Federico Higuain has been superb while tallying three goals and two assists in three games, and he's not even in top shape yet.
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Columbus' international scouting success, Dane Richards' pending European move and a look at the rest of the happenings from Week 25 of the MLS season:
1. Columbus doubles down in the transfer market and wins
A month ago, most MLS fans were plenty familiar with the name Higuain. After all, Real Madrid has made the United States its one-stop shop for preseason training during the past few years, and the club's Argentine forward, Gonzalo Higuain, is one of the world's premiere finishers.
In a short time, though, that last name has taken on a different meaning in MLS circles, with Gonzalo's older, lesser-known brother, Federico, taking the league by storm and making the Columbus Crew a force to be reckoned with as the season winds down. Instead of being the John Rooney equivalent of Manchester United's Wayne, Federico has been every bit as dangerous in MLS as Gonzalo is in La Liga. Along with mid-season Costa Rican addition Jairo Arrieta, Federico has instantly transformed Columbus' attack from one of the most predictable and stagnant in the league to one of the more explosive.
In the immediate aftermath of Higuain and Arrieta's matching braces against New England, the question lingers: Do the Crew have the best strike tandem in MLS? It's not a question that anybody expected to answer at any point this season, and while the sample size is way too small to compare Higuain and Arrieta to the likes of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson, and other top tandems in the league, the new duo has made Columbus a serious threat and borderline offensive juggernaut for the home stretch of the season.
Higuain's hold-up play, movement, vision and set-piece proficiency have been magnificent, and he has amassed three goals and two assists in three games while still building up his match fitness. Arrieta has benefited greatly from Higuain's presence in the lineup and provides an ideal complement up top. His ability to absorb contact, use his pace to make the right runs and finish with precision have led to five goals and two assists in eight games. Together, they have combined for more than a quarter of the Crew's attack, with the rest of the club combining for 21 goals in 24 games.
Columbus' luck while searching for attacking talent in the international market since the days of Guillermo Barros Schelotto has not been great. Sure, Andres Mendoza scored 13 goals last season as a DP, but he was more known for the internal strife that he caused and his petulance on the field than he was for his class, and his production meant little for the club in the standings. Higuain and Arrieta have made the team's recent swings and misses distant memories, though, and even if they cannot carry Columbus to the playoffs this season, they have given the franchise an attacking lifeline that it has yearned to uncover since Schelotto led the club to consecutive Supporters' Shields and an MLS Cup title.
2. Richards gamble pays off for Red Bulls
Kudos to the New York Red Bulls' front office for acting with some foresight and being proactive as opposed to reactive.
The club's trade of Dane Richards and allocation money in exchange for Sebastian Le Toux about six weeks ago looked unusual on the surface, but the club's reasoning that the speedy Richards, in the last year of his MLS contract, was going to test the European waters made the move's success and logic contingent on that happening. Now that Richards has secured a contract with English League Championship side Burnley for the coming year, something the Whitecaps announced on Sunday, the Red Bulls can pat themselves on the back, knowing they did the right thing.
Instead of losing Richards for nothing and only maintaining the first right of refusal upon his potential return to MLS (if they presented a legitimate contract offer, which is the position the Whitecaps find themselves in now), the Red Bulls paid a little extra in the form of allocation money to ensure that their attack had a contingency plan going forward. Le Toux is also in the final year of his deal, but his European prospects are not as threatening or as promising as Richards', and he is a prime candidate to remain in MLS. Whether he stays in New York is a development to keep an eye on after this season, but at the very least the Red Bulls have an asset to show for losing Richards, one that carries value in this league and can either be signed to a new deal or exported within MLS for other pieces. The Red Bulls' brass has taken its share of lumps over the years, but they got this one right.
3. Najar's new position
Andy Najar has made his name in MLS and on the international level with Honduras as a winger, one with deadly pace, sly ball skills and a knack for coming up with plays that just are not teachable to most players. When D.C. United coach Ben Olsen stashed him at right back in a midweek win over Chicago and preceded that move by calling Najar the "future right back" for the team, it raised some eyebrows over whether that was a waste of his talents. After Najar's showing against the Fire, though, Olsen's vision started to make a bit more sense.
Najar's ability to cover the entire right side and not get exposed by being caught up the field while terrorizing Chicago's defense and neutralizing winger Patrick Nyarko all at the same time was a sight to be seen, one that led D.C. center back Brandon McDonald to repeatedly refer to Najar as Brazilian legend Cafu in the locker room following the game. Najar, still just 19, is not at that level just yet, and he is the first to acknowledge that his marking and defensive awareness need to improve, but what he is capable of doing while going forward demonstrated what Olsen called the skills of the modern right back, and something that will only increase his profile for teams overseas that have already been keeping a watchful eye on his progress.
Najar, a right back during his D.C. academy days, returned to the right wing against Montreal after Chris Pontius was preserved as a sub off the bench and rookie winger Nick DeLeon came down with an illness that forced a reshuffling of the lineup. However, when Olsen was asked after the Chicago win if deploying Najar in defense would be an option regardless of which defenders were available, he responded with a non-verbal, excessively affirmative head nod. No matter how radical it might seem on the surface, the notion that Najar will become a full-time right back with D.C. is a very real possibility.
4. San Jose stadium offers another reminder to D.C., N.E.
What has seemingly been a season of only good news for the San Jose Earthquakes got even better over the weekend with the announcement that the club will break ground on its new soccer-specific stadium on Oct. 21. The latest soccer flag to be planted firmly in United States soil is also a harsh reminder and reality check for two of the league's oldest franchises in two of the its biggest markets.
For D.C. United and the New England Revolution, two long-standing flagship franchises without their own soccer-specific venues, San Jose's announcement is simply another in a line akin to a single 30+ year-old's much younger friends continuing to get married and move forward with their lives while his own endless search continues. The biological clock is ticking on these two franchises to get their own stadium deals done in an effort to play on an even field when it comes to attendance numbers, sponsorship opportunities, TV exposure and acquiring the right to host the league's glamorous events. Building a new stadium in those two markets has been a long struggle and there are no easy solutions, but MLS will only accept for so long the eyesore that is the empty seats at the two cavernous arenas while smaller markets like Houston, Kansas City, and soon San Jose, thrive off their new stadiums.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Troy Perkins (Montreal Impact)
Defenders: Ramiro Corrales (San Jose Earthquakes), Darren O'Dea (Toronto FC), Steven Smith (Portland Timbers)
Midfielders: Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Simon Dawkins (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Mauro Rosales (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders)
|Week 25 MLS Power Rankings|
||San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 15-6-5)
San Jose rediscovered its offensive swagger with Alan Gordon and Simon Dawkins each scoring twice as the Earthquakes rolled over Colorado despite not having Victor Bernardez, Jason Hernandez and Steven Lenhart available. It was exactly the type of result San Jose needed to get back on track and reinforce its place atop the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings..
||Sporting Kansas City (14-7-5)
Sporting KC yielded next to nothing to the New York Red Bulls in their Sunday night encounter but could only walk away with a point, failing to take advantage of an opportunity to create some distance at the top of the Eastern Conference. Making matters worse for SKC, the club won't have Aurelien Collin (card accumulation) for the weekend clash with Toronto FC, preventing a potential French-bruiser-on-French-bruiser battle between Collin and striker Eric Hassli.
||New York Red Bulls (13-7-6)|
Book-end blunders for the Red Bulls saw the team concede an early gift while spoiling a late golden chance and squeaking a point out of their match in Kansas City, one they were forced to play without Thierry Henry after the birth of his son this week. Having a rested Henry for a mid-week battle with rival D.C. United will be vital considering the amount of energy expended in the physical slugfest with SKC.
||Seattle Sounders (12-6-7)
There might not be a deeper attacking core in the league than what Seattle is capable of trotting out, with five players having a hand in goals (and not one of them being Eddie Johnson) during its six-goal ambush on Chivas USA. Seattle has never peaked at the right time in its few years in MLS, but Sigi Schmid has his attack playing as well as any other in the league at the time being, and the club is very much in the mix for the Supporters' Shield with nine games to play.
||Houston Dynamo (11-6-9)
The Dynamo are quietly winless in their last three matches (0-1-2), but the 1-1 tie between Sporting KC and New York gave the Dynamo a break in that they did not lose any ground in the East with their home slip-up against Toronto FC. Thursday's CONCACAF Champions League bout with Honduran side Olimpia is not only the second and final road one of the group stage, but it also gives the Dynamo's dynamic DP Oscar Boniek Garcia a chance to go up against his former club.
||Los Angeles Galaxy (12-11-4)
For as much star power as there is on this club, it has been 18-year-old Homegrown forward Jose Villarreal who has helped deliver four points to the Galaxy with late heroics this season, including his steal-and-assist to Juninho that put away FC Dallas Sunday night. While Landon Donovan recovers from his hamstring strain and David Beckham plays through a virus, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Galaxy's first-choice defense is starting to perform at its 2011 level, which is a frightening proposition for the opposition.
||Chicago Fire (12-8-5)
The Fire were forced to stew on their poor mid-week showing in D.C., a missed opportunity to crack the upper echelon of Eastern Conference teams, during their off weekend. On the plus side, Chicago will have more than ample rest for another chance at moving into the top three when it hosts Houston Sunday night in a game that can alter the outlook for both teams going forward.
||Real Salt Lake (13-10-4)
RSL achieved the CCL result that was needed but failed to crack Philadelphia's defense at PPL Park Friday night and is facing a very real possibility of falling out of the top three in the West, with the Galaxy just three points behind them and playing a much better brand of soccer. A return to Rio Tinto Stadium to take on a road-weary D.C. team could very well supply a lifeline, but RSL's struggle to achieve consistency is more than just a temporary issue at this point.
||D.C. United (12-9-4)
The club's road struggles continue, with the result in Montreal giving D.C. five straight losses away from RFK Stadium and allowing the Impact to remain alive in the playoff hunt. D.C. is going to have to rectify that issue to build a rhythm heading toward the postseason considering there are no more consecutive home matches this season. In the meantime, United will look to extend their 12-game home unbeaten run when welcoming rival New York to RFK for a crucial conference tussle on Wednesday.
||Montreal Impact (12-13-3)
With five wins in a row after a dismantling of D.C. Saturday afternoon, the Impact are within a single point of United for the final playoff berth in the East. The fact that the Impact are even in the mix is impressive enough and reflects well on Jesse Marsch's ability to work in a revolving door of new faces throughout the season to mold his team into a winner. The club still needs to hope that teams like D.C., Chicago and Columbus don't make the most of their games in hand to have a chance at reaching the postseason.
||Columbus Crew (10-8-6)
After a six-point haul this past week, Columbus has another two-game week, including a massive match against Montreal in which the Crew can officially take the baton as the top competitor for a playoff berth that is currently not in the postseason picture. The big question, though, surrounds goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum's health. Rookie Matt Lampson came on in relief of the steady Gruenebaum in handled himself well, especially down the stretch, but Gruenebaum has been the club's rock and is a necessary piece of the puzzle if Columbus is to continue its late run.
||Vancouver Whitecaps (10-10-7)
The Whitecaps are hitting a rut at the worst possible time, and even though it is difficult to win at Portland, Vancouver should have mustered a point from its matchup. Darren Mattocks' second red card this season puts the club at a disadvantage for its huge game against the Galaxy Saturday and accentuates his discipline problem, as he also has seven yellow cards and is one away from yet another one-game suspension. Saturday night's game at the Home Depot Center against the Galaxy could very well be a make-or-break night in the club's season.
||FC Dallas (8-12-8)
FC Dallas welcomed back Blas Perez (unfortunately at the injured Fabian Castillo's expense), but two sloppy defensive plays prevented the club from pulling a point off the Galaxy, and, as a result, the team's playoff aspirations took a bit of a hit. FCD trails Vancouver by five points, but the Whitecaps own a game in hand. It would be easy for FCD to look ahead to their Sept. 15 head-to-head matchup, but facing red-hot Seattle Saturday night must command all of the club's attention.
||Philadelphia Union (7-12-4)
Philadelphia held RSL scoreless and accumulated a point, but the club has been settling for draws when it has needed wins, and it is officially time to focus on who deserves to stick around for next season. Is one of those players Freddy Adu? His eight-minute stint off the bench Friday makes one wonder just where he really stands on the Union's priority list, especially given his high salary number.
||Chivas USA (7-10-6)
Robin Fraser's experimental lineup resulted in the club's best offensive showing in months but also resulted in the worst defensive showing in the league all season. Seattle had a field day with the Goats' Danny Califf-less back line, scoring at ease en route to a six-goal outburst. It doesn't get much easier this week for Chivas, which has road games on each side of the country, including a Sunday bout against the league's top attack in San Jose.
||New England Revolution (6-14-5)
The Revs have no excuses for conceding four goals to a Columbus team that had not scored more than twice all season, especially with the game-winner coming off a throw-in and especially when they managed to crack Columbus' usually disciplined defense for a three-goal output of their own. Just chalk it up to another frustrating evening for New England, which is now winless in eight straight matches.
||Colorado Rapids (8-16-2)
The Rapids trotted out way too porous of a defense to contend with the likes of Alan Gordon and Simon Dawkins and fell by the wayside after another disappointing outing. The signing of Honduran international Hendry Thomas provides cover in the event that veteran captain Pablo Mastroeni cannot make a recovery from his season-long bout with concussion symptoms.
||Portland Timbers (6-13-6)
Somehow, the Timbers are leading the Cascadia Cup standings after the club's first win under interim manager Gavin Wilkinson. Portland still has to play Seattle two more times and Vancouver away from home, so that glory might not be long-lived, but it gives Timbers fans something to shoot for in an otherwise lost season, and at the very least, the fact that the club's players have not mailed it in even with the playoffs so far from reality says something about the team's character.
||Toronto FC (5-15-6)
The club's focus is purely on the CONCACAF Champions League, evidenced by DPs Eric Hassli and Torsten Frings sitting out Saturday night's match, but credit the resolve of the club's reserves and other starters for clawing their way to a draw at Houston after a tough mid-week loss to Columbus. Oddly enough, Toronto has gone to BBVA Compass Stadium, a house of horrors for visiting teams, twice this season and walked away with a point both times.