Sunday, January 25, 2009

Soccer Back on the Horizon

This article first appeared in RedMatchday Magazine, Aberdeen Football Club's award-winning publication, on January 24, 2009.

The countdown to the Major League Soccer kick-off on March 19 began in earnest last week with the 2009 SuperDraft held in St. Louis, Missouri.

Previous first picks have included Brian McBride (Columbus Crew’s choice in the league’s first draft in 1996), the then 14-year-old striker Freddy Adu (2004 – D.C. United), and Rangers midfielder Maurice Edu (2007 – Toronto); three players who crossed over to Europe to further their careers.

This year’s first choice takes the opposing route as Londoner Steve Zakuani joins Seattle Sounders.

As the league’s newest franchise, Seattle were granted first pick to help with their squad expansion. They have already pulled off a major coup by landing last season’s championship-winning head coach Sigi Schmid from Columbus, as well as signing former Premiership duo Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg.

Such additions give kudos to the commitment shown by an ownership group including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and comedian Drew Carey. The Emerald City has responded enthusiastically with 19,000 season tickets already sold – the highest number of any MLS team.

Zakuani’s journey is one that he thinks will become increasingly popular with youngsters being overlooked by England’s top clubs. Speaking to Fox Soccer Channel after his selection, he said: “I think you will see it (English players enrolling in American soccer scholarships) more and more as MLS gets more exposure and a lot of college kids make it into the league. In England, you can’t play soccer and study at the same time. This is a unique system that still gives you a chance to go professional afterwards.”

The Congo-born striker moved to the UK at an early age whereupon his prodigious talent was spotted by Arsenal scouts. After representing the Gunners at various youth team levels but failing to earn a professional contract, Zakuani accepted a soccer scholarship at University of Akron, Ohio. He terrorised defences during his two years of college play with his threatening combination of height, explosive pace, willingness to run at defences, and coolness in front of goal.

He scored 43 goals in 44 matches in total – a feat which caught the attention of scouts from nearby Columbus, a two-hour drive from Akron, and one that the departed head coach Schmid remembered on draft day. Schmid likens his new protégé’s talents to those of former Rangers player Brian Laudrup.

Zakuani, whose elder sibling Gabriel is currently on loan from Fulham to Peterborough United, is confident that he can make an early impact in MLS. Speaking at the Draft, he said: “I’m ready. I’m going to work hard, catch up to the level of play, and hopefully contribute right away. I think (Seattle) is probably the best team to go to because everyone is new. We’re all going to come in and fight for starting spots.”

Although teams receive four draft picks, one in each of four rounds of selections, those picks are frequently traded away as makeweights in other transfer deals. Mo Johnston, Director of Soccer for Toronto, was the busiest man in the floor during the first round as the Canadians held second, fourth, and thirteenth choices.

Johnston sealed a prime acquisition last month by tempting Dwayne De Rosario back to his hometown after a trophy-laden career with San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo.

Houston adopted the most sagacious strategy in selecting Marcus Tracy with their lowly 56th pick. The Wake Forest University striker pipped Zakuani to the 2008 college Player of the Year award, but he decided to sign a contract with Danish champions Aalborg rather than join the draft.

By selecting Tracy nonetheless, Houston retain his rights for two years and could land the player if an unsuccessful European stint hastens his return home.

Ladies Get In On The Act

The first draft for the newly-formed Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) also took place in St. Louis last week.

Anyone who witnessed the US defeating Brazil in last summer’s Olympic Final will be aware that the quality of women’s football has improved dramatically in recent years. The gold-winning Americans will be joined by a wealth of international talent as star players from the national teams of Australia, Brazil, China, England, France, Germany, Japan, and Sweden have been quick to sign up, much to the chagrin of Europe’s top leagues.

Having seen the Women’s United Soccer Association accumulate $100m losses in its brief three-year existence prior to folding in 2003, WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci advocates a slow and steady growth this time around. Common ownerships with MLS franchises and the use of shared stadia are highly desired to take advantage of economic synergies.

Seven teams will compete in the inaugural competition beginning on March 29 with three further sides joining in 2010. Fox Soccer Channel is on board to carry a weekly live game and the channel has already started its advertising campaign with US internationals Heather Mitts and Hope Solo promoting “The Beautiful Game”.

The league’s biggest attraction will undoubtedly be Marta, the outrageously talented Brazilian forward who has monopolised the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award since 2006. Marta leaves behind the Swedish league to join Los Angeles Sol; one franchise already sharing ownership and a stadium with an MLS team (L.A. Galaxy).

Antonucci hopes for initial attendances in the range of 4,000 to 6,000, but regardless of the improved quality on offer it is difficult to envisage figures rising above that level.

The continued gentrification of the sport makes stadia increasingly family-friendly and elevated numbers of women and families in attendance at men’s games can only serve to reduce the consumer base for WPS.

Given the choice between watching the men’s or women’s game, it is hard to imagine too many fans shelling out for the latter.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

MLS Cup Final

This article first appeared in RedMatchday Magazine, Aberdeen Football Club's award-winning publication, on November 29, 2008.

Columbus Crew ensured that their first MLS Championship Final appearance last Sunday was a celebratory occasion as they prevailed 3-1 over New York Red Bulls at Home Depot Centre in Los Angeles. In doing so, Head Coach of the Year Sigi Schmid’s side became the first Supporters’ Shield winners, awarded to the team with the best regular season record, to clinch the title since Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002.

In keeping with the regular season, Guillermo Barros Schelotto was the key to the Crew’s success. The veteran Argentine tormented the Red Bulls throughout and played a telling role in all three goals. It was fitting that the League MVP also received the MLS Final MVP award to add to his imposing collection of trophies. His contribution has been immense in turning around a franchise which missed the play-offs in each of the previous three seasons.

That Columbus were in town to contest the final was never seriously in dispute. Kansas City Wizards were dispatched in the Eastern Conference semi-final with relative ease before a stiff Chicago challenge was overcome by a rousing second half display. By contrast, New York were supposed to have been eliminated long ago. Despite suffering a 5-2 thrashing at Chicago in the last week of regular season fixtures, they were able to hang onto the eighth and final play-off spot thanks to results elsewhere. With one more point than Colorado Rapids, the Western Conference’s fourth-placed team, Red Bulls slid across to the West and survived trips to Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake en route to an unlikely title shot.

With supporters of both finalists facing a cross-continental trip, expectations for the season’s showpiece event were somewhat pessimistic. In fact, an electronic messageboard on the I-405 freeway close to Home Depot Centre still advertised tickets the day before the game. Nor was there any sign of travelling soccer fans in the nearby beach towns of Orange County and South L.A. over the weekend, except for one lone Red Bulls fan pedalling along the Hermosa Beach boardwalk. But fears of a funereal atmosphere were quickly dispelled as soccer-lovers from around the country turned up to provide a kaleidoscope of colour and a carnival atmosphere.

On first impression one would have thought Houston Dynamo were involved given the amount their orange-clad followers in attendance. Jerseys from all of the other twelve MLS clubs were on display with the exception of New England Revolution – no surprise given that only 5,200 of their fans could be bothered attending their home play-off game against Chicago. The real soccer fans of Southern California turned out in their original green-and-gold Galaxy tops; a remnant of a more successful era before club executives revamped their shirt for marketing purposes. There were even a handful of Seattle Sounders shirts on display. Freddie Ljungberg’s new team will become the league’s fifteenth franchise when they debut next season.

As kick-off approached, the supporters groups of Columbus and New York marched to their designated areas at opposite corners behind the north goal. Pockets of Crew fans could be found scattered around the stands as around 1,000 followers made the trek from Ohio. Though outnumbered, the few hundred Red Bulls fans were certainly not out-sung.

New York’s path through the play-offs was characterised by resolute defending, effective counter-attacking, and colossal amounts of good fortune, but the first half against Columbus proved to be different. Juan Carlos Osorio’s side may have finished 18 points behind their opponents in the regular season, but they enjoyed the bulk of play with wide-midfielders Dane Richards and Dave Van den Bergh providing a regular supply into the penalty box for Juan Pablo Angel and John Wolyniec.

Schelotto’s first major contribution came on 31 minutes when Columbus took the lead against the run of play. The former Boca Juniors man robbed a hesitant Van den Bergh near the touchline before setting Alejandro Moreno free down the right with an instant pass. The Venezuelan international raced clear before firing his shot beyond New York goalkeeper Danny Cepero into the far corner.

Richards hauled New York back into the match on 51 minutes. The Jamaican winger’s direct running created space on the right for Wolyniec and the veteran striker gratefully received possession before netting a deserved equaliser. Sadly for the Red Bulls, the game’s pivotal moment was to turn the match against them while they still celebrated. A minute later, Schelotto floated a needlessly conceded corner onto the head of Chad Marshall and the towering defender found the net for the seventh time this season.

Columbus were now in complete control. Schelotto rifled one long range effort off Cepero’s crossbar before creating the clinching goal on 82 minutes. His delightfully weighted chip allowed overlapping full-back Frankie Hejduk to complete the scoring. Hejduk, the team captain, returned to the spotlight soon afterwards to take possession of the newly created Philip Anschutz Trophy from MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

Schelotto may have won six league titles during a trophy-laden spell at La Bombonera, but he was still exuberant to receive his championship medal. He said: “Today is just as important as the first.” Fans of Columbus Crew will hope that this is not the last.
Pictures from Home Depot Center are available here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

MLS Conference Finals

New York Red Bulls stand on the verge of winning the most improbable championship in MLS history after a weekend of high drama in the Conference Finals.

Three weeks ago, New York’s play-off hopes were in jeopardy after a 5-2 humbling in Chicago left them relying on Columbus Crew to defeat D.C. United. Columbus emerged victorious, leaving the Red Bulls clutching the eighth and final qualification spot. Now the two teams will do battle for the ultimate prize in Sunday’s season finale in Carson, California.

After a turbulent season which saw teenage prodigy Jozy Altidore depart for Villareal, captain Claudio Reyna forced into premature retirement, and two players (goalkeeper Jon Conway and defender Jeff Parke) receive ten-match season-ending suspensions after testing positive for illegal performance enhancers, head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has somehow engineered back-to-back road wins – double the amount achieved in 15 regular season games.

The Red Bulls travelled to Utah buoyed after stripping Houston of their crown, and by the fact that they had never lost to Real Salt Lake. The teams drew 1-1 on October 9 to mark the opening of Real’s new Rio Tinto Stadium. As was the case that night, a capacity crowd witnessed Dave van den Bergh give the visitors an early lead. But on this occasion, Salt Lake fell short in their attempts to hit back as New York held on to win 1-0.

Real defender Jamison Olave misjudged an attempted interception on 28 minutes, allowing veteran forward John Wolyniec the freedom of the left flank. His low cutback for Juan Pablo Angel was thwarted by Nick Rimando, but the sprawling goalkeeper could only palm the ball into the Dutchman’s path leaving the former Utrecht man to find the empty net from six yards.

The hosts almost restored parity ten minutes later. Javier Morales supplied an inswinging free-kick which narrowly eluded Clint Mathis and Kyle Beckerman before smacking the left post as New York goalkeeper Danny Cepero looked on helplessly.

Cepero’s goal led a charmed existence in the second leg against Houston and he was to enjoy further good fortune after the break. On 66 minutes, Olave spurned a golden opportunity to atone for his error by slicing high and wide from eight yards. Five minutes later, Yura Movsisyan looked set to equalise but Cepero narrowed the angle sufficiently to deflect the Armenian’s attempt wide.

The goalkeeper was beaten on 81 minutes although Robbie Findley’s effort was sliding agonisingly wide of the far post. Will Johnson gave chase to try to hook the ball back into the empty net, but he could only re-direct it against the post from a tight angle.

Nat Borchers joined the attack in the closing minutes and twice headed narrowly wide before the goal frame came to New York’s rescue one last time. With four minutes of injury time almost over, Morales latched onto a loose ball and watched in disbelief as his shot rebounded off the post with Cepero a mere bystander. New York had survived, somehow, despite Real’s 24 attempts on goal.

The Red Bulls’ fairytale run is epitomised by Cepero, the young goalkeeper brought in to replace Jon Conway last month. The 23-year-old marked his MLS debut against Columbus in spectacular fashion – he became the first goalkeeper to score in the league when his 80-yard free kick found the net after a customary random bounce on the artificial turf of Giants Stadium.

As well as enjoying a large share of luck, Cepero has displayed phenomenal agility in conceding only one goal in three play-off games.

Columbus, who topped the regular season table overall, remain favourites to end New York’s unlikely run in this Sunday’s final after they prevailed by 2-1 in a thrilling contest with Chicago Fire at Crew Stadium.

Initially, it appeared that Brian McBride would return to haunt his former team in his first game back in Ohio. But the Crew staged a successful second half comeback inspired by veteran Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago’s equally skilled creator, was the architect behind the first half’s highlights. His vast repertoire of tricks troubled the hosts as Chicago seized the initiative.

Blanco’s quick thinking led to the opener on 29 minutes. His instant throw-in released Justin Mapp down the left and his early cross found McBride in space on the six yard line. The former Fulham striker rose unchallenged to beat Will Hesmer with a routine header.

Columbus retaliated in style early in the second half. On 49 minutes, Schelotto provided a perfect set-piece delivery into the penalty area for Chad Marshall to attack. The recently named MLS Defender of the Year towered above McBride to power his header in off the crossbar.

Schelotto was involved again on 55 minutes as the Crew edged in front. His persistence prevented Chicago’s defense from clearing a long ball and eventually Alejandro Moreno found Eddie Gaven bursting into the box. The young midfielder kept his composure to steer an angled drive into Busch’s far corner.

For Crew head coach Sigi Schmid, recently named as Head Coach of the Year, the final at Home Depot Centre offers him the chance of a triumphant return to his former home. Schmid was famously dismissed by Los Angeles Galaxy in August 2004, despite the team sitting atop the standings, for failing to produce an entertaining style of play.

While Schmid has diligently continued with the job of producing a winning team, the decision-makers behind the league’s self-appointed flagship franchise still have much to learn about building a successful product on the pitch.

Conference Final Results

Eastern Conference
Columbus 2 Chicago 1

Western Conference
Salt Lake 0 New York 1

Monday, November 10, 2008

MLS Conference Semi-Finals - 2nd Legs

Houston Dynamo’s reign as MLS champions is over. The 2006 and 2007 winners, seeking an unprecedented third consecutive title, were eliminated from the play-offs on Sunday after a sensational performance by New York Red Bulls, or more precisely by goalkeeper Danny Cepero and winger Dane Richards.

After drawing 1-1 draw on the lamentable FieldTurf of Giants Stadium, Houston were overwhelming favourites to progress to the Western Conference Final in front of a near-capacity 30,053 crowd at Robertson Stadium. Houston had suffered only one home loss during the regular season while New York managed one solitary road victory.

Richards ignited the flames ahead of the first leg by suggesting that he would “run that left back into the ground”, a tasteless jibe directed at Dynamo captain Wade Barrett in the wake of Red Bulls’ 3-0 win over Houston in August. The Jamaican international proved to be a man of his word as two of Houston’s early season frailties returned: an ageing defence and the lack of a top-class finisher.

Dynamo started on the front foot, pinning New York deep within their half, but the visitors emerged to take a shock lead on 25 minutes. Bosnian midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic’s pass exposed Barrett’s poor positioning and allowed Richards to burst inside the Dynamo veteran before finishing high past goalkeeper Pat Onstad.

Richards left Barrett in his wake again on 36 minutes before trying to pick out Juan Pablo Angel. His cross struck the arm of Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark inside the penalty area and referee Baldomero Toledo had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. It was a harsh decision and one that swung the tie firmly in New York’s favour as Angel calmly doubled the visitors’ advantage.

Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear withdrew his embattled captain at half-time and switched to a 3-5-2 formation in an effort to turn the game around. Winger Corey Ashe was employed wide on the left with the dual responsibility of carrying the fight to the Red Bulls’ rearguard while remaining cognisant of Richards’ pace on the break. Nate Jaqua replaced Kei Kamara shortly afterwards as Kinnear looked for more presence in New York’s crowded penalty area, but try as they might Houston could not beat a defiant Cepero.

Jaqua came closest, rattling the crossbar with a header before Brian Ching sent the rebound wide. Time and again, Houston sent in inviting crosses that slipped agonisingly past outstretched legs. When they did create shooting opportunities, their efforts either narrowly missed the target or were repelled by an inspired Cepero.

Richards confirmed Houston’s demise with one final act of brilliance on 81 minutes. He skipped clear of Bobby Boswell and the chasing Ashe before squaring for John Wolyniec to complete an unlikely 3-0 win. Still Dynamo failed to submit, but even in the fifth and final minute of injury time Jaqua could only watch one last effort evade the target.

Houston’s exit comes as a huge boost to the remaining sides, none more so than Real Salt Lake who now host this Saturday’s Western Conference Final against New York. Similar to the first leg, Salt Lake dominated against Chivas without being able to demonstrate their superiority on the scoreboard.

Chivas adopted an aggressive approach to prevent Salt Lake from settling into their now-customary passing style. Atiba Harris was lucky to escape punishment after his late follow-through on Real defender Robbie Russell went unnoticed and the visitors were further incensed when referee Michael Kennedy awarded Chivas a penalty on 30 minutes after Javier Morales collided with Ante Razov. Sacha Kljestan dispatched the kick impeccably to tie the aggregate score.

The visitors refused to be rattled and drew level on 39 minutes. Morales atoned for his error by curling in a superb cross for a determined Dema Kovalenko to glance beyond Chivas goalkeeper Zach Thornton. Real created a handful of great opportunities to wrap up the tie after the interval: Yura Movsisyan forced a brilliant low save from Thornton before firing another effort into the side netting, while Morales raced clear before botching an attempted chip over Thornton.

Morales finally gave Salt Lake the lead on the night with 13 minutes remaining. Robbie Findley retained possession after being forced wide by Thornton and found Morales at the corner of the penalty area. The Argentine skipped past Kljestan’s poor challenge before side-footing into the far corner. Justin Braun kept Chivas’ slim hopes alive with a late goal on 83 minutes, but Salt Lake survived to record a 2-2 draw which carries them into the next round.

Supporters’ Shield winners Columbus Crew will host Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference Final this Thursday. Columbus easily overcame the challenge of Kansas City with a 2-0 win watched by 11,153 at Crew Stadium. Brad Evans raced clear to beat Wizards’ goalkeeper Kevin Hartman after only 7 minutes before Robbie Rogers sealed the win on 58 minutes. He steered Alejandro Moreno’s cross inside Hartman’s near post before the goalkeeper could get across his line to cover.

Columbus have yet to appear in an MLS Championship Final having previously lost out in each of their four Conference Final matches. If they are to reverse the trend they will have to overcome Chicago Fire who arguably enter the match in better form. Chicago finally progressed beyond New England Revolution after falling to Steve Nicol’s side in each of the last three post-seasons.

Blunted by the loss of their top three regular season scorers (Taylor Twellman, Adam Cristman and Steve Ralston), New England received better news when All-Star midfielder Shalrie Joseph passed a late fitness test. Unfortunately, his fellow midfielder Jeff Larentowicz was forced out of the game on 39 minutes after a late challenge by John Thorrington. Nicol’s deeply-depleted squad finally yielded in first half stoppage time when Chris Rolfe pounced to convert a rebound after Matt Reis could only parry Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s curling effort.

Defender William Conde all but sealed Chicago’s victory four minutes into the second half when he jumped unchallenged to convert Justin Mapp’s free kick. Another defender, Gonzalo Segares, completed the scoring on 74 minutes by converting an easy chance created by Rolfe’s trickery on the right wing. It was a fitting reward for the left back who provided a constant attacking threat throughout the match.

Conference Semi-Final Results (Second Leg)

Eastern Conference
Chicago 3 New England 0 (Agg. 3-0)
Columbus 2 Kansas City 0 (3-1)

Western Conference
Chivas 2 Salt Lake 2 (2-3)
Houston 0 New York 3 (1-4)

Monday, November 3, 2008

MLS Conference Semi-Finals - 1st Legs

The MLS play-offs commenced last weekend with four largely disappointing first leg encounters displaying much in the way of brawn, but little brilliance. With the return matches taking place this weekend, each of the eight combatants remains in firm contention for a spot in the Conference Finals.

New England Revolution and Chicago Fire got the action off to a dismal start with an insomnia-curing 0-0 stalemate. The game highlighted a major obstacle which the league must fully overcome: the use of cavernous NFL stadia containing unsuitable playing surfaces. On the plus side, the Gillette Stadium ground staff removed the grid iron lines for a match of such magnitude. Not that the game’s importance registered in the Boston area. A paltry 5,221 crowd disturbed the otherwise tranquil environs of the 69,000 seat stadium. In hindsight, the deserters made a smart choice.

The Revs must negotiate this post-season without Taylor Twellman, their talismanic striker, who suffered a concussion while scoring against L.A. Galaxy on August 30. Although Twellman returned to action, concerns remain about his health. He has been ruled out indefinitely due to continuing symptoms and his absence is a massive blow for head coach Steve Nicol. Twellman was the only Revs player to find the net during their run to last year’s MLS Cup Final, including a spectacular game-winning overhead kick against Chicago. Despite enduring an injury-hit campaign this year, he still finished as the team’s joint-top scorer with eight goals from only 12 starts.

Chicago’s lack of cutting edge emanated from their unusual defensive approach, perhaps adopted in mind of their elimination by New England in each of the last three post-seasons. Chris Rolfe tormented New York Red Bulls with a hat-trick and two assists in the final regular season game, but he was dropped into midfield as head coach Dennis Hamlett succeeded in earning a draw to take back to the Windy City.

Entertainment was provided for the capacity 10,385 crowd at Kansas City’s CommunityAmerica Ballpark as the Wizards came within seconds of securing a first-leg lead over Supporters’ Shield winners Columbus Crew. Claudio Lopez, the former Valencia and Lazio forward, continued his revival after an ignominious stretch on the substitutes’ bench. His perfect cross on 53 minutes allowed Davy Arnaud to head the hosts in front.

Hercules Gomez undermined the Wizards’ efforts when he was sent off on 75 minutes for a two-footed tackle on Crew’s Gino Padula. Further punishment followed two minutes into injury time when Steven Lenhart beat Wizards’ goalkeeper Kevin Hartman with a low drive from the edge of the penalty box. Columbus, the league’s best side during the regular season, are now heavily favoured to progress.

New York Red Bulls, eighth overall in the final standings, slid across to the Western Conference to face back-to-back defending champions Houston Dynamo on the appalling artificial turf of Giants Stadium. Houston entered the play-offs having lost only once in their last 17 league games: a crushing 3-0 defeat at New York which bolstered home hopes of a repeat. New York’s marketing department must have been on vacation last week though as only 11,578 fans turned up – nearly 7,000 fewer than the Reds Bulls’ previous home game against Columbus.

An abysmal first half was littered with minor scuffles as frustrated forwards fruitlessly chased long punts over opposition defences. Red Bulls made an early breakthrough after the interval when Juan Pablo Angel took advantage of hesitant Dynamo defending to score on 48 minutes. Now 33, the former Aston Villa man may be lacking pace, but he retains the predatory instincts to make him one of the league’s most potent strikers. While the normally solid Eddie Robinson dallied to judge the bounce on John Wolyniec’s cross, Angel stooped in at the near post to steer his header beyond Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad.

Houston could have settled for the chance to overhaul a slim deficit back at Robertson Stadium, as they have done in each of the past two seasons, but their Glasgow-born head coach Dominic Kinnear instead opted to freshen his attack. His bold move paid off five minutes from full time when two of his substitutes combined to level the match. Another Anglo-Scot, Aberdeen-born midfielder Stuart Holden, seized upon a loose ball as New York failed to clear a cross. He set up Kei Kamara to score an equaliser which swings this tie firmly in Houston’s favour. Dynamo lost once at home all season; New York won once on the road.

The play-offs finally came to life thanks to an exhilarating display of open, attacking football by Real Salt Lake. They take a 1-0 lead back to Los Angeles against Chivas USA which does little to reward their domination. Yura Movsisyan clinched Salt Lake’s first ever play-off berth with a last minute equaliser against Colorado Rapids last week. The young Armenian repeated the trick with a deft finish just as Chivas thought they would escape from Utah with an undeserved draw.

Salt Lake peppered the visitors’ goal, out-shooting their opponents by 21-3, but too often their final efforts were straight at Chivas’ goalkeeper Zach Thornton. The hosts refused to become disheartened and Argentine playmaker Javier Morales continued to orchestrate attack after attack. Morales has evolved into one of the league’s outstanding players and it was his continuing verve and determination that eventually led to the late game-winner. After working his way through a congested penalty area to the touchline, Morales pulled his cut-back low to the edge of the six-yard box. Movsisyan instinctively redirected the ball into the far corner with an instep flick more commonly associated with Alessandro Del Piero.

Chivas’ head coach Preki, the former Everton and Portsmouth winger, can be thankful that his depleted side remains in close contact for the return game. Disappointingly again, only 14,719 fans witnessed an exciting match. The attendance is unfathomable considering this was only the third game played at Real’s new Rio Tinto Stadium. A sell-out crowd of 20,000 greeted the stadium’s opening as recently as October 9.

With the outcomes of all four Conference Semi-Finals still finely balanced, the league’s marketing gurus can hopefully erode some of the public’s apathy and boost crowds for this weekend’s decisive second leg fixtures.

Conference Semi-Final Results (First Leg)

Western Conference
New York 1 Houston 1
Salt Lake 1 Chivas 0

Eastern Conference
New England 0 Chicago 0
Kansas City 1 Columbus 1

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

MLS Week 31 - The Regular Season Concludes

Given the excitement of recent weeks, it was no surprise that the MLS play-off picture remained undecided until the closing minutes of the final weekend’s action. Ultimately, Real Salt Lake triumphed over Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference, while Kansas City Wizards and New York Red Bulls held off D.C. United in the East.

Thursday’s ESPN game provided New York with the first opportunity to clinch their post-season place as they faced Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. For Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, it ended up being a miserable return to the city where he managed last year as Chicago wrapped up all nine points from the teams’ three encounters this season.

The brilliance of Chris Rolfe destroyed the visitors. The Fire forward notched a first half hat-trick before turning provider as Chicago ran out commanding 5-2 winners.

The hosts took an 11th minute lead with a fine passing move initiated, as always, by Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The Mexican’s intricate back-heel released Justin Mapp who in turn found Stephen King breaking on the right wing. King’s early cross was finished at the near post by a determined Rolfe.

Juan Pablo Angel converted Dave van den Bergh’s perfect delivery on 32 minutes to level the score before Rolfe took control. Firstly on 38 minutes, the American international controlled Gabriel Cichero’s headed clearance on his chest at the edge of the penalty area before firing an unstoppable volley beyond Danny Cepero. One minute before half-time, another extravagant Blanco back-heel sent Rolfe clear on Cepero and he slotted coolly beyond the advancing goalkeeper.

Rolfe is not the most prolific forward in the league but his contribution is exceptional. His sharp turn on 53 minutes created space for him to find the overlapping Diego Gutierrez. The left-back’s early cross was swept home by Brian McBride as the Fire continued to rage at New York’s beleaguered defence. Rolfe’s final contribution was to find Daniel Woolard for the fifth goal before Macoumba Kandji netted a late consolation for New York.

After the Red Bulls failed dismally to seal their own fate, there was to be no repeat by Kansas City. The Wizards travelled to Foxborough to face New England Revolution and emerged with a 3-1 win to wrap up the East’s fourth seed.

The Revs were already assured of their play-off spot but head coach Steve Nicol must have serious concerns over their form ahead of their two-legged tie with Chicago. Since winning Superliga on August 5, New England gathered only 10 points from 13 league games and suffered a humiliating 6-1 aggregate defeat to Trinidad’s Joe Public FC in the CONCACAF Champions’ League qualifying round.

New England’s early implosion handed victory to the grateful Wizards. A defensive error released Claudio Lopez on 26 minutes before the Argentine was hauled down in the penalty area by Gabriel Badilla. Lopez remained cool to slot home the resultant kick after the Costa Rican defender had been dismissed. Khano Smith’s mindless lunge at Herculez Gomez minutes before the break saw him join Badilla in the dressing room, allowing Kansas to easily secure the win with a two-man advantage.

Lopez’ unexpected returned to form signals an end to his recent fall from grace. The former Valencia and Lazio striker was ignominiously dropped from Curt Onalfo’s starting eleven recently after a series of undistinguished displays: a bold move by the youthful head coach but one that resulted in an unlikely turnaround. Lopez returned for last week’s vital win against San Jose with a goal and two assists and he played a part in Davy Arnaud’s decisive second goal on 53 minutes.

Onalfo will need Lopez to be at his best as the Wizards progress to meet Supporters’ Shield winners Columbus Crew.

D.C. United, Supporters’ Shield winners for the last two years, were left with the final challenge: win in Columbus or go home. The visitors dominated, twice hitting the post in the first half before substitute Thabiso Khumalo thumped an effort against the bar from six yards. That proved to be United’s final chance as Brad Evans scored the game’s only goal on 77 minutes for Columbus. Play-off elimination married with the capital side’s dismal Champions’ League form may cost head coach Tom Soehn his position during the extended off-season.

New York, by virtue of finishing eighth overall, now slide over to the Western Conference and will play Houston Dynamo, the back-to-back defending champions.

The West housed the weekend’s most dramatic events as Colorado Rapids needed to beat Real Salt Lake to overtake their Rocky Mountain rivals for the conference's third automatic place. Rapids’ striker Conor Casey gave the home side a 19th minute lead as the action swung from end to end before Salt Lake began a late push to save their campaign. With time almost expired, Yura Movsisyan pounced on a rebound after Rapids’ goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul denied Andy Williams and steered the loose ball over the line to spark wild celebrations among the visitors’ bench and small band of travelling fans.

Salt Lake reach the play-offs for the first time in their four-year existence and will be guaranteed a sell-out crowd at their new Rio Tinto stadium for the visit of Chivas on Saturday.

Week 31 Results

Chicago 5 New York 2
New England 1 Kansas City 3
Colorado 1 Salt Lake 1
San Jose 2 Toronto 0 (Quakes end a respectable first season on a high note)
Chivas 1 Houston 1 (Late Curtin goal earns share of points for ten-man Chivas)
L.A. Galaxy 2 Dallas 2 (Donovan penalty ensures Galaxy avoid finishing dead last)
Columbus 1 D.C. United 0

Final Standings (30 matches)

Eastern Conference
1) Columbus 57 points
2) Chicago 46
3) New England 43
4) Kansas City 42
5) *New York 39 (join Western Conference as 4th seed)
6) D.C. United 37
7) Toronto 35

Western Conference
1) Houston 51
2) Chivas 43
3) *Salt Lake 40
4) Colorado 38
5) Dallas 36
6) L.A. Galaxy 33
7) San Jose 33

*Lines show teams occupying play-off positions.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MLS Week 30 Review

The first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired in October 1835 when Mexican soldiers demanded that a small cannon held by colonists be relinquished. Six months later, Sam Houston led his Texian Army to victory and independence for the Lone Star State at San Jacinto. Flags honouring the brief 18 minute battle depicted the cannon with the words “Come and Get It”. Houston Dynamo’s Texian Army supporters’ organisation unveiled a new banner last weekend taunting their rivals with a cute twist to that celebrated flag, replacing the cannon with MLS Cup.

The penultimate weekend’s action saw the back-to-back champions eliminate two Western Conference opponents from play-off contention in four days while securing home advantage in the process. The signs look ominous for the rest of the league.

San Jose travelled to Robertson Stadium in midweek for a fixture initially postponed by the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Houston’s dramatic 2-1 win boasted all the fighting qualities that have set them apart during the last two seasons.

Stuart Holden put Dynamo ahead on six minutes with a goal illustrating the valuable commodity of timing runs from midfield. Kei Kamara steered Geoff Cameron’s cross against a post, but goalkeeper Joe Cannon was left helpless as Holden arrived to pounce on the loose ball and finish coolly.

Kamara’s involvement against his former team was brief as he was dismissed following a seemingly innocuous collision five minutes later. Quakes defender Nick Garcia pressurised the Sierra Leone striker near the touchline before collapsing to the turf holding his throat. Kamara appeared to raise an arm to fend off Garcia’s challenge as he controlled a long ball from defence, but any contact seemed purely accidental. Not so in the eyes of referee Jair Marrufo, who brandished his red card to the disbelief of the home fans.

Nonetheless, Houston continued to dominate despite their numerical disadvantage. Stand-in wide players Cameron and Corey Ashe menaced the visiting full-backs while striker Brian Ching turned in one of his best performances this year with a bullish display to keep San Jose’s back line occupied. Ashe danced around Jason Hernandez on 30 minutes to create another chance for Holden but his attempt trundled agonisingly wide.

Containment was Houston’s aim after the interval as they strived to conserve energy and force San Jose to break them down. It was a task they seemed likely to complete until defender Eddie Robinson blindly passed the ball back to Pat Onstad on 68 minutes. The goalkeeper raced to the edge of his penalty area to prevent Darren Huckerby from taking advantage, but his tackle landed at the feet of Scott Sealy who stroked home into an empty net to resuscitate the Earthquakes’ post-season hopes. Robinson’s error was an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise excellent performance.

With Chivas breathing down their necks for the West’s top seeding, Houston were forced back onto the offense in the latter stages. Head coach Dominic Kinnear reinvigorated his attack by introducing Brad Davis, Brian Mullan and Nate Jaqua for Ashe, Cameron and Ching. Ninety minutes had elapsed when Mullan sent Jaqua clean through on Cannon’s goal, but the towering frontman stumbled at the vital moment.

With San Jose also going for a late winner, Mullan carved out one final chance as his cross again found Jaqua unmarked in the penalty box with mere seconds remaining. Jaqua controlled on his chest before firing his close-range effort off Cannon’s right post. It looked like another chance had been wasted until Holden popped up again to knock the rebound over the line and save his team-mate’s blushes.

L.A. Galaxy hoped to take advantage of Houston’s punishing exertions on Saturday despite the absence of the suspended David Beckham. In truth, they have performed far better without the Englishman since he made his debut last August. Entering the weekend, Galaxy had claimed 33% of points available from 29 matches featuring their extortionate passenger. That figure rises significantly to 48% in 16 games without him.

As it turned out, Galaxy provided as much resistance as General Santa Anna’s Mexican troops at San Jacinto.

Beckham’s replacement Bryan Jordan contrived to back-heel Jaqua’s cross into his own net on 14 minutes, before the striker supplied another ball into the box on 20 minutes that was bundled into the net by Dwayne De Rosario. As Galaxy’s porous defence continued to be dominated by Houston’s aerial threat, Jaqua flicked Bobby Boswell’s clearance into the path of strike partner Ching on 23 minutes. The Hawaiian native raced clear before drilling his shot beyond goalkeeper Josh Saunders to complete a 3-0 rout.

Dynamo could easily have been six ahead by half-time before they eased off before this week’s CONCACAF Champions’ League tie with Mexico City’s UNAM Pumas.

Elsewhere in the West, Real Salt Lake eliminated Dallas from contention with a 3-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium. Marcelo Saragosa gave Dallas an early lead before his 30th minute dismissal for a second caution allowed the hosts to take charge.

Conor Casey’s late penalty in Colorado’s 2-1 win at Chivas leaves the Rapids needing to beat RSL in Denver this Saturday to overtake their Rocky Mountain rivals in the race for what looks to be the final play-off place for the Western Conference.

Toronto’s brave efforts in defeating Chicago 3-2 at BMO Field proved to be in vain as wins for D.C. United, New York and Kansas City knocked The Reds from contention. All three remaining hopefuls face tough road trips in their final games against Columbus, Chicago and New England respectively.

With three teams level on 39 points and two others on 37, the chance of head-to-head match-ups deciding who will progress to the play-offs looks likely as this dramatic regular season reaches its nail-biting finale.

Week 30 Results

Houston 2 San Jose 1
D.C. United 2 New England 1
Toronto 3 Chicago 2
New York 3 Columbus 1
Kansas City 3 San Jose 2
Houston 3 L.A. Galaxy 0
Salt Lake 3 Dallas 1
Chivas 1 Colorado 2


Eastern Conference
1) Columbus 54 points (played 29)
2) Chicago 43 (29)
3) New England 43 (29)
4) Kansas City 39 (29)
5) *New York 39 (29)
6) D.C. United 37 (29)
7) Toronto 35 (29)

Western Conference
1) Houston 50 (29)
2) Chivas 42 (29)
3) *Salt Lake 39 (29)
4) Colorado 37 (29)
5) Dallas 35 (29)
6) L.A. Galaxy 32 (29)
7) San Jose 30 (29)

*Lines show teams occupying play-off positions.

Monday, October 13, 2008

MLS Week 29 Review

Still nobody wants to leave the party. Five of the eight MLS play-off teams are now known, but with only two weeks remaining the other nine clubs are still competing for the final three spots.

Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls kicked off the weekend’s action at the Utah side’s new Rio Tinto Stadium, the seventh soccer-specific venue to be constructed in MLS. The sell-out crowd of 20,008, complete with rally towels, created a fantastic atmosphere as they tried to spur their team on to a vital three points. Ultimately, they had to settle for one.

Red Bulls left midfielder Dave van den Bergh silenced the home fans on 31 minutes when he blasted the visitors ahead following a corner kick. Seth Stammler’s goal-bound header was nodded off the line by Kyle Beckerman but his clearance fell invitingly into the path of the on-rushing Dutchman. Van den Bergh, best remembered in Holland for his successful years with Utrecht, drilled his precise shot beyond the reach of RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

The carnival did not subside for long. Ten minutes later, Jamison Olave bundled Javier Morales’ corner into the net to bring Salt Lake back on level terms. The score remained tied at 1-1 as the hosts failed to convert their second half chances and could not capitalise on the late dismissal of Red Bulls’ Juan Pietravallo by referee Terry Vaughn.

Referees worldwide are criticised for not properly interpreting player motives because they have never played the game themselves. In America, that notion can be taken a step further. Most officials have gained little exposure to top-flight football. This shortcoming appeared to be behind Vaughn’s harsh decision to eject the Argentine midfielder.

Pietravallo looked to be making a genuine attempt to control a high pass when Clint Mathis stooped in from his blind side to win the ball. The resultant collision left the former US international with a badly gashed head. Vaughn seemed to act only when Mathis, realising he was bleeding, angrily confronted his opponent. The Salt Lake man escaped without punishment for his act of petulance while a bemused Pietravallo was sent off, much to the chagrin of the New York bench.

While the Bulls, Toronto and D.C. United all gained potentially valuable draws on the road, Kansas City made an unexpected move into the final play-off spot with a 1-0 win over New England Revolution. Captain Jimmy Conrad headed his sixth goal of the season as the Wizards’ recent good run continues.

Since surrendering with a whimper at Houston in Week 24, Kansas City have taken ten points from five matches. Their upturn coincides with the relegation of Argentine superstar Claudio Lopez to the substitutes’ bench as the team rallies together in an attempt to achieve what was unthinkable five weeks ago. The Wizards host San Jose next weekend and they will be confident of securing another win, even more so should the Quakes be eliminated from contention after their game in hand at Houston on Wednesday night.

Lopez’ performance this season can be likened to that of David Beckham, albeit without the ludicrous levels of largesse. It was no surprise that L.A. Galaxy kept their slim post-season hopes alive with a 3-2 win over Colorado Rapids while the Englishman was out of the country. The win improves their record to 23 points from 48 in games where Beckham has been absent since he made his debut last August. By contrast, the team has taken only 29 points from 99 when Beckham brings his unique presence and contribution to the field.

Chivas clinched their play-off spot with a narrow 1-0 win at San Jose. Justin Braun scored the only goal on seven minutes as the Goats won for the sixth time in seven games. Houston’s failure to break down D.C. United at Robertson Stadium leaves Chivas only two points behind the defending champions with the teams meeting in Los Angeles on the final weekend. Home field advantage for the post-season could well be at stake should the Dynamo slip up this week against San Jose or L.A. Galaxy.

Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew both had reason to celebrate after their 2-2 draw at Toyota Park. Brian McBride’s late equaliser, his second of the afternoon in his first game against his former team, was enough to secure a play-off spot for Chicago. The point also confirms Columbus as the MLS Supporters’ Shield winners by virtue of their unmatchable points tally.

Head coach Sigi Schmid must now keep the momentum going for the last two fixtures and into the play-offs if his side are to become the first Shield winners since L.A. Galaxy in 2002 to go on to lift MLS Cup.

Week 29 Results

Salt Lake 1 New York 1
Kansas City 1 New England 0
Dallas 2 Toronto 2 (Contentious Cooper penalty rescues Dallas for second week running)
San Jose 0 Chivas 1
Chicago 2 Columbus 2
Houston 0 D.C. United 0
L.A. Galaxy 3 Colorado 2 (Brandon McDonald nets his first MLS goal in spectacular fashion)


Eastern Conference
1) Columbus 54 points (played 28)
2) Chicago 43 (28)
3) New England 43 (28)
4) New York 36 (28)
5) *Kansas City 36 (28)
6) D.C. United 34 (28)
7) Toronto 32 (28)

Western Conference
1) Houston 44 (27)
2) Chivas 42 (28)
3) *Salt Lake 36 (28)
4) Dallas 35 (28)
5) Colorado 34 (28)
6) L.A. Galaxy 32 (28)
7) San Jose 30 (27)

*Lines show teams occupying play-off positions.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

MLS Week 28 Review

Another weekend passes, the play-offs loom closer, but the qualification picture becomes murkier. Just when it looked as though Toronto had disappeared over the precipice and L.A. Galaxy were set to join them, all fourteen teams are back in the race with only three rounds of fixtures remaining.

Despite registering only one victory since June 14, The Reds’ 3-1 win at New York’s Giants Stadium hauls them back into unlikely contention thanks to the inconsistencies of so many contenders. Red Bulls owned the league’s best home record a fortnight ago, but two successive losses in East Rutherford seriously jeopardises their chances of progression.

After conceding five goals to Colorado Rapids last week, Red Bulls gifted Toronto the lead when defender Gabriel Cichero was woefully short with his attempted back-header to Jon Conway. Chad Barrett seized on the error to lob the stranded goalkeeper. The Toronto striker restored his side’s advantage following an equaliser by Dane Richards with a goal that owed everything to the frightening pace of Marvell Wynne. He raced clear from inside his own half before squaring for Barrett to tap into an empty net.

Wynne comes from a sporting pedigree – his father, Marvell, is a former Major League Baseball player – and he continues to improve his playing abilities to complement his obvious athletic prowess. Whether he gets the chance to show his qualities in November is another matter. Toronto face tough away trips to Dallas and San Jose Earthquakes in their remaining three games and are heavily reliant on results elsewhere falling in their favour.

Galaxy did little to aid their cause by falling 1-0 at Columbus but their Western rivals remain in distant sight with Real Salt Lake, Dallas and San Jose only collecting one point while Colorado lost to Houston Dynamo. Crew Stadium’s first sell-out crowd of the year saw David Beckham take a few corner kicks as Alejandro Moreno’s 43rd minute header split the teams.

Bruce Arena's side will enter next week’s do-or-die match at home to Colorado without Beckham, whose suspension for yellow-card accumulation will be served on the England substitutes’ bench, but since his arrival the team possesses a better record in his absence. His loss, like so many of his performances, will be inconsequential. Of far greater significance is the unavailability of Landon Donovan, the league’s top scorer, due to the US national team’s match with Cuba on October 11.

San Jose will feel aggrieved not to have taken three points after a win at Dallas was snatched away in the final minutes by a horrendous refereeing error. Francisco Lima’s right arm was raised away from his body as he attempted to repel a late Dallas attack. Referee Abiodun Okulaja had no hesitation in pointing to the spot when Eric Avila’s driven cross made contact with the Earthquakes’ midfielder. Unfortunately, the ball appeared to strike Lima on the side of his chest. Kenny Cooper stepped up to score for the 16th time this season to cancel out Ryan Johnson’s opener. The decision was as scandalous as the paltry 7,173 crowd that showed up for a game of this magnitude.

Salt Lake missed the chance to solidify their position in the West’s three automatic play-off places when they surrendered a 2-0 lead at New England Revolution. A sublime lob by Argentine midfielder Javier Morales gave RSL a first-half lead, before his 73rd minute pass was thundered home on the half-volley by Andy Williams to seemingly secure the win. Within six minutes, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman had struck for New England to earn a 2-2 draw as The Revs fell short in their attempts to clinch their play-off spot.

Chivas took advantage of Salt Lake’s carelessness to move four points clear in the West’s second place as they destroyed D.C. United by 3-0 at RFK Stadium, aided by the generosity of United goalkeeper Louis Crayton. After recovering from an inconsistent start to the campaign, D.C. have collapsed since lifting the US Open Cup on September 3. They have picked up one point from five league matches since then and suffered three spineless defeats in the CONCACAF Champions’ League. Visits to Houston and Columbus in their final three matches suggest a fourth season outside the play-offs in 13 years for one of the league’s powerhouses.

Houston sealed their place in the post-season and moved a step closer to earning home advantage with a 3-1 win at Colorado. Dynamo were involved in their own goal-fest in midweek, a 4-4 draw in Mexico City against U.N.A.M. Pumas in the Champions’ League, and another looked to be on the cards early on. Only 19 minutes had elapsed when Ricardo Clark gave the visitors the two-goal cushion which ultimately proved to be the final goalscoring act of the night.

Dynamo striker Brian Ching was presented with a chance to complete a hat-trick from the penalty spot early in the second half, but his effort was easily stopped by Rapids’ goalkeeper Preston Burpo. His nomination was surprising given that Dwayne De Rosario and Brad Davis, both far superior dead-ball exponents, were on the field. By contrast, Ching has missed vital kicks in recent Superliga shootouts against Pachuca and New England Revolution. On this instance his poor effort was free of reprisals on the field, although head coach Dominic Kinnear may not have been best pleased.

Rapids’ striker Conor Casey received a harsh red card two minutes after Ching’s miss following an aerial collision with Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson. The numerical advantage allowed Kinnear’s men to comfortably control the closing stages. Terry Cooke had an opportunity to reduce the deficit in injury-time, but he hooked his disappointing effort from the penalty spot wide of Pat Onstad’s post.

The drama continues to build. Will Week 29 finally see some of the contestants waving goodbye to the MLS Play-Off House?

Week 28 Results

Dallas 1 San Jose 1
D.C. United 0 Chivas 3
Columbus 1 L.A. Galaxy 0
New England 2 Salt Lake 2
New York 1 Toronto 3
Colorado 1 Houston 3
Kansas City 1 Chicago 1 (Harrington equaliser ends Fire's slim Supporters' Shield hopes)


Eastern Conference
1) Columbus 53 points (played 27)
2) New England 43 (27)
3) Chicago 42 (27)
4) *New York 35 (27)
5) Kansas City 33 (27)
6) D.C. United 33 (27)
7) Toronto 31 (27)

Western Conference
1) Houston 43 (26)
2) Chivas 39 (27)
3) Salt Lake 35 (27)
4) *Colorado 34 (27)
5) Dallas 34 (27)
6) San Jose 30 (26)
7) L.A. Galaxy 29 (27)

*Lines show teams occupying play-off positions.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

MLS Week 27 Review

The last rites remain undelivered, but Chicago Fire striker Chris Rolfe may have dealt a fatal blow to Los Angeles Galaxy’s slim post-season hopes this past weekend.

In a dazzling performance, Rolfe netted two goals and set up another for Cuauhtemoc Blanco as Chicago overcame the supposed Galacticos 3-1 at Toyota Park. San Jose aside, all of Galaxy’s Western Conference play-off rivals recorded vital wins as the battle took a new twist – as it now stands, four teams from each conference will progress.

Rolfe’s impact during his debut season in 2005 saw him earn his first international cap that November in a friendly against Scotland. His progression has been slowed by injuries, but on his day there are few better forwards in MLS.

John Thorrington and Blanco combined to engineer Rolfe’s first chance on nine minutes. His curling left-foot shot from the right of the penalty box was smartly tipped around the far post by Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Wicks. Four minutes later, Rolfe worked his way into a similar position after a couple of attempted tackles ricocheted in his favour. This time his composed effort curled around Wicks to give Chicago the lead.

Galaxy worked their way back into the game in the latter stages of the first half. Eddie Lewis equalised on 34 minutes, his first goal for Los Angeles, brilliantly adjusting his body under pressure to flick home a cross by right-back Chris Klein. Thereafter, it was largely one-way traffic as Chicago dominated after the interval.

An electrifying turn by Rolfe created space for him to thread a through-ball for Blanco on 57 minutes. The veteran Mexican may not be the world’s fastest sprinter, but he covered enough ground to be in position to take advantage of a defensive mix-up. Blanco stepped in to slot the ball into an empty net as Galaxy defender Troy Roberts and the advancing Wicks left the clearance to each other.

The contest was over two minutes later as Chicago treated the buoyant home crowd to an example of their finest play. Blanco’s instinctive back-heel released Gonzalo Segares down the left and his cross-field pass found Rolfe racing clear. He advanced on goal before steering his finish just beyond Wicks’ reach to seal the win.

While Blanco continues to inspire Chicago, an increasing number of Galaxy fans are wondering what their superstar brings to their team. David Beckham still has many apologists defending his lack of defensive application by incorrectly branding him as a creative winger. Others shrug off his lack of offensive threat by citing his play as that of a deep-lying defensive midfielder. At his best Beckham was neither, but he worked diligently to perform both sides of the wide-midfield role extremely effectively. Today, Beckham is still neither but he chooses to do neither. It looks like Galaxy fans will have an extra month during the off-season to contemplate this third reason.

Dallas entered the weekend one point above L.A. but extended that lead with a 3-0 trouncing of D.C. United. The capital side are enduring a terrible run of form at the worst possible moment with two points gained from the last 15 as well as two disappointing losses in the CONCACAF Champions’ League in recent weeks. This defeat sees them slip out of the play-off places as Real Salt Lake, fourth in the West, eclipse their points total.

Salt Lake achieved that feat courtesy of a surprising 3-2 win at San Jose which ended the Earthquakes’ nine-game unbeaten run. That streak coincided with the arrival of Darren Huckerby. He scored twice to bring his tally to six so far for San Jose, but his exploits were matched by Yura Movsisyan before Javier Morales earned the visitors the win with a textbook free-kick. RSL move into the Rio Tinto Stadium on October 9. They have given themselves a great opportunity to christen their new home with the team’s first ever trip to the play-offs.

Colorado picked up an unlikely road win at Giants Stadium, overcoming the dreadful artificial surface to beat New York in a goal fest. Conor Casey’s perfectly executed volley in the final minute sealed his hat-trick and a 5-4 win for the Rapids to keep them in third place in the West.

With so much excitement surrounding the race for play-off places – only Toronto now look out of the picture – Saturday evening’s clash between the league’s two top sides was somewhat overshadowed. New England Revolution were looking to reduce the five-point advantage established by Columbus Crew, but Sigi Schmid’s side continued their impressive season with a 1-0 win at a rainy Gillette Stadium. Even the 65th minute dismissal of captain Frankie Hejduk could not derail the visitors as Chad Marshall’s first half header proved decisive.

Houston Dynamo retain an outside chance of overhauling Columbus for the Supporters’ Shield, but their CONCACAF Champions’ League involvement leads to an intensive October schedule which will test the depth of Dominic Kinnear’s squad. Marvell Wynne’s late equaliser for Toronto earned a 1-1 draw against the defending champions at BMO Field after teammate Hunter Freeman had gifted the visitors a first half lead with a bizarre own goal.

The Dynamo organisation would love to add the Supporters’ Shield to the list of accomplishments achieved during their brief tenure, but few connected with the club will have too much cause for complaint if their third season ends in similar fashion to the first two – by lifting MLS Cup.

Week 27 Results

Chicago 3 L.A. Galaxy 1
Toronto 1 Houston 1
Chivas 2 Kansas City 1 (Injuries begin to clear at the right time for Preki's team)
New England 0 Columbus 1
New York 4 Colorado 5
San Jose 2 Salt Lake 3
Dallas 3 D.C. United 0


Eastern Conference
1) Columbus 50 points (played 26)
2) New England 42 (26)
3) Chicago 41 (26)
4) *New York 35 (26)
5) D.C. United 33 (26)
6) Kansas City 32 (26)
7) Toronto 28 (26)

Western Conference
1) Houston 40 (25)
2) Chivas 36 (26)
3) Colorado 34 (26)
4) *Salt Lake 34 (26)
5) Dallas 33 (26)
6) L.A. Galaxy 29 (26)
7) San Jose 29 (25)

*Lines show teams occupying play-off positions.