If you're still trying to get a bead on the best team in MLS, well, there’s just no end to the obstacles thrown in your way.
Sure, San Jose crushed Real Salt Lake, 5-0, last Saturday, but the Quakes scored four of those goals with a man-advantage. That game said more about the dire straits RSL is in than it did about The Team That Is More Than Wondo, who nailed a hat trick and also picked up an assist in his quest to match or exceed Roy Lassiter’s single season scoring mark of 27 goals.
Losing after going down a man isn’t a cause for concern, but collapse and capitulation – which that defeat seemed to entail – is worrisome in RSL Land. It sat out the busy Wednesday schedule to reflect and re-tool for the last three months of the season.
San Jose followed up that victory Wednesday by stretching its lead atop the Western Conference as well as the overall standings by beating FC Dallas, 2-1, even though the great Wondo failed to convert a penalty kick. Actually, he did nail an attempt past Kevin Hartman, but encroachment by teammate Justin Morrow forced a re-kick that Hartman – playing in his 403rd league match – lunged to his left to block.
Wondo’s miss with the score, 2-0, gave FCD a breath of hope, and it nearly stole a point. In the final minutes it closed to within a goal from a free kick and earned a penalty kick on a foul by Simon Dawkins, whose foul also led to the goal, but Jair Benitez drilled his shot over the crossbar.
Any coach will tell you that along with grit and talent, you need luck to win consistently, and the Quakes seem well-stocked with all the essential ingredients. They are also 7-1-2 at home.
The Eastern Conference leader, Sporting Kansas City, traveled to 2011 MLS Cup finalist Houston for a match that could have provided insight into how the defending conference champion is holding up. Alas, the red-card bug bit SKC as well, and though it battled deep into the second half tied, 1-1, it succumbed to Calen Carr’s second goal of the night and lost, 2-1.
Last year, a couple of midseason trades triggered a strong finish that propelled Houston all the way to MLS Cup, where it lost to the Galaxy, 1-0. In 2012, despite the transfer speculation swirling around Geoff Cameron – who didn’t play Wednesday as negotiations with Stoke City continue – the arrival of Designated Player Oscar Boniek Garcia, the breakout season of striker Will Bruin, and spot showings like that of Carr, who drew a foul from Peterson Joseph that resulted in his sending-off, could be enough for another stirring late-season run.
The Galaxy, supposedly revived by improving performances the past few weeks, sleep-walked through the first half of its match in Vancouver, and deservedly trailed at halftime, 2-0. Gerson Koffie punished some lackluster defending for a 1-0 lead and then recently arrived DP Barry Robson found space, and lots of it, to head home his first MLS goal.
But this is not the moribund Galaxy of late winter and early spring. It got a goal back when David Beckham, whose careless giveaway had set in motion the sequence for Koffie to score, hit a shot that a deflection took past ‘Caps keeper Joe Cannon. Then the Galaxy equalized dramatically in the 87th minute when Homegrown signing Jose Villarreal notched his first MLS goal with a left-footed smash from the edge of the penalty area.
Before and after the tying goal, Vancouver hit the crossbar twice, once on a shot deflected superbly by keeper Josh Saunders. Both goal frames were hit repeatedly in yet another wild offensive match involving the Galaxy – on June 30, it lost, 4-3, to the Quakes, and last weekend it downed the Timbers, 5-3.
So imbued with grit and luck, the Galaxy has to be taken seriously, because the talent is certainly there. If it starts showing up more often, L.A. has realistic aspirations of repeating as champion, though its defense persists with its porosity.
The Houston-SKC match wasn’t the only opportunity to closely examine the class of the East. Chicago played at New York, and the Red Bulls’ 1-0 win was tainted not by controversy or red cards but rather extreme heat and a 1 p.m. kickoff. In mid-summer, perhaps matinees should be held in air-conditioned theaters, but this special kickoff time didn’t deter Thierry Henry, whose clean trap and searing shot off the inside of the post gave the crowd a special moment, as well as a win, to celebrate.
The only MLS teams still unbeaten at home? New York and Houston, both at 6-0-3. SKC and D.C. United, which didn’t play Wednesday, have improved enough to raise the possibility that the top Eastern teams are the equals of their Western counterparts.
Seattle stepped outside league competition Wednesday and hosted another domestic cup winner in a friendly at CenturyLink Field. FA Cup winner Chelsea’s 4-2 win indicates there’s still a large gap between it and Seattle, which goes for its fourth straight U.S. Open Cup victory next month in Kansas City.
Even if it wins that game, the pressure on Seattle to at least reach MLS Cup this season is increasing, which is yet another reason to believe that while the Quakes are atop the heap, they aren’t automatically the best team. Not yet at least.