MLS Week 16: Gordon, San Jose rolling; Houston's defense troubled
The Earthquakes' Alan Gordon is this season's earliest 12th Man of the Year
Houston's usual stingy defense has fallen on hard times in recent weeks
Entering Saturday on a six-game win streak, Columbus fell short vs. Chicago
From a change atop the Western Conference to the end of one team's lengthy unbeaten streak in the East, here are five thoughts from Saturday's MLS action:
1. More Gordon magic puts San Jose in first: MLS does not have a 12th Man of the Year award, one that honors the top substitute in the league much like the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, but if the league were to add that award to its postseason list of honors this year, it's already clear that it would go to San Jose Earthquakes sparkplug Alan Gordon.
Gordon's fifth goal off the bench for the Earthquakes and his flicked-on header that led to Chris Wondolowski's goal capped a 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake that gives the Earthquakes sole possession of first place in the hotly contested Western Conference. And that's on top of the own goal he forced and penalty he drew that netted the Earthquakes' the first half of their Rocky Mountain sweep at Colorado in mid-week action.
Gordon has emerged as a less villainous but equally disruptive version of Steven Lenhart, San Jose's instigator extraordinaire, and has already matched his career high for goals in a single season, scoring five both last season and in 2008. The only question is, should Gordon have even been playing at all after what appeared to be a pretty blatant dive to draw the game-winning penalty against the Rapids? It marks the second straight season that RSL has lost to a club that had its key player on the field a game after he could have easily been suspended for a dive (Dwayne De Rosario got away with a flop to draw a late penalty against Chivas USA last season only to come back the next game and torch RSL for the quickest hat trick in league history).
Regardless of whether Gordon flopped against Colorado or how San Jose has been getting its results, the league did not see fit to punish him, and the club deservedly sits atop the conference standings. With two wins over RSL, a remarkable 6-2-1 record on the road and a match in which they posted five goals on East-leading D.C. United, the Earthquakes have established themselves as the new team to beat as a blockbuster, must-see match against the resurgent Los Angeles Galaxy awaits next weekend at Stanford Stadium.
As for RSL, between blowing a two-goal lead to the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday and Saturday's loss to the Earthquakes -- both of which came at Rio Tinto Stadium -- the club missed a golden opportunity to put some distance between itself and its top competition in the West and instead has fallen behind San Jose and remains within striking distance of Seattle and Vancouver. The match also provided a double blow for RSL, with Kyle Beckerman's yellow card for dissent at the end of the first half ruling him out of the club's next match at Columbus due to card accumulation.
2. Houston's defense has a problem: One of the hallmarks of the Houston Dynamo over the last season and a half has been their stingy defense, one of the top units in all of the league and a major reason for the club's run to the MLS Cup final a year ago. In recent weeks, however, that unit is lacking its usual sharpness, and the ensuing results have been astounding.
U.S. men's national team center back Geoff Cameron, perhaps distracted by the recent interest expressed in him by European clubs, has been remarkably off his game, and the rest of his back-line teammates have followed suit.
Houston was beaten routinely over the top and on crosses into the box in a mid-week draw against Toronto FC, conceding three goals to the worst team in the league at BBVA Compass Stadium of all places, where the opposition has yet to win.
In Saturday night's 4-2 loss at Montreal, the Dynamo were beaten straight down the center on two simple passes for a fourth-minute goal, conceded on another basic cross through the area for Montreal's second, and had Cameron leave Hassoun Camara completely unmarked by the far post on a corner kick for the third and be at fault for a penalty that led the Montreal's fourth..
Getting exposed for three goals in a loss at Vancouver during the international break with Cameron, Andre Hainault and Jermaine Taylor all on international duty was not all that surprising, but to look as shaky and unstable in the club's most recent matches and concede a combined seven goals to Toronto and Montreal is becoming a legitimate cause for concern from coach Dominic Kinnear.
3. Okugo, McInerney maturing into key pieces for Union: As the cliche goes, one can't really judge a draft class until at least two or three years after the fact, and while the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Union's inaugural 2010 draft class, Danny Mwanga, was recently traded, the club's other two first-round picks from that class are proving their worth.
Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney have emerged as key pieces for the Union over the last stretch of games, with McInerney's two goals paving the way for Philadelphia's surprising 4-0 thrashing of Sporting Kansas City -- a likely U.S. Open Cup semifinal preview assuming both take care of business against USL Pro opposition at home this coming Tuesday.
McInerney's goals were those of a poacher's dream, but with the cast of Union forwards having no luck producing -- the club's eight goals entering the night were by far the fewest in MLS -- his breakout could not be timed any better.
Okugo, meanwhile, still learning the center back position on the pro level, was immense in helping shut down Sporting KC's Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong. Okugo's emergence still won't likely halt the Union from looking to add help at the position when the summer transfer window opens next week, but it has given the club another option at its position of least depth. For a player as talented as Okugo, whose positional sense have made up for a lack of height and size typical of a center back, it also gives him another means to get on the field. While he is a starting-caliber defensive midfielder, he has had a hard time cracking the lineup with Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez in the fold and has had no option but to reinvent himself in the back.
Shifting Okugo to center back was a product of Peter Nowak's thinking, but McInerney's introduction into the lineup has been John Hackworth's most notable contribution in his brief time as interim coach. McInerney was a handful for D.C. United in his first start of the season, which coincided with Hackworth's first game in charge. It has been that little tweak that has led to a much-more imposing attack from what has been one of the league's most disappointing teams.
4. TFC's week of collapse: Two second-half two-goal leads. Two major collapses by Toronto FC.
TFC continues to find ways to defeat itself and has just two points to show for its improved attacking game under new coach Paul Mariner. Between the stunning late-game collapse in Houston Wednesday and Saturday's failure to hold down a two-goal lead at home against the New England Revolution, the psyche of a team that is desperately trying to turn the tide has to be as fragile as possible.
All credit belongs to the Revolution for continuing to bring the heat -- Benny Feilhaber especially -- despite the poor first half, but this latest blunder is on Toronto's lack of ability to close out what should have been the club's second win of the season. The common denominator in both collapses was shoddy defending down the stretch and a perception that the club is almost waiting for the other shoe to drop. How else to explain how tenuous and uncertain the club gets at the end of matches, with the light at the end of the tunnel within reach?
Draws are certainly better than losses, but the nature of the club's two matches this week makes them as demoralizing as any of the team's other performances in this forgettable season.
5. Crew's unbeaten streak goes up in smoke: The Columbus Crew entered the night unbeaten in six matches and as one of the stingier teams in all of the league, but all it took was one supremely slow start to have that streak come to an end. The Chicago Fire torched the Crew's defensive unit with relative ease in the first half en route to Saturday's 2-1 result at Toyota Park. Despite being down a man for more than an hour after Gonzalo Segares' horrific two-footed challenge on Kevan George earned him a red card, the Fire rode a Marco Pappa golazo to the upper 90 in the opening minutes and Sebastian Grazzini's slip-pass that unlocked the Crew defense and played Dominic Oduro in on goal to the win.
The one massive positive for Columbus to take away from the match was the play of Tony Tchani, a potential-filled midfielder who has bounced around MLS in his opening seasons in the league but played perhaps his best game as a professional Saturday. Between his long-range goal and overall presence on and off the ball, the Crew, who reportedly had a deal for an attacking Designated Player fall through this week, came across another in-house attacking solution that looks primed to contribute more down the line.