Seattle turn Western Conference play-off race into a fight to the death

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union

They wasted a lot of time this season, but boy, the Seattle Sounders are making up for it. Sunday’s Cascadia Cup win over the Portland Timbers means that since firing Sigi Schmid the CenturyLink Field side have drawn one and won three of their four league matches, lifting them into play-off contention in the West. A race that looked to have settled into a rhythm just a few weeks back is now a chaotic hot-mess. Seattle haven’t just lit the fuse, they’ve sparked a raging furnace.

The 3-1 win over Portland was probably their most satisfying under Brian Schmetzer yet, with the Sounders at their attacking best against their closest rivals. Clint Dempsey has finally found the groove that makes him one of the most potent attackers in the league, but it is the improvement of his supporting cast - and the introduction of Nicolas Lodeiro - that has been most stark.

Cristian Roldan, for instance, was outstanding throughout. The 21-year-old looks more suited to the deeper role given to his by Schmertzer in recent weeks, scoring twice, assisting twice and drawing two penalties in the four games he’s played under the interim head coach. Roldan has finally found his identity as a soccer player. It’s not as a playmaker or as a box-to-box operator, but as a space occupier. He fills the areas left by others, and he is just another talent that Schmertzer is now making the most of.

So just how far can the Sounders go and how hard can they press for a play-off place, given how late they have left it to make a charge? Their chances could rely on the consistency of their starting lineup. Against Portland, Schmertzer picked the same team for the fourth straight game (the first time since 2010 that Seattle have done that). With the Sounders currently a well-balanced, cohesive, winning side that was to be expected, but what happens when changes have to be made? Will Seattle retain that balance and cohesion? The true depth of their challenge is not yet known.

Nonetheless, with the form of the San Jose Earthquakes and the Timbers patchy at present, Seattle’s upward arc could take them all the way into the top six and the play-offs. The Cascadia Cup win over Portland on Sunday proved that their resurgence is for real and not just a fleeting flash of green. GR

Jesse Marsch needs a plan for when things collapse on the road

The New York Red Bulls should have known what to do this time. They’d been there before, after all. Holding a 2-0 lead on the road, on this occasion at East coast rivals DC United, Jesse Marsch’s side looked on course for a statement win. But the Red Bulls know by now not to count their away points until they are on the board. In the end, only one was tallied up after they once again conceded a two-goal lead away from home.

It was the same against the Philadelphia Union last month, when a Sacha Kljestan double gave the Red Bulls a 2-0 lead, only for the visitors to PPL Park to capitulate and eventually settle for a 2-2 draw. It happened at StubHub Center too, with the LA Galaxy fighting back from a two-goal deficit to claim a point against an away team all too vulnerable from a winning position. The Chicago Fire also claimed a 2-2 draw against the Harrison side, although they only ever trailed by a single goal.

Surely by now Marsch should have a plan to address this critical shortcoming? With Marcelo Sarvas’ penalty kick on Sunday evening, dragging DC United back into the contest at 2-1, the Red Bulls should have resorted to a tactical blueprint designed to limit the damage. Instead they made the same mistakes they have made so many times before. This is more than just misfortune. This is now careless management.

Just as in Carson and Chester before that, the Red Bulls were found out at full-back. DC United exploited the space left in behind Kemar Lawrence on the left and Chris Duvall on the right, as Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko and Patrick Mullins exposed the visitors to the Capitol. It’s somewhat astonishing that lessons hadn’t been learned already, but Marsch, as a priority, must ensure his players know how to deal with such a situation when it arises again.

Ordinarily, Marsch could put Sunday’s result and the manner of their surrender down to the unpredictability of local rivalries, but this has become a glaring weakness of his team over the past month or two. This deficiency could undermine the Red Bulls’ challenge in the East, certainly hindering their chances of catching New York City FC. Marsch must address it. GR

New York City FC find home comforts

Sometimes, it takes a little while for people to adjust to their new home.

New York City FC have dealt with that reality for their entire existence – and opposing fans have relished that fact. From inception, NYC FC have had a tough time traversing the laid-in sod of the Yankee Stadium diamond, the narrow confines of their makeshift home and the depth perception issues common with the sprawling baseball stadium. Last year, those struggles led to an unsightly 6-7-4 record at home.

This year, however, Patrick Vieira and his staff have begun to use the baseball ground to their favor. The latest example of this came Saturday evening as NYC FC rode a sixth minute David Villa goal towards an impressive 1-0 win over the LA Galaxy.

This match was supposed to be about Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard rekindling their vaunted rivalry on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, it was NYC FC’s stout defensive effort that took center stage, neutralizing the midfield and making two of England’s greatest ever players an afterthought.

Forget about the fact that Villa’s winner came while he was offside. Instead, focus on the NYC FC defense that, without Maxime Chanot, managed to hold the big-name Galaxy roster to a single shot on goal. Their ability to confound Bruce Arena’s troops resulted in a club record fourth straight victory at home. With that win, NYC FC are just one victory away from tying their 2015 home mark – with four games yet to be played in the Bronx.

Beating the Galaxy and shoring their home form also raises important question: are NYCFC for real? Their current home winning run seems to suggest so, with impressive victories over MLS powers like LA, the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and the Colorado Rapids.

But that streak is only part of the NYC FC revival. Their stellar away form (6-4-3), the leadership of MLS goal scoring leader Villa, their dynamic wing options in Jack Harrison and Tommy McNamara and their reinforced defense also speaks to a larger narrative.

In short: NYC FC have proven their place amongst the upper echelon of MLS teams. And despite all the setbacks they endured in the nascent days of this franchise, it is now impossible to deny: NYC FC are an MLS Cup contender. And they have earned that distinction. DM

FC Dallas are paying the price for not signing a top-class striker

Sitting atop the Western Conference, leading the race for the Supporters’ Shield, FC Dallas’ away loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday was hardly the manifestation of a side on the slide. Yet there were hints at how the Texans’ downfall could happen. Oscar Pareja has forged an astute outfit that could go the distance this season, but he could yet count the cost of his team’s attacking deficiencies.

Against RSL, their shortcomings were exposed, succumbing to a goal on the counter-attack having passed several chances of their own. A top-class No9 would surely have taken one of those chances, but FC Dallas don’t have a top-class No9. They have Max Urruti - one of MLS’s most infuriatingly inconsistent forwards - and Getterson - a journeyman on loan from the Brazilian fourth tier. In that respect, they are grossly under-equipped for a tilt at North American soccer’s top prizes.

It was a similar story against the Vancouver Whitecaps a week previously, with Urruti spurning a number of chances to secure three points for FC Dallas. The Texans could have been out of sight - or certainly further ahead - at the top of the Western standings were it not for their lack of killer instinct in the final third. Subsequently, Pareja must surely rue not making a move for a dependable striker when the window was open, especially with Fabian Castillo now in Turkey.

Of course, FC Dallas could still sign an out-of-contract player, with murmurings that they might have freed up an international spot this week in preparation for a new arrival, but it seems unlikely that Pareja will find the number nine he needs in the free agent market. Truly top-class strikers tend not to be free agents for long, particularly at this time of year.

Up until now, FC Dallas have managed to spread the goals across their team. They average 13.1 shots per game, making them MLS’s fourth-most prolific shooters, with their tally of 39 goals for the season so far making them the West’s top scorers. But what happens when goals from midfield and elsewhere dry up, like they did against Real Salt Lake? FC Dallas are hardly renowned as big-spenders, but they might regret not stumping up for a striker good enough to carry them when others can’t. GR

An unenviable streak comes to an end

Two years? 110 weeks? 770 days? No matter which unit of time you use, we can all agree that the Chicago Fire waited a long time to break their winless road streak.

Goals from Luis Solignac, David Accam and Matt Polster propelled the visiting Fire past Didier Drogba’s Montreal Impact 3-0 at Stade Saputo on Saturday evening. It is Chicago’s first road win since 12 July 2014 when they beat the New England Revolution 1-0 at Gilette Stadium.

Let’s put that stretch into perspective. In the time since Chicago’s last road victory, New York City FC and Orlando City SC entered MLS, and Minnesota United and Los Angeles FC announced their intent to join the league.

And who remains on the roster from the 2014 Fire? Only Sean Johnson and Răzvan Cocis – and Cocis wasn’t even there for the last road win. He joined the club two days after that victory, leaving Johnson the lone witness to Chicago “history”.

Chicago didn’t just end that drab road form with Saturday’s win. They also snapped a nine-match road losing streak that dates back to 11 May. Their last away point came against New York City FC on April 10th. Since then, they have been outscored 19-7 in their away fixtures, averaging less than a goal per game while being shut out in four of those nine encounters.

But how MLS is this? The Chicago Fire are still in the playoff hunt. That comes courtesy of the cannibalization of the Eastern Conference. As of Saturday night, the bottom feeding Chicago Fire sit six points away from sixth place Orlando City for the final postseason berth with 11 games to play. Five of their final 11 matches will come on the road against playoff bound NYC FC, DC United and Toronto FC. Cellar dwellers Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew will also host Chicago. Their remaining home matches are no picnic either, with encounters against the LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union in the cards.

Nevertheless, the Fire fans finally have reason to celebrate. Not only did the team win on the road, but they also gifted their followers something they have not enjoyed in a long time: hope.

Now let’s see how long that lasts. DM

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Graham Ruthven and Dave Martinez, for theguardian.com on Monday 22nd August 2016 12.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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