[MLS SPOTLIGHT] A weekend stripped of three games because of Hurricane Irene produced disquieting losses for Chivas USA and Houston and Sporting Kansas City, and spectacular wins for Seattle and FC Dallas in the wake of Concacaf Champions League victories.
NO CCL HANGOVER, YET. With two rounds of the six-match CCL group phase completed, all four groups are topped by MLS teams.
This could be a function of MLS head coaches doing a better job of managing their rosters and resources across both competitions, and/or the fact that the four U.S. representatives -- Los Angeles, Seattle, FC Dallas, and Colorado -- are also the four top teams in overall points. Their good form is reflected in a combined 12-5-3 record in their last five league matches, and a mark of 7-0-1 in CCL competition.
The fifth MLS team -- Toronto FC -- is basically out of the playoff race and with a roster revamped in midseason has just a CCL quarterfinal slot to play for. The only CCL loss suffered by an MLS team to date is TFC’s storm-lengthened 1-0 defeat to FCD last Thursday.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and his players credited Hurricane Irene for its CCL victory over Alajuelense Thursday. A league game scheduled for Sunday in New York was postponed in time for Arena to field his strongest lineup, which posted a 2-0 victory.
CCL group play resumes in mid-September, after a FIFA international break during Labor Day weekend during which there are only two league matches.
HUMBLED AT HOME DEPOT. Maybe it was the game it lost on the artificial turf Wednesday in Portland, or maybe it wasn’t quite focused enough to take advantage of a home game following five straight on the road, but for whatever reason, Chivas USA squandered a great opportunity at Home Depot Center Saturday in losing to Real Salt Lake, 1-0.
After giving away a chance on bang-bang defensive errors that Alvaro Saborio exploited in the 11th minute, Chivas USA went up a man when RSL defender Nat Borchers took down midfielder Nick LaBrocca with a jersey tug 13 minutes later. It played 11-vs.-10 for more than an hour but couldn’t produce a goal, partially because of questionable tactics.
Rather than pinging the ball around to wear out Real Salt Lake and open up gaps in the middle, Chivas USA insisted on playing balls wide and hitting crosses, few of which produced even a contested header, much less a clear scoring chance. The tactic may have worked had Justin Braun, a player strong on the ground as well as in the air, come into the match, but he didn’t make the game-day roster. Forwards Alejandro Moreno and Juan Pablo Angel lost duel after duel against Jamison Olave and Borchers’ replacement, Chris Schuler.
Moreno also couldn’t hold the ball when it came to his feet, and thus another valuable weapon in the Chivas USA attack -- passes laid off to LaBrocca and Laurent Courtois, who came on as a substitute -- didn’t much impact the match. One cross by Marcos Mondiani from the right flank nearly reached a streaking LaBrocca on a nicely timed run from midfield, but for the most part, RSL repelled the crosses from Mondaini, his counterpart on the left, Jorge Flores, and outside backs Mariano Trujillo and Ante Jazic.
Though it forced a couple of sharp saves from Nick Rimando, Chivas USA finished with just four shots on goal, a rather feeble yield while playing a man up for 66 minutes. Certainly the removal of Borchers should have prompted some testing of the centerbacks through the air, but when Chivas USA could not produce much else, RSL settled in to grind out a much-needed victory that broke an eight-game winless streak away from Rio Tinto Stadium.
NEAGLE TRIO TRUMPS CUNNINGHAM’S MARK. The Sounders, also enduring a busy stretch, nevertheless ran the Crew off its feat by scoring three goals in the opening 20 minutes and another before halftime. Lamar Neagle hit the first and third goals, then capped off his hat trick in the 70th minute with a spectacular blast from outside the penalty area that slammed off the underside of the crossbar and came down inside the goal line.
Crew striker Jeff Cunningham converted a penalty kick early in the second half to take over the league’s all-time lead in goals with 134 as the Eastern Conference leader came up woefully short against Seattle, which had beaten defending CCL champ Monterrey, 1-0, in Mexico last Tuesday.
Seattle is five games into a stretch of six matches in 18 days that concludes Tuesday with a U.S. Open Cup semi against FCD; Seattle is 4-0-1 in those games, and its impressive form in all competitions suggests it can go deep into the MLS playoffs while also maintaining a strong start (2-0-0) in the CCL.
Neagle couldn’t earn a regular place during Seattle’s inaugural MLS season in 2009 and spent 2010 in the USL with Charleston before coming back sharper and stronger; his trick wasn’t the only impressive showing among the backups handed a rare league start.
Mike Fucito also scored against the Crew; he hadn’t tallied in a league game since 2010, yet netted a pair of left-footed lasers, and also logged an assist in a 4-1 home win over Comunicaciones Aug. 16 in the Sounders’ CCL group opener. After assisting on Neagle’s first goal, Fucito tucked away a Mauro Rosales centering ball with a nice finish five minutes before halftime.
LEAST OF THE EAST. Houston and Sporting Kansas City took the field against Vancouver and FC Dallas, respectively, knowing they could pick up ground on Eastern Conference leader Columbus after Seattle had hammered the Crew, 6-2, earlier in the day. Instead, both went down to defeat.
A few excellent saves by Dynamo goalie Tally Hall staved off the Whitecaps until Shea Salinas broke down the left side to slide a shot inside the far post by which Vancouver prevailed, 1-0. Despite its occupancy of third place in the Eastern Conference, Houston is winless (0-5-8) on the road this season, and it won’t get a better opportunity than it did at Empire Field.
Sporting Kansas City, plagued by conceding late goals this season, succumbed twice in the final minutes to transform a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 loss at Livestrong Sporting Park. Brek Shea broke loose in the 89th and 92nd minutes to send over crosses that Maicon Santos and rookie Bobby Warshaw, respectively, headed powerfully past keeper Jimmy Nielsen to hand SKC its second home loss.
FCD rallied despite playing its rescheduled CCL game in Toronto Thursday morning after it was suspended with one half played Wednesday night. Of the two teams, FCD looked hungrier and livelier in the second half; SKC has allowed 11 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, including five in stoppage time.
The only Eastern team to prevail against Western opposition, Chicago, prevailed in mitigating circumstances. Colorado, weary after its 1-1 tie with Real Espana in Concacaf Champions League play Tuesday that required a 28-hour round trip, labored sluggishly in its fifth game in 15 days while losing, 2-0.