin Braun in midfield and Kraig Chiles at forward, with strikers Ante Razov and Atiba Harris on the bench and Maykel Galindo not yet fully recovered from a groin strain but in the starting lineup. Prekialso didn't have available Alecko Eskandarian, whose ouchy groin promoted a trip to Germany for sports hernia surgery.
Lawson Vaughn, who had played in the opener against Dallas and sat out the next two games because of a hamstring strain, took one of the central midfield slots and Chris Pozniak lined up on the right.
FCD coach Steve Morrow tweaked his 3-4-1-2 system only slightly. Michael Saragosa took Ricchetti's central midfield slot alongside Andre Rocha, and in place of playmaker Toja, he used Ricardinho up top with Kenny Cooper and let Arturo Alvarez float along the front line.
Rather than facing a rampaging, bustling Toja playing just behind the forwards, Chivas USA encountered right mid Dax McCarty often pulling the strings and Alvarez darting at their back line from myriad angles. McCarty set up the first goal with a chip from the right side of midfield that Ricardinho rose to meet at the far post and head back across goal for Cooper to blast into the roof of the net from point-blank range.
Twice in the first half Galindo ran onto balls with the goal in sight but he either lost possession without shooting or shot wide. Braun got in behind the back line only to be crowded out when he lacked the guile to get past the final FCD defender.
Early in the second half, a diagonal ball landed for Braun to take into the penalty area. His setup touch took the ball too deep and FC Dallas keeper Dario Sala instantly sprinted off his line to shut off the angle and make the block. Braun's shot was Chivas USA's second, and last, shot on goal. Razov came on a few minutes later, to be followed by the entrance of Harris, but they seldom escaped tight marking as FCD dropped their outside midfielders, especially Blake Wagner on the left, deeper to close off the flanks.
The clinching second goal came when substitute forward Abe Thompson chased a ball from Alvarez into the attacking third, and cut past Jonathan Bornstein and Shavar Thomas to roll a shot past Brad Guzan. Final score: Dallas forwards 2, Chivas USA strikers 0.
The Chivas USA attacking fleet will strengthen when Razov, Eskandarian, Mendoza and Kljestan make it back to the lineup, and Galindo gains full fitness. But an inability to contain a FC Dallas lineup lacking Toja and Ricchetti is a concern.
Chicago had to chase the game from the fourth minute, which is when keeper Jon Busch charged a yard or two out of his penalty area to challenge a long ball from Claudio Lopez, and Jack Jewsbury took it round the keeper to deposit it into the empty net. The Fire pressed forward urgently and to good effect, except for the finishing stroke.
Justin Mapp launched two shots, one ricocheting off the head of Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad and other sailing high over the crossbar. Count Chad Barrett also among the guilty; he wasted two great chances by a) shooting right at Kevin Hartman, and b) blazing one over the bar.
Barrett did hit a through ball that Tomasz Frankowski shot right at Hartman. The rebound? Mapp squared it to Blanco, who hit a feeble shot that Hartman and a defender scrambled, literally, off the goal line.
Frankowski, an offseason acquisition, came off in the 63rd minute for Andy Herron, a former Fire player who returned to Chicago during the winter. An offside call nullified his apparent goal a minute after coming into the match, and the Wizards rode their luck again in a comically inept sequence when a ball rolled for either Gonzalo Segares or Herron launch at goal, but they played a game of "You take it! No, you!" long enough for a grateful Hartman to snuff out the chance. The home fans were not amused.
All four Sunday combatants aspire to establish themselves as true MLS Cup contenders and in the revamped playoff format, the top three teams - not just the top two - in each conference qualify for the postseason. The slots may be decided by head-to-head meetings, and on Sunday two home teams, especially in the final third, came up short.