Strong Sporting, struggling Galaxy mark memorable March

[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Sporting Kansas City is living up to predictions that it will win the Eastern Conference and challenge for the league title, but the defending MLS Cup champion Galaxy has sunk to the bottom of the Western Conference. There’s a lot to ponder as the first calendar month of MLS play concludes, and here are some of the more compelling storylines:

NEW KINGS IN KANSAS CITY? The popular choice to top the Eastern Conference is in that very spot with the league’s best record at 4-0-0.

C.J. Sapong, the 2011 Rookie of the Year, is so far resisting any sophomore jinx. He got the only goal SKC needed to down Chivas USA, 1-0, at Home Depot Center Sunday night. SKC overran Chivas USA for much of the game and amassed a 20-6 edge in shots, though a Nick LaBrocca shot rang off the post in the 54th minute, seven minutes after Sapong scored his third goal of 2012.

Sapong tallied after Graham Zusi hustled after his own shot off the crossbar and bumped through Chivas USA defender Heath Pearce to head it to Sapong, who nodded it into the net. SKC has conceded only one goal in four games, a stat reminiscent of how the 2011 champion rolled to its title.

The defending champion, expected to lead the Supporters’ Shield race as it did last year, is instead way back in the pack and riddled by defensive miscues.

Apparently, that season-opening 3-1 thumping by Real Salt Lake at Home Depot Center wasn’t an aberration. The Revs came west to post the same scoreline Saturday, blasting out to a 2-0 lead with goals in the 10th and 13th minutes to drop the Galaxy into a hole it scratched futilely to escape.

There are still seven months of season to be played, but the Galaxy’s attempts to replace Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez and regain last year’s defensive resilience -- not to mention near-invincibility at home -- are faltering. Another night of bad breaks impacted the result and had either one of David Beckham’s first-half free kicks that struck the woodwork gone into the net, LA might have reversed the momentum. Instead, by the time Robbie Keane scored in the 78th minute, the game was long gone.

Keane’s goal, his third of the season, contrasted sharply with Edson Buddle’s finishing. He shanked two shots from good spots. Deprived of Landon Donovan, who was bothered by tightness in his quads, the attack sputtered and though better in the second half seldom tested Revs keeper Matt Reis.

Also missing were those Donovan slaloms up the wings the Galaxy often uses to relieve pressure by knocking balls into his path. As a result, opponents are piling heavier pressure on the Galaxy, which can’t rely on Gonzalez bailing out dire situations with powerful tackles or howitzer headers.

The loss dropped LA (1-2-0) to the bottom of the Western Conference, which is led by Real Salt Lake, San Jose, and Colorado at 3-1-0.

‘CAPS CLOSING IT DOWN. As bad as the Whitecaps’ performed defensively last season during their MLS debut campaign, they are nearing a record for stinginess in year two. They are also right behind the Western leaders at 2-0-2.

A 0-0 tie at Philadelphia Saturday extended Vancouver's goalless streak to 360 minutes, as in every minute it’s played since the season started. It passed Seattle, which posted 350 shutout minutes to start its own MLS existence in 2009. The all-time record, strangely enough, is held by the 2007 Red Bulls, which opened with 421 scoreless minutes en route to a 12-11-7 finish and 45 goals conceded.

The Whitecaps are getting it done through solid showings in all defensive departments. Keeper Joe Cannon has twice won the MLS Save of the Week honor, and backup Brad Knighton stepped in capably when a quadriceps injury forced Cannon out of the lineup during a 1-0 defeat of Chivas USA at Home Depot Center March 18.

Defender Jay DeMerit won that game with his first goal since signing with MLS prior to the 2011 season, which turned out to be a rough one for both the ‘Caps and their captain. As the ‘Caps labored to match the aggression and intensity of MLS, DeMerit struggled through injuries and sharp lapses in form as he too adjusted to a new environment.

Paired this season with Argentine newcomer Martin Bonjour, DeMerit is stabilizing the back line with his experience and leadership. So far, South Korean international Young-Pyo Lee has been a speedy, skilled upgrade at right back. There have been a few breaks, too; in the tie at PPL Park, a Carlos Valdes shot came back off the upright, and Cannon easily snagged a scuffed Brian Carroll attempt from point-blank range.

Tested by a tougher shot from Keon Daniel, Cannon turned it away to keep the ‘Caps on course for a league record. Their chance to set that mark comes Saturday at San Jose, which left Cannon exposed in the Expansion Draft 17 months ago.

The Quakes are also among the early-season surprises; they upended the Sounders, 1-0, Saturday with a Chris Wondolowski penalty kick and are 2-0 on the road (at Seattle and Toronto) after winning just three of 17 away from home in 2011.

As he did last year, keeper Jon Busch is stoning the opposition with big saves, yet he’s being called upon less often. Newcomer Victor Bernardez is emerging as a tough, reliable centerback, and Sam Cronin is tearing into tackles and spraying smart passes as the hub of a slicker, quicker midfield feeding on the energy of Rafael Baca, Marvin Chavez and Shea Salinas.

The always-moving, ever-dangerous Wondo and bruising battler Steven Lenhart are really starting to annoy opposing defenses. Lenhart tumbled rather easily to draw the penalty kick Wondolowski converted and later took a caution in the 64th minute for time-wasting.

THREES WILD FOR RSL AND RED BULLS. Thierry Henry hit a hat trick and RSL coach Jason Kreis used a trio of substitutes as the Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, respectively, logged impressive wins.

Henry’s second three-goal game in his MLS career swept away Montreal, 5-2, at Red Bull Arena. He also earned an assist by nicking a centering pass from Jan Gunnar Solli that Mehdi Ballouchy poked into the net as New York reacted assertively to the absence of Luke Rodgers, whose failure to secure a renewed work visa will keep him overseas for a few months at least.

RSL struck twice in the final minutes to stun Portland, 3-2. Trailing the Timbers, 2-1, on a pair of spectacular goals by Darlington Nagbe that triggered a thunderous atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field, Kreis brought on Fabian Espindola and Jonny Steele. Along with earlier substitution Will Johnson, they overturned the scoreline with two very late goals.

Steele, an offseason signing making his third MLS appearance, equalized from a Johnson pass in the 89th minute. Three minutes into stoppage time, as Kyle Beckerman called for the ball, Espindola flicked a lob from the left side of the penalty area, and the RSL captain darted forward to steer a first-time shot inside the post.

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