MLS stars align at just the right time

September was a crazy month in MLS. Not once but in two consecutive weeks the top three teams in MLS all lost. Of the seven teams with winning records in September, just three -- Montreal, New England and Seattle -- are in line to make the playoffs. Not that it's mattered much.

Of the 12 teams above the red line at the beginning of September, 11 are still there. The only change is that Montreal -- with games to make up after its Concacaf Champions League run in the spring -- pulled ahead of Orlando City in the Eastern Conference after going 4-0-2 in September. The Impact's unbeaten string followed a coaching change. Frank Klopas was relieved of his duties on Aug. 30 and replaced by interim coach Mauro Biello.

MLS Standings, September:
14 *Montreal 4-0-2
10 *New England 3-1-1
9 New York City 3-1-0
9 Orlando City 3-1-0
7 Philadelphia 2-1-1
6 *Crew SC 2-2-0
6 *NY Red Bulls 2-2-0
6 *Toronto FC 2-3-0
1 *D.C. United 0-2-1
0 Chicago 0-5-0
8 *Seattle 2-0-2
6 Real Salt Lake 2-1-0
6 *FC Dallas 2-2-0
6 Houston 2-2-0
5 San Jose 1-2-2
5 *Sporting KC 1-2-2
4 *LA Galaxy 1-1-1
4 *Portland 1-1-1
3 *Vancouver 1-2-0
1 Colorado 0-3-1
*Above red line.

The difference, of course, has been Didier Drogba. He didn't start his first game after arriving from Chelsea until Sept. 5 when he scored a hat trick in a 4-3 win over Chicago. He played in five of the Impact's six games in September and scored seven times. The only game in which he was shut out was the 0-0 tie at the LA Galaxy after which he returned home instead of continuing on with the team to San Jose. He's scored in his last three games for Montreal, all wins, including two in the first 11 minutes of Saturday's 2-0 win over D.C. United.

Drogba's first goal came on a free kick -- the first goal the Impact has ever scored in four seasons in MLS directly off a free kick -- and the second after he faked out a thoroughly embarrassed D.C. defender Steven Birnbaum.

“I’m really happy with the decision I made,” Drogba said. “I’m just smiling because I knew from the beginning that my choice was the right one, so I’m a happy man.”
It would be premature to say Drogba has turned Montreal into an MLS Cup contender. The first order remains nailing down a playoff berth. The Impact leads Orlando City by four points with two games in hand but plays its next four games on the road, beginning with a trip to Orlando on Saturday.

Saturday's game is a must-win game for Orlando City if it is to have to any chance of overtaking Montreal. It also sets up the first meeting between Drogba and Kaka. All Orlando City's Brazilian star did on Friday night was set up three goals as Orlando City stunned the New York Red Bulls, 5-2, on the road.

The game at Red Bull Arena was the first for Kaka since returning injured from his stint with the Brazil national team at the beginning of September. After getting off to a fast start with OCSC -- he had scored nine goals by July 4 -- and earning MVP honors in the MLS All-Star Game, Kaka cooled off considerably, going without a goal or an assist in his last four games -- 4-0 and 5-0 losses and 1-1 and 0-0 ties -- before joining up with the Brazil national team.

Injuries have also put a damper on Frank Lampard's first season in MLS. At least, Kaka had the advantage of joining Orlando City for preseason and a full season to break into the league. Lampard only started one of his first eight games with New York City FC as it dug a big hole for itself. But in the last three games, Lampard has scored two goals and added an assist as NYCFC has swept to keep its faint hopes of making the playoffs alive. His second goal came Saturday in a 2-1 win at Vancouver decided on David Villa's penalty kick in the fifth minute of stoppage time after the 'Caps had equalized on a penalty kick of their own in the 88th minute.

"Vancouver has had a strong season," Lampard said. "it’s big for us, it keeps our hopes alive. I think we’re in a must-win situation now for the rest of the season so if we lost those points when they scored the penalty, I think we would’ve been disappointed.”

Lampard was in a good mood after the game, praising Vancouver ("amazing place") and even the turf at B.C Place ("I have to say I found it enjoyable to play on").

Lampard's former England teammate, Steven Gerrard, had gotten off to a quick start at the LA Galaxy, getting a goal and an assist in his MLS debut and helping the Galaxy win five of its first six games. But the Galaxy then went winless without a goal in its next three weeks, the third of which, a 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, followed a trip Gerrard took to England to participate in BT Sport's UEFA Champions League television coverage. The game was probably Gerrard's worst since he arrived from Liverpool in July.

If Gerrard's performance or trip to England was of concern to his coach, Bruce Arena, he didn't say anything. Arena also expressed confidence the Galaxy would get out of its slump, and it did, scoring twice in the first 14 minutes against FC Dallas and eventually winning, 3-2, thanks to Gerrard's second-half goal.

“I haven’t had a problem with my confidence," he said. "I think the goal was good for the team. I said last week, we’re at the business end of the season and it’s all about three points and not about individuals, tallies and who gets what, but it’s about the team getting three points. It’s a big result for us tonight.”

And it sets up the final month of the MLS season with the league's stars finally aligning.
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