Clint Dempsey debuts, but Federico Higuain steals the day
Clint Dempsey made his eagerly-anticipated debut during a Sounders victory, while Real Salt Lake and Federico Higuain turned in two of the more notable performances across MLS.
Real Salt Lake 1, Houston Dynamo 0
Houston's mini-revival came to a halt at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, even though plenty went according to plan for Dominic Kinnear's side. With key playmaker Boniek Garcia only fit enough to be a substitute the Dynamo kept the match tight, surrendering possession to a more expansive and imaginative opponent but allowing just two shots on target during the 90 minutes.
The outcome revolved around a single incident, a debatable penalty ten minutes before halftime. The referee, Jose Carlos Rivero, decided that Adam Moffat nudged Olmes Garcia as the pair battled for a loose high ball, with the Dynamo midfielder evidently finding it tough to judge the trajectory as it fell.
Rather than react furiously and berate the referee, Moffat simply looked blank as if unable to process the outcome, his face a human version of what happens when a computer crashes and the screen goes blue.
Alvaro Saborio sent Tally Hall the wrong way from the penalty spot for what proved to be match-winner. The Dynamo half-threatened an equalizer late on, especially once Garcia and Jason Johnson came off the bench to add some devilry to an attack that had at times seemed mechanical.
After recent stoppage-time disasters against New York and SKC, Salt Lake was surely delighted to navigate past the climax of this match without incident. It has a five-point cushion at the top of the Western Conference but some vicious-seeming fixtures ahead, including three games against the Portland Timbers.
The Dynamo remain fifth in the East but have two clubs in their slipstream: Chicago and New England are within three points. Saturday night ended with eight-point gaps between the first- and sixth-place teams in both conferences; there is much to play for in the final third of the season.
Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders
Deuce-watch was not expected to begin in earnest until after the hour mark, but Dempsey was summoned prematurely from the bench for his Seattle debut in the 34th minute because of an injury to Obafemi Martins.
Dempsey had been unwell earlier in the week and is still effectively in preseason form following his move from England's Tottenham Hotspur. Still, facing opponents as soft as Toronto FC must be the ideal first day at work, the MLS equivalent to taking a job testing the mattresses for a furniture store.
The 30-year-old trotted on at BMO Field for his first MLS appearance since 2006's Cup final, when he was on the losing side as the New England Revolution were beaten by the Houston Dynamo in a penalty shootout.
Seattle is away to Houston next Saturday. Eddie Johnson will be suspended after picking up a yellow card in Toronto while Martins must be a doubt, meaning that Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid can defer the problem of how to cram each of that talented trio into the starting lineup for at least another week.
Schmid's team was already leading 1-0 before Dempsey came on thanks to Mauro Rosales, who scored from close range after Toronto's back four suddenly put down their tools and went on strike. At least, that's how it looked.
Dempsey might have scored or won a penalty within two minutes of his arrival, as he surged into the area on a breakaway but was shoulder-charged off the ball by Ashtone Morgan. It was the sort of boisterous tackle that would have earned universal praise a decade ago but in the present climate counts as highly risky.
A comically deft own-goal made it 2-0 to the visitors before half-time as Doneil Henry seemed to backheel Lamar Neagle's cross into his own net.
In the 44th minute, Dempsey drew a foul on the edge of the box and took the free kick himself, sending it off the wall. Toronto was much better in the second period after pulling a goal back through Jonathan Osorio within a minute of the kickoff.
"There has been a lot of talk, a lot of speculation, a lot of media stuff for me but what I enjoy is being on the field and playing," Dempsey told MLSSoccer.com. "It's what I dreamed about as a kid, being a professional soccer player, and to be able to do that when you are on the field it is home. So it was good to get on the field and get some touches, mix it up with the boys and to get familiar with this league again."
Though he probably will not be fully match-fit for another couple of weeks, Dempsey still managed a few decent looks at goal, including a flamboyant run with 20 minutes left that led to a curling low shot from 20 yards which forced a good save from Joe Bendik. Consider it the teaser trailer for the big budget, special effects-laden blockbuster expected to hit sporting theaters in the fall.
3 - Wins in 11 games for the Montreal Impact
The Quebec club has gone from formidable Eastern Conference leader to questionable for the playoffs thanks to a 3-3-5 run in MLS since June 1. Strangely, two of those wins came against current leaders Sporting Kansas City and the other was against last year's MLS Cup runner-up, Houston.
So if Montreal does end the season in the top five, it has reason to feel optimistic that it can raise its game to oust the best. But it's a disturbing slide, especially for a team heavily reliant on the 37-year-old legs of striker Marco Di Vaio, who started on the bench for Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Chicago Fire. And there is the added burden of three more CONCACAF Champions League fixtures to come, following last Wednesday's 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes.
Now in fourth place, four points behind SKC, the Impact does have two games in hand on the teams above it. But this result enabled the sixth-placed Fire to move within four points of Montreal. And in the East, only bottom club D.C. United has conceded more goals. Montreal is next at home to D.C. -- who beat it 3-1 only a week ago.
Federico Higuain, Columbus Crew
His first should not have stood. His second will endure as one of the best goals of the season. So let's start with the good news, as a team with a habit of conceding late scored in spectacular style in the 76th minute to seal an eyebrow-raising 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.
In space down the right-hand channel, the 28-year-old dribbled towards the edge of the penalty box and clipped a sumptuous lob over goalkeeper Luis Robles into the far corner. Robles was standing on the edge of the six-yard box, hardly far out of his goal, yet the shot was so perfectly placed and so surprising that he had no chance.
Higuain had the space to perform his conjuring trick because the Red Bulls were caught flat-footed as they pushed for an equalizer.
Last season's MLS Newcomer of the Year had given the Crew a 62nd-minute lead from the spot after a baffling penalty award from referee Allen Chapman, who blew for a foul as a free-kick was swung into the area and bodies on both sides pushed, grabbed, bumped and tumbled in the scramble for the ball. In other words, just a typical set piece.
Chapman made several other dubious decisions and no-calls during the match. Still, it's the prerogative of referees in leagues across the planet: fail to notice events that fans sitting behind a pillar in Row Z can see, then observe something that is invisible to television viewers who have scrutinized slow-motion replays from six different angles.
Still, if the officials at Crew Stadium did benefit from superior visual acuity, maybe they would have noticed that Columbus' Agustin Viana was offside when the kick was taken. Mike Petke was suspended for the match, denying us the chance to see the Red Bulls head coach explode on the touchline like a July 4th firework display.
After three successive losses, defeat on Saturday would likely have seen the breath snuffed out of the Crew's faintly flickering playoff hopes. The outcome, coupled with Sporting Kansas City's win over the New England Revolution, dropped New York to second in the Eastern Conference, bursting their balloon after significant wins over SKC and Real Salt Lake.
Without the hurt Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls were mediocre. But they can salivate over fixtures against MLS' three worst teams -- D.C. United, Chivas USA and Toronto FC -- in the next few weeks.