Where has the Scrimmage been?!
For those of you who have come aboard for the weekly look at Major League Soccer in this column, I sincerely apologize. A combination of the day job, 30-year-old sophomore status in college, the unfortunate loss of internet connectivity for several days and the celebration of a wedding anniversary with my wonderful wife have conspired to keep me from getting the column up last week, and for that I apologize.
Before we dive back into the coverage of the league, though, I would like to quickly discuss the changes on the horizon. Due to those time commitments that kept the column from going up last week, we will be restructuring my role as an MLS correspondent on this site.
Rather than providing short snapshots on every game, we’ll take a shorter 100-word look at every game of the week in a new section of the Scrimmage. Remaining will be the (abbreviated) Starting XI, the Top Five, Stoppage Time and Scouting Ahead sections, and we will get back to an oratorical opening on a broader facet of the sport in next week’s edition.
So stay tuned, because we aren’t scaling back the coverage so much as reinvigorating it. Comments, suggestions, critiques? Please leave them in the comments below or shoot me a tweet @zbigalke. And now that we have all of these disclaimers out of the way, let’s dive into a look at the past week in American pro soccer…
FINE NINE AND THE STARTING XI
New York @ Toronto — The Red Bulls fended off a comeback attempt by Toronto FC, responding to Jonathan Osorio’s 83rd-minute equalizer with a second goal on the evening by Tim Cahill. With the road win, New York broke a streak where they had lost alternate games since the beginning of the season. With a second straight victory, the Red Bulls have recovered from a four-game winless streak at the start of the season to vault into a tie for second place in the Eastern Conference; Toronto, winless since March 9, are now mired just above the conference cellar.
Chicago @ Montreal — Winless in their previous three matches (two MLS regular-season contests and a 2-0 loss to Toronto in the first leg of the Canada Cup semifinals), the Impact finally rebounded from an ugly fortnight to retake sole possession of first place in the East with a 2-0 shutout of the Fire. Andres Romero and Marco Di Vaio provided the goals, Troy Perkins stopped everything Chicago shot his way, and Montreal returned to its winning ways. Noteworthy is the fact that Montreal now has the second-best defense (by goals allowed) in the league behind the Galaxy.
Dallas @ Vancouver — Dallas still leads comfortably, but the Toros were drawn back to the pack in the Western Conference standings when they could only muster a draw to the Whitecaps on their trip to British Columbia. The league leaders in points had a two-goal lead thanks to a Vancouver own goal and Matt Hedges’ goal just after halftime, but the Whitecaps leveled the match thanks to a four-minute stretch where Dallas fell asleep defensively and allowed both Kekuta Manneh and Camilo Sanvezzo scored on Raul Fernandez. Barraged all night (7 saves on 9 shots), Fernandez couldn’t prevent the equalizer in the 75th.
DC @ Columbus — The scoreboard was prematurely lit up at Crew Stadium, catching fire in the pre-match buildup and forcing a delay to the start of the match between Columbus and DC United. Once the match commenced, the Crew were deadly accurate, scoring on all three shots they took on goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Columbus put the contest out of reach before halftime with goals from Dominic Oduro and Josh Williams. Federico Higuain added another goal in the beginning of the second half, and Andy Gruenebaum turned aside all six shots on goal by DC to earn the clean sheet.
Philadelphia @ New England — For the first time since opening day, New England pulled off a victory with a 2-0 shutout of the visiting Philadelphia Union. Lee Nguyen was the star for the Revolution, benefiting from a tactical change as he ran roughshod over the Union defense. Playing a more central attacking role, Nguyen found space all match. He nabbed an assist on Diego Fagundez’s 61st-minute goal and added a score of his own on a rebound ten minutes later. After a tough start to the season, goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth finally notched his first win of the season.
Portland @ Kansas City — The Timbers went into the lion’s den of Sporting Park. Twice they went behind in the first half, and twice they clawed the match back level. Rodney Wallace’s 58th-minute strike gave Portland a third goal against the Sporting defense, the first time since a 4-0 loss to Philadelphia last year that Kansas City has allowed more than two goals in a match. As a result, Portland now sits comfortably alone in third place in the Western Conference, undefeated in their past six matches, and looking more and more dangerous by the week under first-year head coach Caleb Porter.
Los Angeles @ Salt Lake — Real Salt Lake had a chance at home to move into second place behind FC Dallas in the Western Conference. But instead it was the Galaxy who prevailed 2-0 and took position behind the Toros, despite Los Angeles bringing an injury-thinned side to the Rio Tinto. Real proved incapable of getting any goals as the Galaxy went back to California with three more points in their pocket. LA goalkeeper Brian Rowe stopped seven shots, thwarting every Real attempt to earn a clean sheet in the first pro match for the young backup.
San Jose @ Chivas USA — A back-and-forth battle in front of fewer than 10,000 at the Home Depot Center saw both San Jose and Chivas take leads over the course of the match before a Cordell Cato equalizer in the final fifteen minutes forced the two teams to split the points. Chris Wondolowski put the Quakes up just before halftime, but two Chivas goals at the start of the second half gave the home side the lead. Then Cato, who had entered as a substitute less than ten minutes earlier, connected at the end of Shea Salinas’ pass to beat Dan Kennedy and secure the stalemate.
Colorado @ Houston — When Drew Moor beat Tally Hall to put the Rapids up early in the second half, it looked as though Houston’s 35-game unbeaten record at home was about to come to an end. But Giles Barnes finished off a play that started with Hall’s goal kick in the 66th minute, and the Dynamo hung on for the 1-1 draw to extend their MLS regular-season home unbeaten streak to a record 30 matches. A question that emerged again this week in the wake of the record extension is increasing the minimum width of MLS pitches; Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium has the narrowest pitch in the league, barely meeting the 70-yard minimum.
This week’s Starting XI (4-4-2): GK Brian Rowe (LA); RB Agustin Viana (CLB), CB Alessandro Nesta (MTL), CB Mario de Luna (CHV), RB Chance Myers (SKC); LM Mike Magee, CM Lee Nguyen (NE), CM Federico Higuain (CLB), RM Shea Salinas (SJ); F Giles Barnes (HOU), F Ryan Johnson (POR)
TAP SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE
After two weeks, it is fun coming back to this evaluation. The three teams at the top look familiar, but the other two on the list have played their way onto this week’s TAPS Top Five over the past fortnight and cannot be ignored:
- FC DALLAS (6-1-2/+6) — Over the past fortnight Dallas has extended their league-leading unbeaten streak to seven matches with a home victory and a road draw in successive matches against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Toros were the first team to 20 points this season, and despite their draw in Canada this weekend they remain six points clear of the Galaxy atop the Western Conference standings. (The Galaxy have two games in hand, meaning they could only tie Dallas in the standings with wins in both.)
- MONTREAL IMPACT (5-1-1/+4) — Moving back into second place in my Power Rankings are the Impact, who had a bye week two weekends ago and are back to their winning ways with successive shutouts of the Chicago Fire and then Toronto FC (in the second leg of the Canada Cup semifinals). Back ahead of Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference standings, Montreal has the dual benefit of having played fewer games than any other team in the East; they’ve played one less match than Houston, two less than Kansas City and three less than New York, who are locked in a three-way tie two points behind the Impact.
- LOS ANGELES GALAXY (4-1-2/+8) — No team has a better goal differential than the Galaxy, who won a separation match for Western Conference positioning on the road against Real Salt Lake on Saturday. It was their second consecutive shutout after beating Kansas City at home the previous weekend. The Galaxy got an added boon when their sophomore goalkeeper backup, Brian Rowe, played as well if not better than starter Carlo Cudicini in his first-ever start against Real. The depth in goal could be crucial for the Galaxy given the Italian starter’s age.
- PORTLAND TIMBERS (3-1-4/+3) — After the season started with three points in the first four matches, the Timbers have finally figured out new coach Caleb Porter’s philosophy. With the second-longest unbeaten streak in the league (six matches), Portland has skyrocketed up the Western Conference standings and now sits two points clear of Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake in third place. If not for a late equalizer the prior weekend by San Jose, the Timbers would be ahead of the Galaxy in the standings and winners of four straight. Porter’s system is finally paying dividends in the Rose city.
- NEW YORK RED BULLS (4-4-2/+2) — After winning their past two matches, the Red Bulls find themselves situated in a three-way tie for second place in the Eastern Conference with Kansas City and Houston. New York gets the nod in the five spot because they are finally figuring out how to best utilize what on paper is one of the three most dangerous attacks in MLS. While New York has been winning with panache over the past fortnight, Sporting has lost two straight and the Dynamo have mustered only draws. So the top five this week is bookended by teams that have adopted the bull as their mascot.
Here in my hometown of Portland, the Timbers have made headlines in both a very negative and a very positive way over the past week as they look to extend their unbeaten streak to seven games tonight at JELD-WEN Field against the New England Revolution. The truth is that any sports team has the potential to be a civic institution and an enabler of debauchery.
The team was confronted with a police report on Sunday morning. An as-of-now-unidentified player is accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the team hotel after their win in Kansas City the night before. The franchise has publicly stood behind the player, owner Merritt Paulson and the organization reiterating in statements that no charges have been filed. And with nothing public and the police still investigating, there is surely more to this story than the initial reports.
But even if the player in question proves to be completely innocent, the mere insinuation of indiscretion casts a dark shadow over what has finally been a period of on-field success for a franchise that hasn’t had much to gloat about since entering MLS a few years ago. Stories like this put the recent Tiger Woods Nike commercial that asserts “Winning Takes Care of Everything” into a completely different and more sinister perspective.
Portland at least managed to mitigate the public-relations sting of this anonymous alleged assault with what transpired yesterday. Fulfilling the Make-a-Wish dreams of 8-year-old kidney cancer survivor Atticus Lane-Dupre on Wednesday morning, the Timbers hosted the young man’s Green Machine team at JELD-WEN Field for a unique pros-versus-primary-schoolers friendly. Atticus was the star of the match, scoring four goals — including the game winner moments before the final whistle — as his team beat Portland 10-9.
So while we must not jump to conclusions either way about any team, it is instructive to remember that it is their job to stand behind their squad until such time as a player becomes more costly to the team off the field than the benefits that he or she can bring on the field. And while the loss to the Green Machine was largely contrived to make a young boy’s dream come true, feel-good stories like this are more than merely good public relations but a show of civic respectability that shouldn’t be celebrated but repeated in municipalities by every team for the simple sake that they are civic institutions.
(The top three matches on my radar next weekend)
- HOUSTON @ LOS ANGELES — The Galaxy can be stopped, as FC Dallas proved on April 13. Can the other Texas club repeat the feat and deal the defending champs their second loss of the season, or will Los Angeles extend their winning streak to three matches?
- NEW YORK @ COLUMBUS — Hopefully the scoreboard stays intact this time for the Crew after last week’s pre-match fire, because these are two teams that are unlikely to shut one another out. Each is coming off convincing victories and fighting for Eastern Conference playoff position.
- MONTREAL @ SAN JOSE — The Impact returned to their winning ways last weekend, and trounced Toronto 6-0 in Canada Cup play at midweek. If the offense has truly returned to its early-season form, is there anything San Jose can do at home to finally get their first victory since March 23?