Henry returns, questionable officiating, more MLS analysis
Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper provide a strong attacking threat for New York
There is no excuse for two missed offsides calls by assistant referees this weekend
Chris Wondolowski kept San Jose in contention for the Supporters' Shield
Thoughts from Saturday's MLS action.
1. King Henry's star turn
Thierry Henry's body language implies a man with an ego the size of the Empire State Building, but the striker deserves plaudits for his unselfishness on Saturday as the New York Red Bulls overcame Toronto FC 4-1.
The scoreline was burnished by two late goals for the home side and the margin of victory was harsh on tenacious opponents who occasionally belied their status as the worst team in MLS.
But on his return from a one-match ban for an egregious off-the-ball foul, Henry contributed three assists and a goal on a night notable for individual moments of brilliance and sustained teamwork.
At the business end of any season in any sport, you can guarantee sportswriters and broadcasters will drop more references to the importance of chemistry than a science teacher at test time.
Though chemistry is typically a nebulous concept when applied to sports, it's known by people in lab coats as the science of reactions and interactions. Against Toronto, New York had both in abundance.
Hans Backe's team had to react against the sapping blows of conceding at the death last week against the New England Revolution, then early against Toronto. They did, thanks to Henry's regal generosity towards his co-workers, strewing elegant passes like a king bestowing patronage on loyal subjects.
After Markus Holgersson canceled out Ryan Johnson's stunning opener with a header from a Henry corner, the Frenchman twice set up Kenny Cooper for simple strikes, playing the ball across the face of goal instead of shooting. As for the way Henry concluded the night, with a stoppage-time chip -- set clear by a perceptive pass from Cooper -- well, there is a reason why the word nonchalant has French origins.
Restored to the starting line-up, it was obvious that Henry and Cooper were making a special effort to get along. If they can maintain this Best Friends Forever level of empathy then New York's attacking threat might be irresistible enough during the playoffs to compensate for their shortcomings elsewhere. Especially if you factor in Tim Cahill's aerial excellence and the wing menace of Lloyd Sam, who came off injured on a sprightly first start for the club.
2. Call me offside, maybe?
With everyone still digesting the poor performance of referee Chris Penso in one of the biggest games of the season, Friday night's 2-0 win for Sporting Kansas City over Chicago Fire, it's enough to give anyone acid reflux that a key match was defined by official ineptitude 24 hours later.
Penso made some questionable calls, but the decision by an assistant referee not to give Mirovan Mirosevic offside as he won the game for Columbus in the 88th minute was not debatable: it was plain wrong.
Video technology to establish if a ball has crossed the goal line is on the way, but it's going to solve a problem that occurs less often than solar eclipses.
Assistant referees failing to do their job properly is a blight affecting most games, most weeks, in most leagues. As unwelcome and overexposed sights go, it is soccer's answer to Kim Kardashian.
Some offsides are very tough to spot, but it is not as if assistants have much else to do. It is enough to make you wish soccer had an in-match video appeals process similar to the challenge system in tennis. Sure, it would cause delays. But so does players furiously protesting to the officials after a goal is wrongly awarded.
Mirosevic's winner gave the Crew a 3-2 victory over a spunky Philadelphia Union, who had recovered from a 2-0 halftime deficit and deserved a point. The result briefly saw Columbus leapfrog Houston Dynamo into fifth place in the Eastern Conference. But thanks to Houston's victory over New England Revolution, the Crew is a point adrift of the final playoffs spot with three matches left.
3. Supporters' Shield race is still on
Chris Wondolowski is so hot right now that even everything he doesn't touch turns to gold. The 22-goal striker showed superb awareness to let Marvin Chavez' right-wing cross pass through his legs and on to the unmarked Alan Gordon, who gave San Jose a 23rd-minute lead against Dallas. Like Henry, here was a master goalscorer showing his subtle and generous side.
Wondolowski's pretty useful when he chooses to touch the ball, too. Shortly before the break he performed an about-face quicker than an under-fire politician to turn two defenders and force a scrambled save from Kevin Hartman.
However, Dallas's response to going behind underlined why they are among MLS' form teams. Blas Perez equalized 13 minutes after the opening goal and Jackson missed a simple headed chance for the visitors to Buck Shaw Stadium. In the 72nd minute, Perez connected with David Ferreira's cross to head Dallas in front.
More or less out of nowhere, the Earthquakes tied the match with Steven Lenhart's ninth goal of the campaign, a flamboyant strike from the edge of the penalty box. But Dallas scrambled itself back in front in the 88th minute in strange circumstances, with Zach Loyd lying injured in the goal as his teammate Matt Hedges scored.
Still, a team that does not know when it is beaten, rarely is. Lenhart headed another equalizer in injury time to tie things at 3-3. Even when it did not dominate a match nor play anywhere close to its best, Frank Yallop's outfit demonstrated why it is currently the best in MLS. San Jose isn't just skillful; it's stubborn.
The draw leaves San Jose three points clear of Sporting KC in the quest for the Supporters Shield with three games to go. KC has recovered two points on the leaders this weekend, giving it some hope; but it's probably too little, too late, with San Jose in such defiant mood.
4. Houston finds form and formation
It's not cool, 4-4-2. It has not been the tactical hipster's formation of choice in a long while. The 2001 British film, Mike Bassett: England Manager, spends plenty of screen time mining this fact for considerable comic profit.
But there is a reason why boring old, sensible-shoes 4-4-2 was, and still is, so popular: it works. Just ask Houston after its 2-0 win over New England.
The Dynamo had gained prettiness but lost efficiency since coach Dominic Kinnear's mid-season switch to 4-3-3. That helped accommodate the arrival of Oscar Boniek Garcia, but nullified top scorer, Will Bruin. He has scored only twice since Garcia made his debut on June 30, yet the Honduran is among the team's liveliest and most creative players and has six assists in 15 games.
Kinnear reverted to 4-4-2 following last Sunday's dismal defeat by Philadelphia and it paid off on Saturday with a better display that brought a critical victory. Garcia scored a terrific second goal after Ricardo Clark found the net with an angled finish in the 77th minute via a novelty item: a right-footed Brad Davis cross.
The weather was improbably filthy in southeast Texas, which naturally impacted the standard of play. According to MLS' Dynamo beat writer Darrell Lovell, this was the first time an MLS home game in Houston was played in the rain. With one win in their past seven fixtures before kick-off, the team's mood would have matched the conditions had they not taken all the points.
Before the contest, Houston was 5-2-6 against teams not currently in a playoff place. Kinnear's charges averaged 1.4 points per game against top-five clubs and 1.6 against the others: a surprisingly minor difference. It's why the Dynamo should feel optimistic in the playoffs, and why it has not yet secured its berth.
5. Whitecaps rue massive miss
Vancouver has never won against Cascadia opponents in the MLS, a statistic that should have been filed under "history" in Canada on Saturday night.
Barry Robson crossed from the left in the 93rd minute, Kenny Miller misdirected the ball along the six-yard-box and it fell, kindly as a great-aunt, for Camilo at the far post. The substitute flashed the ball low back across goal and narrowly, painfully, wide of the goal.
In Camilo's defense, players on both teams had several good chances before his miss. But no one will remember those -- only the guy who tripped right in front of the finish line. Captain Jay DeMerit sunk to the ground, mouth as wide as the Strait of Georgia. It was the last kick of the game.
Seattle Sounders' escape in the goal-less draw rubber-stamped its playoff place. Vancouver gets another chance to vanquish a Pacific Northwest foe in its penultimate game of the season at home to the Portland Timbers.
And Vancouver holds a two-point lead over Dallas in the fight for fifth place in the Western Conference thanks to the Earthquakes' late, late equalizer. See, there was a happy ending on Saturday night for the Whitecaps, after all.