A Donovan-less Galaxy show their depth in draw vs. Sounders
The Galaxy had to show they had substance beyond Landon Donovan against the Sounders, while Tony Tchani's return to the starting lineup has helped the Columbus Crew.
Los Angeles Galaxy 1-1 Seattle Sounders
There was only one problem with the dazzling Donovan and Dempsey Show booked for the StubHub Center on Saturday night: both headliners were indisposed.
One of the most eagerly-awaited clashes of the season was billed as Landon Donovan versus Clint Dempsey in a battle of the two most-gifted American attackers of all time. Sadly for the hype-mongers, each was out injured -- the Galaxy man with a sore ankle, Seattle's new signing with a hamstring problem.
Bad news for publicists, but the absence of the two leading men did not prevent the match from being everything a neutral could have asked for: fast, chance-laden, intense, close.
A solid test of whether a team is championship-caliber is to examine the men who are not in the starting XI. Given how crucial the Donovan and Robbie Keane partnership is to the Galaxy's results, it's fair to ask: are L.A. as superficial as a Hollywood film set? On the surface, Bruce Arena has assembled the most devastating attacking unit in MLS -- but how much substance is there behind Donovan and Keane?
Jose Villarreal, who was up front with Keane on Saturday, has a bright future. But he struggled to develop a rapport with the Ireland striker. There was a strange look to the L.A. bench, with two wizened veterans in the 37-year-old Pablo Mastroeni and the 35-year-old Laurent Courtois and the other five players all aged 24 or younger.
In contrast, Seattle had a formidable array of substitutes at or near their prime, such as Brad Evans, Marc Burch, Djimi Traore and new signing Adam Moffat.
In the first half, though, it was impossible to separate the sides. There were good early looks for Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, the Seattle strikers. At the other end, a lively Gyasi Zardes curler was nicely saved by Michael Gspurning in the 19th minute.
Six minutes later the visitor took the lead from a corner. Johnson was left unmarked seven yards out to plant a firm header beyond Jaime Penedo, though Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez seemed to be impeded in the build-up.
L.A. was level moments before the break courtesy of a 25-yard free kick by Juninho with so much dip and bend that the ball went over the wall yet crossed the goal line only a foot above ground level. Amazingly, considering the Brazilian's ball-striking ability, it was his first MLS goal in almost exactly twelve months.
The Galaxy had the ball in the net again on the hour mark following a set-piece, but it was disallowed by referee Silviu Petrescu for a reason that was hard to fathom. As usual, this was far from the day's only match with a controversial decision.
As the night wore on, Seattle was increasingly pushed back and restricted to the occasional counter-attack, and Marcelo Sarvas wasted a fine chance for the home team. Shortly afterwards, Evans, off the bench, had a glorious chance blocked by Todd Dunivant, and then set up Lamar Neagle, who headed narrowly wide.
Still, the Western leader was more than happy to settle for a point in rival territory -- especially after defender Zach Scott was dismissed in the 90th minute for a second yellow card, provoking a frantic finale. And although it did not win, the Galaxy showed it can be a genuine menace without Donovan. It's just that the cutting edge does not slice so deeply.
Tony Tchani, Columbus Crew
One reason a struggling team's results often improve after a coach is fired is that outcasts are given a second chance and seize their moments.
Interim head coach Brian Bliss has restored Tchani to the starting lineup and the 24-year-old repaid his faith handsomely on Saturday night as Columbus crushed the Chicago Fire 3-0 at Crew Stadium. The Ohioans are still eighth in the Eastern Conference but are now only a point behind their rival Chicago.
The 6-foot-4 Cameroon-born midfielder out of the University of Virginia had seen only 30 minutes of MLS action since starting Columbus' 3-0 defeat to the Philadelphia Union on June 5. After Robert Warzycha was fired on September 2, Tchani has come off the bench twice and started twice.
Tchani's game combines strength and skill. He was an elegant, dominant force in midfield against Chicago alongside the promising Wil Trapp. In the 68th minute, Tchani stroked the ball behind the defense with his right boot for Jairo Arrieta. He was felled by Sean Johnson, allowing Federico Higuain to beat the goalkeeper from the penalty spot for 2-0.
Eight minutes later, and with his left foot this time, Tchani produced one of the best assists of the season: a perfectly-weighted 25-yard pass for Bernardo Anor. He surged past Gonzalo Segares down the right and beat Johnson with a first-time shot to seal the win against opponents who were reduced to ten men for more than an hour after Bakary Soumare's dismissal.
1 -- MLS team on a solid unbeaten run
The form guide is more of an out-of-form guide: every club other than Seattle has lost at least once in its past four matches. So the Sounders are the only team hurtling towards the playoffs with some serious momentum.
A pessimist could depict MLS as a competition filled with flawed, homogenous teams. On the other hand, tightly-matched sides promote an exciting, unpredictable league and the final weeks of the regular season have a do-or-die feel that makes them a fitting prequel to the post-season.
Just when teams are teetering on the brink of effectively being eliminated from top-five contention -- Columbus, the San Jose Earthquakes, the Whitecaps, all victorious on Saturday night -- they produce a big result. So far, must-wins are being won.
San Jose had lost seven and drawn one of its past eight road matches in all competitions, yet beat the formidable Real Salt Lake 2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
What makes this year closer than the last is that with five weeks left in the regular season, fewer teams can start planning for 2014.
By mid-September in 2012 the New England Revolution, Philadelphia and Toronto FC were out of the Eastern reckoning, with Montreal all but doomed. In the West, the situation was hopeless for Chivas, Portland and Colorado. Today, only Chivas, D.C. United and Toronto are playing for pride.
And on the night of September 15, 2012, the five teams in each division that occupied the playoff places were the ten that ultimately reached the post-season. Only the order changed. This season, it feels as if anything could happen.
Logically, money should not just talk but holler, as it does in the leading European leagues. Though the Galaxy is a strong contender to claim a hat-trick of MLS Cups this winter, MLS has retained parity during the regular season despite huge contrasts in payroll, with Dempsey alone making more than the entire rosters of 15 MLS clubs.
It is hard to be precise since teams have played varying numbers of fixtures, and the New York Red Bulls face FC Dallas on Sunday. But the gap between the first-place and sixth-place clubs in each conference is nine points - roughly the same as it was twelve months ago.
Yet by the end of the 2012-13 English Premier League campaign, the gulf between the champions (Manchester United) and the side in sixth (Everton) was a vast 26 points - albeit after 38 fixtures, four more than MLS clubs play.
Camilo Sanvezzo, Vancouver Whitecaps
MLS does not have a franchise in Vegas, though Martin Rennie is proving himself to be an avid gambler. The Whitecaps head coach has been spinning the tactical equivalent of a roulette wheel lately in a bid to put an end to his team's slide. Excellent in mid-season, the 'Caps arrived at Stade Saputo on Saturday with only one MLS victory in nine matches.
In a 3-1 loss to FC Dallas earlier this month, the Scot put his essential central midfielder, Nigel Reo-Coker, at right back -- even though the excellent Lee Young-Pyo was available. And Rennie dropped in-form goalkeeper Brad Knighton in August in favor of new arrival David Ousted. He has also experimented with formations, flirting with 4-4-2 instead of his usual squeeze, 4-3-3.
In Quebec, Rennie handed Tom Heinemann only the second MLS start of his Whitecaps career (and first since April) in a must-win road game, ahead of the prolific Camilo and last year's club top-scorer, Darren Mattocks. The result? A three-point jackpot that keeps Vancouver's playoff ambitions alive, though its final five matches are all against higher-ranked Western Conference foes.
A determined Camilo came off the bench and grabbed a pair of goals to cement the win. He is tied for second with Mike Magee behind the Montreal Impact's Marco Di Vaio in the MLS scoring charts with 16 on the year. It ended a run of four games without a goal that was the 25-year-old's longest barren stretch since the season's early weeks.
Both goals were a result of a mixture of his hunger in a situation where others might have headed to the corner flag to waste time, some dreadful, weary defending, and the space in the Montreal half as it pushed up the field.
Camilo collected the ball inside his own half in stoppage-time and dribbled, and dribbled, and dribbled, beating Troy Perkins with a thumping high shot from outside the penalty area.
Take nothing away from the quality of the run and finish -- but take plenty away from the defending. The only Montreal player who made any attempt to stop him was Justin Mapp, whose tackling technique resembled a shy child trying to pet a reluctant goat.
The only other Montreal player in the vicinity, Matteo Ferrari, was backing off in panic, as if the Brazilian was at the wheel of a truck whose brakes had failed.
Athletes and coaches are fond of posting motivational slogans in locker rooms. Here's a suggestion for the Impact's walls: "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." Camilo had scored a very similar goal only two minutes earlier, running from midfield down the left, outpacing the 37-year-old Alessandro Nesta and shooting into the far corner. Also an impressive strike, but one that Perkins should have saved.
Even though the 3-0 outcome looks gaudy, it was only 1-0 until the 89th minute. That said, "only" 1-0 is still unacceptable for a club aiming to go deep into the post-season that has now lost twice at home in a week against opponents outside the play-off places. And, save for a last-day jaunt against Toronto FC, Montreal's remaining fixtures all appear challenging.