MLS Power Rankings: Tim Cahill's clutch play continues
The shorthanded Red Bulls showed their heart, D.C. and RSL put their eggs in the U.S. Open Cup basket and the playoff chase heated up in MLS Week 31
1. Cahill continues leadership emergence: The inevitable failed to materialize Sunday in Seattle, at least like most thought it would. Playing with their fans in full volume against a weakened opponent with a chance to take a stranglehold on the MLS Supporters' Shield, the Sounders were unable to take care of business. Conversely, playing without turf-weary Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave and injured Bradley Wright-Phillips, the New York Red Bulls traveled across the country facing a daunting task, only to not fold and concede three points and instead walk away with a sense of accomplishment.
Much was made of Henry and Olave being held out of a game vital to New York's Supporters' Shield hopes. Manager Mike Petke kept his two key players out as a precaution while focusing on the bigger picture and not a potential quick fix to New York's silverware drought. As it turns out, the risk allowed for the club's true colors to show, especially those of Tim Cahill.
Not far removed from recent PCL and ankle injuries, Cahill showed up to compete in the rain on the CenturyLink Field turf and provided another instance of him completely justifying his $3.5 million Designated Player salary. His equalizer in the 77th minute, which came off a bit of a broken sequence and was just the fourth time Seattle has conceded a goal in the final 15 minutes of a game this season, was the latest evidence of his clutch capabilities. Teams often take the form of their manager and on-field leaders, and while Henry may officially be New York's captain and has turned in another excellent campaign, Cahill has continued to emerge as a true leader through his passion and attitude, both vocally and with his play. His teammates have followed.
The Sounders may very well go on to win the Supporters' Shield considering they only trail New York by a point with two games in hand. The bigger takeaway Sunday in Seattle, though, was a Red Bulls side -- one that is far from flawless -- coming together to gut out a result with the odds heavily favoring the opposition, and its anti-Rafa-Marquez DP leading the way.
2. A tale of two finalists: D.C. United and Real Salt Lake took the same approach ahead of Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup final bout: Load their squads over the weekend with reserves and hope for the best.
For RSL, it worked like gangbusters. As for D.C.? Not so much.
With a top-three berth in the Western Conference far from assured, RSL took a massive gamble in trotting out players who, aside from Luis Gil and Chris Schuler, have become more accustomed to coming off Jason Kreis' bench. The result was an overwhelming team performance in which RSL stymied a Vancouver Whitecaps side that was even more desperate for points and playing at home. It spoke volumes about where both teams stand in the Western Conference pantheon, and even though Vancouver is far from out of the playoff race -- especially with a home-and-away set of matches with fifth-place Colorado to close out the season -- the result was about as discouraging and defeating as it could have been to the psyche of Martin Rennie's side.
Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, emerged in perfect shape. Its top-tier talent -- save for injured forward Alvaro Saborio -- is rested and healthy. The result only improved its playoff standing and footing in a top-three place, which is important in terms of avoiding the wildcard round. Even with speculation regarding Kreis' future swirling, RSL battled as a focused, motivated side that is as deep as it gets in MLS.
D.C., meanwhile, has been afforded the "luxury" of being able to gameplan for the Open Cup by virtue of being out of the playoff race for months. It's about as backwards as it gets, but Ben Olsen has been able to put all of his efforts into the club's Open Cup campaign. The result Saturday afternoon at BMO Field was as makeshift of a starting XI as we've seen all season, with D.C. having little regard for the fact that the game was its best chance to avoid setting a new mark for fewest wins in a single season, falling 4-1 to almost-as-lowly Toronto FC.
"Well obviously, the lineup had a lot to do with Tuesday's Open Cup fixture. I set these guys up to fail today, it's pretty simple," Olsen said in his postmatch comments. "Unfortunately we've got a luxury to not matter so much about results in the league, and so that decision wasn't a hard one."
Olsen's comments were characteristically candid and revealing. D.C. is all-in on the U.S. Open Cup, and Tuesday's game is its season championship. Unfortunately for underdog United, RSL's gamble paid off in a major way Saturday, and the host club will be the overwhelming favorite when the two clash at Rio Tinto Stadium with the silverware on the line.
3. Deja vu for the Fire: "I feel like in games like that, when you get a bunch of chances and you don't finish, the soccer gods have a way of punishing you. Obviously we can't concede the way we did. But when you miss the chances that we had, it has a way of sorting itself out where you don't deserve the win."
That was a fitting quote from Mike Magee to describe the Chicago Fire's 2-2 draw with the Montreal Impact Saturday night. Only thing is, that statement came following a 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo on Sept. 1.
As the Fire's month closed, Magee's words remained ever so relevant. Once again the Fire failed to put away a vulnerable opponent, with Magee missing out on a hat trick by over-hitting a penalty kick and having a shot cleared off the line while a number of other chances went begging, allowing the Impact to stay in the game. As Magee unintentionally foreshadowed, Montreal got its equalizer, and a Fire team that has failed to put away teams when given the opportunity finds itself fighting for its playoff life in the most self-inflicted of ways.
Even so, the Fire are just two points out of a playoff spot, and the schedule plays into Chicago's favor with games against D.C. United, wobbling FC Dallas and Toronto FC next on the docket, respectively. To take advantage of that, though, Magee and his teammates are going to have to take matters into their own hands to avoid having the soccer gods deliver another gut-wrenching punishment in crunch time.
4. Set-piece showdown in Portland: The LA Galaxy will contend the reason they did not walk out of Jeld-Wen Field with a point was because of assistant referee Eric Boria's offside flag, but the real reason can be traced to the club's weakness being exploited yet again.
In a classic case of strength versus weakness, Portland's set-piece proficiency met LA's set-piece defending woes head on to provide the decisive moment in the Timbers' rain-soaked 1-0 win. After being chased for months by Toronto FC only to be dealt abruptly to Portland as the wheels of change move in the BMO Field front office, Maximiliano Urruti latched onto Will Johnson's corner kick with a near-post run. Sean Franklin and Juninho failed to track him adequately and close off his path to goal. Landon Donovan, who was rooted to the near post, was unable to keep Urruti's sneaky deflection out, resulting in Portland's 10th set-piece goal of the season.
With Jaime Penedo entrenched in goal instead of the uncertain Carlo Cudicini, LA's set-piece defending should be improved, but it is more than just a goalkeeper issue. For LA, an astounding 14 of its 37 goals allowed have come via the set piece, accounting for the most in MLS. LA was prevented from flipping the script with Boria's instant call of Robbie Keane leaning in an offside position on a last-minute free kick, but instead of berating the officials (how Keane escaped seeing yellow for dissent in that situation was bewildering), LA needs to take a look at itself, head to the training ground and plug its holes. Between its set-piece and late-game follies (only Chivas USA has conceded more than LA's 18 goals in the final 15 minutes of games), the two-time defending MLS Cup champions have a glaring weakness on which Western Conference foes Seattle, Portland and Real Salt Lake can feast.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Zac MacMath (Philadelphia Union)
Defenders: Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union), Jose Goncalves (New England Revolution), Chad Marshall (Columbus Crew), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (Seattle Sounders)
Midfielders: Davy Arnaud (Montreal Impact), Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls), Diego Chara (Portland Timbers), Dominic Oduro (Columbus Crew)
Forwards: Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Maximiliano Urruti (Portland Timbers)
|Week 31 MLS Power Rankings|