New York Red Bulls add another first on their way to second Shield
The once trophy-less Red Bulls have now won two Supporters’ Shields in three years, and what’s perhaps been most impressive about the team’s change in fortunes this past few years – ignoring for a moment the change in tactical emphasis of the Petke and now Marsch eras – has been the change in character of the team in that time. New York have sometimes been a talented team to play, but they are now a tough team to play.
The trophies are the obvious measure of that, but so too are the smaller landmarks – New York earning their first ever win in New England, or their first ever playoff win over DC last year, both spring to mind as key moments for the institutional memory, and acts which helped lay the ghost of New York’s reputation for habitual choking.
And to clinch another Supporters’ Shield, New York had to reach another landmark – Bridgewater has been a horrible venue for the Red Bulls to visit since Chicago’s stadium opened in 2005. New York had never won there, and even in this season of their own consistency coinciding with the Fire’s ineptitude, the last time New York played at Toyota Park, they’d seen a six-game unbeaten streak ended by the counter-attacking pace of the Fire and David Accam.
Those type of occasional results against this year’s also-rans such as the Fire and Philadelphia, who New York also struggled against, had clearly rankled with perfectionist staff and players alike. That said, they were also results that tended to prove the Red Bulls’ resilience when they consistently put things right in the games immediately following these setbacks. So there was a certain symmetry when New York’s final two games in their quest for the Shield ran through Philadelphia and Chicago.
With the Union dispatched in a record-breaking hurry last week, New York got another early goal this week, after some dreadful Chicago marking on a corner allowed an unattended Bradley Wright-Phillips to touch home a Sal Zizzo header in the 9th minute. The goal took Wright-Phillips combined total for the past two years to a league record-equalling 44 goals, and when Sacha Kljestan added a second on a penalty, New York were sitting pretty.
With Chicago scoring late, it was nervy at the end, in the manner of any important tight game coming to a close, but there was a time when watching a New York side under anything like these circumstances was an exercise in wondering how rather than if they’d let the game slip through their fingers. Those days feel a long way away now – in fact even the catharsis of the 2013 win, after so long without a trophy, feels a long way away. This New York side do not look as if their celebrations of regular-season achievements will distract them from their playoff duties.
Still, all the minor and major landmarks the Red Bulls have reached still remind us of one they haven’t reached – is 2015 the year when New York finally win an MLS Cup? If they do, perhaps the big surprise would be that nobody would be surprised. GP
Drogba’s sense of occasion gives Montreal the edge
Didier Drogba’s ability to make a game all about him is hardly a secret weapon, and his performance against Toronto FC was duly the stuff of familiar sublime pantomime.
First there were the two second-half goals in as many minutes to give the Impact what turned out to be the decisive lead in the game. That took Drogba’s total to 11 goals in 11 games since arriving in Montreal – with the latest two probably the most important, in not only cancelling out Jozy Altidore’s opener for Toronto, but also ensuring that Montreal secured a home game in the play-in round, against the same opponents.
Drogba will have every intention of stealing the show again on Thursday night, having cheerfully eclipsed Altidore, Michael Bradley and even MVP favorite Sebastian Giovinco, with his scoring interventions on Sunday.
He even threatened to write the headlines in advance of that game, when he was fouled heavily during the second half, and left writhing in agony on the field. Drogba limped off, seemingly carrying the hopes of his team with him, only to reappear for the rest of the game after treatment.
Montreal have already had one unlikely Cup run this year – reaching the final of the Champions League. And they didn’t have Drogba then. And after a wobble in getting over the line and into the playoffs in the last couple of weeks, the Impact have steadied in great part through the influence of Drogba himself, as they prepare to host Toronto again in a few days.
It could have been different if Michael Bradley’s second half shot hadn’t crashed off the bar, but it did – and Bradley and the rest of Toronto’s DP’s were left as the supporting cast to Drogba’s star turn. He’s already the most immediately successful DP summer arrival since Robbie Keane and were he to somehow drive the Impact to their first MLS Cup, you’d have to place Drogba above Keane in terms of the transformative significance of his arrival.
Sebastian Giovinco was confirmed as Golden Boot winner after the game by the way. But for once he was outshone by a man who knows how to steal a show at any level. GP
Columbus pile in the goals but it’s their defense that will be key in playoffs
DC United started Sunday in second place and left it hoping that the experience of equaling their worst ever scoreline did not derail their playoff campaign before it started.
Columbus Crew SC may well have come into the game as marginal favorites to edge out United and claim second place and a bye to the conference semi-finals, but in the absence of Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara, they were certainly missing their two biggest attacking threats for this decisive game, while DC looked to have ended their own offensive slump with two straight wins.
In the event Gregg Berhalter sent out an attack led by the cunning Jack McInerney, rather than a single target man like Aaron Schoenfeld, and with Justin Meram staying wide, and Ethan Finlay having another one of his growing list of influential games, it proved more than enough for Columbus to run away with the game in the second half, as the goals flew in.
DC looked demoralized long before the end, though in truth their frustrations were as much to do with how well Steve Clark was playing in the Columbus goal as with their own porous defense. And that fact will be key if Columbus are to make a run. The clean sheets against Toronto last week and again against DC on Sunday night have come at just the right time for a team who’ve scored a lot of goals this year, but have needed every one of them.
Columbus like to play out of the back and have suffered the consequences of that at times against ruthless teams jumping on mistakes. It’s perhaps in recognition of that, and in memory of last year’s first leg home mauling by New England in the Eastern Conference playoffs last year, that has seen Berhalter shift focus a little to make sure his side work on their shape without the ball, as much as their fluidity with it. Get that balance right and this may be a team hitting form at just the right time for a deep Cup run. GP
And elsewhere: New England comfortably beat a lackluster NYCFC team facing a long off-season of introspection about an unconvincing debut season – on the field at least. The Revs have picked up form and will head to DC full of confidence on Wednesday, given their hosts’ struggles. Meanwhile, Philadelphia were beating Orlando 1-0 to end the visitors’ mathematically unlikely playoff hopes for good. Orlando’s late run had meant that New England could technically have still been caught with a massive goal swing on the final day, but there was never much danger of that happening, and in truth an anti-climactic ending to the year was probably about as pertinent a summary of both team’s campaigns as any. The 2015 season is over for them. GP
The Timbers’ play-off surge is about more than just a tactical shift
Not so long ago Caleb Porter was faced with an equation. His Portland Timbers side had drawn a blank in three of their last four outings, handicapping their chances of making the play-offs. Given the philosopher that Porter is, it’s easy to imagine him pondering such a problem in a darkened room somewhere at Providence Park – like Michael Caine scrawling his working for interstellar travel on a blackboard. Now with the Timbers’ post-season place secured however, he has a more satisfying end result to his sums: 135 minutes = nine goals.
Indeed, Portland have found their attacking groove and then some over the course of their final two regular season fixtures – scoring nine goals in wins over the LA Galaxy and the Colorado Rapids. Porter’s side could hardly have sealed their play-off place in more emphatic style, with Sunday’s 4-1 win a rip-roaring way to end the regular season. At one point during the league’s self-styled ‘Decision Day’ the Timbers surged as high as second place in the Western Conference.
In the end Portland had to make do with a third-place finish and a knockout round match against Sporting KC on Thursday. Of all the sides to make the play-offs from the West, the Timbers are arguably in the best form – at least on the basis of their last two results.
The 1-0 road win over Real Salt Lake was something of a turning point for the Timbers, with Porter making the shift to a 4-3-3 formation for the trip to Utah. It worked and so he stuck with the new shape for last week’s match against the LA Galaxy in Carson- although surely not even Porter expected such success the second time around. But faced with Colorado, the Timbers boss shifted back to his default 4-2-3-1 system – not that it had any effect on Portland’s performance, as they bludgeoned the Rapids in an impressive display of form.
Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Rapids showed that their recent upturn is about more than just incremental tactical alterations. With Darlington Nagbe now seemingly scoring and assisting at will, and Diego Chara becoming the box-to-box operator Portland have lacked since Will Johnson’s season ended with a leg injury, the Timbers are an outfit well-equipped for a deep play-off run.
The standard of Portland’s last two outings must have Porter wondering where his team - the one that so comprehensively dismantled the Galaxy and Colorado in back-to-back fixtures - has been for so much of the season, but at least they’re finally here for the play-offs. And with the Timbers showing on Sunday that they can find such form in a 4-2-3-1 shape – just as well as in 4-3-3 – they also have a degree of tactical flexibility that will surely serve them well. GR
Arena must consider dropping Gerrard for LA Galaxy-Seattle Sounders clash
It’s on. The Seattle Sounders against the LA Galaxy, Sigi Schmid versus Bruce Arena – Clint Dempsey and co. will face Robbie Keane and friends in a winner-takes-all Western Conference knockout round match on Wednesday. In terms of box-office value, it’s a fixture which might even better the MLS Cup final and will dominate this week’s opening bracket of play-off games. It’s the match everyone wanted, with the exception of anyone in any way linked to the two clubs of course.
And so the plotting starts now (or more likely, started last night when the final whistle sounded on the regular season). Many had Seattle v LA down as a potential conference final in the West, but now the two heavyweights will square off a long way short of the title fight. With defeat at Sporting Park, the Galaxy dropped from receiving a play-off bye round to facing a knockout round match on the road in just one evening. But LA’s slide was down to more than just an isolated instance of misfortune – instead Arena must be concerned by his side’s more prolonged decline.
The Galaxy will carry just one win from their last seven MLS games into Wednesday’s play-off clash in Seattle, illustrating the true extent of their late season slump. The source of the LA’s issues can be found in midfield, where Arena has yet to find any sense of balance with Steven Gerrard involved. Ever since an admittedly impressive debut three months ago, the former England and Liverpool captain has proved an unsettled presence – warping the once finely poised Galaxy central until out of shape.
But Gerrard’s problem ahead of Wednesday is now more than just a tactical one. Having played 90 minutes in each of his 13 appearances for the Galaxy – in between long-haul flights to London, where he serves as a TV pundit – the 35-year-old looked exhausted against Sporting KC, particularly in the second half when the introduction of Benny Feilhaber brutally exposed his shortcomings. When Dom Dwyer reclaimed Sporting KC’s lead, on the back of a Feilhaber surge through the centre, Gerrard was 30 yards away – further adrift of the action than most spectators in the stands.
While his run from midfield was significant in freeing up space for Dos Santos to drive into, there was something tragic about Gerrard’s role in Robbie Keane’s equaliser at Sporting Park – with the Irishman shrugging off his former Liverpool pool as he turned to celebrate. Even when Gerrard does something right, it’s because he didn’t touch the ball. LA (who have been generally poor on the road this year) can’t afford such a passenger at CenturyLink Field – where the FieldTurf playing surface would give Arena the perfect opportunity to bench Gerrard with ready-made, face-saving rational.
Seattle and LA are rivals of stature rather than geography or history, with both clubs thriving on the big occasion. In a sense, Wednesday’s match will be a blessing for one of the two teams – potentially providing the momentum for a deep play-off run. The thing is though, it will spell the end of the season for the loser - and Arena must take whatever decision necessary to ensure the Galaxy avoid such a fate. GR
And elsewhere: The ticker-tape and fireworks were packed away for another day at Toyota Park, as FC Dallas’ 2-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes proved ultimately futile in their challenge for the Supporters’ Shield. As conference winners, there was a mini-party in Frisco (the kind you have for pay-day, rather than for a birthday) but with the New York Red Bulls’ coasting to victory from early on in their game at Chicago – and San Jose missing out on a play-off place too – this entire affair felt somewhat flat.
In the Pacific Northwest (where seemingly all the goals could be found this weekend) the Vancouver Whitecaps – for so long the frontrunners in the West - turned in probably the most fuss-free performance of ‘Decision Day,’ seeing off the Houston Dynamo 3-0 at BC Place to receive a bye round in the play-offs. For the Texans it was the kind of final day collapse that will only intensify debate over whether Owen Coyle is on the hot seat this off-season.
Seattle were also emphatic in victory over Real Salt Lake (who looked like they could burst out in tears at any point) but the Caps’ game passed with the least ‘Decision Day’ attention, simply because the result was never in any real doubt. Just the way Carl Robinson would have planned it. GR
This article was written by Graham Parker and Graham Ruthven, for theguardian.com on Monday 26th October 2015 14.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010