Bradley Wright-Phillips' new record; and Frank Lampard edges into relevance

MLS: New York City FC at Montreal Impact

A record-setting night started in atypical fashion for Bradley Wright-Phillips.

The Red Bulls striker spent most of the match in solitude, unable to get a clear touch in a dangerous position, thanks in part to a choking Chicago Fire defense. But as has been the case since he joined the team in 2013, a bit of space was all he needed to show his form.

And on Sunday, it served to break records.

Wright-Phillips’ extra-time equalizer was his 63rd as a Red Bull player, putting him past Juan Pablo Angel as the all-time franchise goal scoring leader.

“Of course, I won’t lie – I like to break records,” the holder of MLS’s single-season goal scoring record said after the match. “I try not to think about it, but when you say these kind of things, it makes me proud.”

A streaky striker by nature, Wright-Phillips has once again begun to warm up, scoring three goals in his last two matches, breaking the double digit goalscoring threshold for the third season in a row. But regardless of Sunday’s record, it is the nature of his latest goal that has Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch excited.

“I’ve been challenging him to make more plays late in the game. They did a good job of being hard on him. Every team we play knows Bradley is important. They focus in on him and Sacha, and Brad still manages to find ways to get goals,” Marsch said.

“As good as Brad is, we are trying to encourage him to have a cut-throat mentality, that even if he doesn’t have a lot of touches in the game, he just needs one to make a difference.”

On Sunday, that’s all it took for the Red Bulls to salvage a point from near disaster in the unfriendly confines of Toyota Park. “I put a lot of work into what I do,” Wright-Phillips said. “And when you can make an achievement like that, it makes me happy and proud.”

Welcome back to Major League Soccer, Jason Kreis

The two-time MLS Cup winner and former NYC FC boss rejoined the competition after a short spell away from the game. His reward? A 3-1 victory in Orlando against the New England Revolution.

In some ways, Kreis surprised with his approach to the match. In others, he has stayed the same. The hallmark of a Kreis side – the diamond midfield – was eschewed for the conventional 4-2-3-1 that Orlando has employed for most of the season. His decision to start Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco over Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita was surprising, as was his choice to start Brek Shea on the bench. All starting decisions, he said, were based on form in training.

But most of his lineup decisions followed recent precedent. The back four remained intact. Molino, who has lined up across every midfield position during Orlando’s recent gauntlet of fixture congestion, found a home on the left. Kaka returned centrally behind Larin, with Hadji Barry earning his third consecutive start of the year on the right.

New England looked poised to play spoiler, putting in an excellent road effort through the opening 45 minutes. Kei Kamara opened the scoring, waltzing his way past the Orlando defense and finding the net just 18 minutes in.

But Orlando found their form in the second half. It took Larin less than a minute to score, beating Bobby Shuttleworth at the far post with a calm finish. Second half sub Shea sent in a cross in the 63rd, finding Kevin Molino to double the lead. Molino capped off the night with a brace.

But the night belonged to Jason Kreis, who managed to reignite a sleepy Orlando side to their first victory since June 26th.

“Obviously [I’m] very, very happy,” Kreis said after the match. “I think the week of work that the players and staff have put in was excellent. One of the best weeks I’ve ever been involved with. To see that work culminate in a really strong performance makes me extremely happy.”

Frank Lampard edges into relevance for NYC FC

Frank Lampard is the worst Designated Player signing in Major League Soccer history: that was the narrative six short weeks ago. And with good reason. After all, his sketchy stay with New York City FC has been marred by false starts, contractual confusion, fitness issues and questionable injury concerns.

But his performance on Saturday against the Colorado Rapids put an exclamation mark on one of the most remarkable comeback stories of the MLS season.

Since returning from a calf injury, Lampard has been on fire. Donning the captain’s armband in place of the suspended David Villa, the Chelsea great rekindled his past form, scoring the first hat-trick in NYC FC history en route to a 5-1 win over the Colorado Rapids.

This was no small feat for Lampard or NYC FC. The Rapids were undefeated in 15 matches heading into Saturday’s encounter – an enormous achievement within the context of the parity-laden MLS. Their defense allowed a paltry 14 goals through 20 matches heading into the weekend, the best record in the league. Eight of their first 20 matches ended in shutouts. Moreover, no team has been able to score three against the Rapids backline all season long – with or without Tim Howard.

And no single player has scored more than two goals against them, either. Until Lampard ruined the party. The Englishman, who has been the top scorer in MLS since his return as a starter on 18 June, opened the scoring in what was initially a drab affair.

Lightning immediately put a pause to the match, but NYC FC brought plenty of electricity on the restart. A second errant foul from Michael Azira put the Rapids down a man in the 37th minute. With Colorado reeling, Tony Taylor doubled the lead before the half, and Steven Mendoza made it three shortly after the second. But it was Lampard who produced an unforgettable curtain call. First he curled a shot past Howard and then completed his hat-trick with a penalty. He is now among the top-10 goalscorers in the league.

Not bad for a supposed has-been, right?

“He showed true leadership today,” team-mate Jack Harrison said. “He was a true captain at Chelsea and he showed it today. He proved everyone wrong showing that we do need him and he’s a key part of our success.”

An abrupt end to a good thing

The Colorado Rapids lost ugly against NYC FC - and that is putting it mildly.

“We shot ourselves in the foot,” said Howard. “It’s a small pitch, it’s easy to get around, easy to defend properly and we didn’t do that as a group today. Once the red card happened, the game was finished.”

Despite the result, the Rapids should still be proud of what they have accomplished this season. After all, they are still second in the West with one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

Now let’s put their achievements in context. Compare the team’s current success to their woes in 2015. They have already eclipsed their win total last year with 10 victories in 2016 compared to nine in 2015. Their defense is actually comparable this year: in 2015 they allowed just 22 goals through 21 matches as opposed to their current 19 allowed. Their offensive wasn’t all that different either, with the 2016 Rapids scoring 24 goals, compared to the 19 through 21 scored last season.

So what’s the difference? For starters, Colorado are scoring first and holding on to wins – a key factor for any contender. Last season, they managed to score first in eight of their opening 21 matches. That was key to their fleeting success on the year (4-1-3). This year, it has been the bedrock of all the team’s success, with the Rapids going a solid 10-0-3 when finding that first goal. Only NYC FC have opened the scoring more often (14 of 21 matches).

The team have also learned how to use home field to their advantage, going undefeated at DSG Park (8-0-3). That wasn’t the case last season as Colorado went 3-4-4 in the same time frame. 

Jermaine Jones has certainly been a part of their success. The team is undefeated when the midfielder starts (4-0-3). But Pablo Mastroeni has been a key catalyst as well. Continuity and identity were previously foreign words for the Rapids under Mastroeni. Now, key offseason acquisitions have bolstered the club, and Mastroeni has effectively molded his high press system to his players’ strengths, allowing for his young roster to victimize opponents on turnovers in the attacking third. 

The result has been unfettered success – and no single loss can take that away from them. 

Toronto’s best is back to his best

No team in Major League Soccer rides their fortunes on the back of a single player quite like Toronto FC and their golden goose, Sebastian Giovinco.

On Sunday evening, the Italian striker borrowed the maestro tag from countryman Andrea Pirlo, orchestrating and executing on each of Toronto’s goals in a 3-0 shutout of the Columbus Crew. 

It took all of eight minutes for him to show his form. A long-range blast ricocheted off the back of team-mate Tsubasa Endoh, beating Crew keeper Steve Clark for the early lead. Endoh was credited for the goal - but Giovinco made it happen.

Just 16 minutes later, the Toronto offense began weaving their way through the Crew defense, culminating on a give and go between Jay Chapman and Giovinco. The former Juventus star took a curling shot on the outside of his foot to double Toronto’s advantage. 

And he wasn’t done there. Giovinco forced Steve Clark into a diving save in the 55th minute. One minute later, a dangerous attacking sequence saw Giovinco smack the same post not once, but twice, barely missing on his chance for a brace.  Unable to find a second goal, the Italian striker reverted back to the role of distributor, this time connecting with Jozy Altidore for the final goal of the match.

His 12th goal of the season puts him just one behind league leader David Villa. His two assists on the night bring his season total to nine as well, tying him for second league wide. Those stats are all the more impressive when you consider his nine-match scoreless drought. 

We’ve said it before and we will say it again: the success of Toronto follows the success of Giovinco. Toronto are 5-1-2 when Giovinco scores. When he doesn’t? An embarrassing 3-6-4. His most recent, highly publicized nine-match scoring drought resulted in a paltry 2-3-4 record for the supposed playoff contenders. With last week’s hat-trick and this week’s production, the team have now strung together two wins for the first time since April, putting them four points clear of the red line.

The Seattle Sounders can tell you the dangers of relying on a single outstanding figure to move the club’s fortunes. Two thirds of the way into this season, and they are still trying to find a solution for the loss of Obafemi Martins.

Toronto may find themselves in a similar spot. But for now, Giovinco’s brilliance continues to grace the Great White North – and they will follow his lead, for better or for worse.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dave Martinez, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st August 2016 12.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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