Spectacle in Seattle, changes in New York, MLS Power Rankings
The Cascadia Cup is likely to remain in Seattle after its 3-0 shutout of Portland
The Dynamo and Crew both drew, leaving Houston one point up in their battle
Chris Wondolowski is two goals shy of the single-season record after a hat trick
Breaking down all the happenings in Cascadia and the playoff races and taking a look around MLS after a storyline-packed Week 31:
1. Sounders rule Cascadia, but Whitecaps emerge as big winners. The highly publicized and attended Cascadia Cup derby in Seattle on Sunday night was pretty much as advertised. Passion reverberated throughout the almost 67,000 in attendance -- bravo, creators of that enormous tifo -- to the point Sounders coach Sigi Schmid called it "heaven." Quality rose to the surface on the field (well, from one team, anyhow). The Sounders showcased the flair and attacking aptitude that separates them from the past three Seattle teams in a 3-0 win over the rival Timbers. Players entered challenges with a distinct desire, some leaving bloodied along the way. In short, the Seattle-Portland spectacle that MLS continues to boast as its showcase event met expectations yet again.
The big winners in the Cascadia region this week were not situated at CenturyLink Field, though. They were not even in action over the weekend, nor were they in the United States. Instead, the Vancouver Whitecaps sat back and watched their chief rivals duke it out as an encore after FC Dallas threw away a result to Chivas USA, settling for a draw against the team Vancouver blew out in a one-sided, mid-week clash just days before. The stunning result created a four-point buffer for fifth place in the Western Conference with two matches remaining, and one that puts the Whitecaps on the brink of reaching the postseason in their second year in the league.
Had the Whitecaps fallen out of that spot and let Dallas overtake them, it would have been one of the great collapses in league history, considering where Vancouver has stood for the duration of the season and how far back Dallas was before transforming into a winner three months ago. Instead, Vancouver can cement things by taking care of business against the lowly Timbers at home when MLS resumes following the international break, as Dallas must take care of its own business and pray for a minor miracle.
So while the actual Cascadia Cup is likely to remain in Seattle for another year after Sunday's performance -- Portland could still claim it by going to BC Place and winning Oct. 21, but is anyone really expecting the Timbers, they of the 0-12-4 road record, to pull that one off? -- it looks as if a second Cascadia entrant will be joining the Sounders in the fight for an even more important cup, MLS Cup, after all.
2. Dynamo, Crew fail to assert themselves. Little has separated the Houston Dynamo from the Columbus Crew, and with two games remaining in the MLS regular season, that battle for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is going down to the wire. Houston maintains a one-point edge over Columbus, as neither could take advantage of the other's slip-up over the weekend. For Columbus, battling back to tie first-place Sporting Kansas City after trailing for the duration of the match is nothing to hang its head over. For Houston, though, failing to defeat Montreal at home in a game of that magnitude, even without injured captain Brad Davis, is borderline inexcusable.
In fact, the club's home record against non-playoff Canadian teams in general has been rather disappointing altogether, and the two home ties the club settled for against Toronto FC and Saturday's draw against Montreal could ultimately be its undoing during a season in which the inconsistent Dynamo have had the look of both a title contender and an also-ran. Instead of tallying up those points, the Dynamo let them slip away, and they find themselves on the precipice of missing out of the playoffs as some under-appreciated challenges await.
The schedule for both clubs -- who are so close to the point that they've played two 2-2 draws this season in head-to-head matchups, but Houston maintains the overall goals-scored tiebreaker -- going forward does not make for smooth sailing. Houston plays a Philadelphia side that is gaining form and would love nothing more than to exact some revenge on the team that eliminated the Union from the postseason last year. The Dynamo follow that up by playing at altitude in Colorado all while balancing a crucial CONCACAF Champions League match in between. Columbus, meanwhile, has to travel to play D.C. United at RFK Stadium, where the hosts are undefeated since March 10, before finishing up with a Trillium Cup battle against last-place Toronto FC. At this juncture, it is very much a toss-up as to who makes the playoffs.
3. A scheduling dream. As stated above, there are some tremendous playoff races that are unlikely to be officially decided until the last weekend of the season. Between the fights for the final playoff spots in each conference and the constant jockeying for position to determine which teams avoid the wild-card matchups, the season's final weekend has the potential for some wild drama. The only problem is, the way the schedule is currently constructed zaps the chance to maximize that for the fan experience.
Houston and Vancouver will play their final games Saturday, Oct. 27, while Columbus and FC Dallas play the following day, by which point they will know exactly what is necessary to -- if it is still possible -- reach the playoffs. Imagine if that was not the case, that all of the final-week games were scheduled for the same start time, as is the practice in many leagues around the world. Not only does that make for a competitive balance for the teams in action, it creates that kind of buzz off the field that is unique to soccer and generates unbridled excitement as fans go through the permutations and possibilities with each passing goal and minute. The league moved to create a live-updated standings page on its official website, but that is something that is really best-served being used on a last-day bonanza, when fortunes across the league actually do change in real time.
The only way to try and replicate the magic that encompasses the last day of the season (i.e. the final day of last season's Premier League campaign and Manchester City's magical, dramatic win to claim the title) is to follow suit and have all teams in action play simultaneously. With an odd number of teams in the league it is impossible to make it logistically perfect until expansion to a 20th team, because one team will not be playing (this season, it's Sporting Kansas City), but having a go at it even with that caveat is certainly better than losing the potential to capitalize on that drama altogether.
4. RBNY's front-office fail takes its toll. The New York Red Bulls may wind up enjoying eventual success under the stewardship of Jerome de Bontin and Gerard Houllier, two well-qualified individuals with top-notch soccer brains and experience at the sport's highest levels. Nevertheless, their introduction coupled with general manager Erik Soler's ouster this past week came at the most peculiar time for a team that looked to be on its way to being a title contender. Soler had his rough moments in MLS and has been well acquainted with the hot seat, but considering the team he had built and the rhythm it was developing, now was not the ideal time to look in another direction.
In his first remarks to reporters, de Bontin mentioned that manager Hans Backe, a Soler hire who is in the final year of his contract, would have his future evaluated at the end of the season. Meanwhile, Backe is in the thick of a chase for the club's first trophy, one that is realistically within reach. Even talking passingly about Backe's future as manager of the team at this point is purely asinine.
The front-office distraction appeared to take its toll on the club's performance Saturday afternoon, one that was on display for all who have NB, and whether there is a correlation between the two only those in the Red Bulls locker room truly know. But with the overall flatness and lack of focus, it appeared on the surface as if the club's curious front-office personnel moves had a trickle-down effect to the field, where the defending was simply not good enough and the seeds of doubt were replanted. For a franchise that historically seems to enjoy the act of self sabotage, even this development is an unfounded head-scratcher.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas)
Defenders: Arne Friedrich (Chicago Fire), Hernan Pertuz (FC Dallas), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake)
Midfielders: Gabriel Gomez (Philadelphia Union), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Juninho (Los Angeles Galaxy), Camilo (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Forwards: Sherjill MacDonald (Chicago Fire), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake)
|Week 31 MLS Power Rankings|
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi