By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 18, 2013) US Soccer Players - It made sense that the first game of the weekend received the bulk of the attention from national MLS types. Friday night’s showdown between Seattle and Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field featured the two best teams, the largest crowd, and the national television platform. It had star power on both sides and presented some intrigue over the status of internationals returning from World Cup Qualifying. A battle for first place is naturally going to grab headlines.
But the real story of this MLS weekend was a handful of crucial games between teams farther down the standings. These games represented the MLS version of “six-pointers”, those games towards the end of the season that could flip the standings significantly. Both teams enter with their playoff fortunes on the line, with a potential win representing a significant step towards meeting that goal.
In Philadelphia, the Union hosted a struggling Houston team. Each side entered with desperate for goals after four game runs without a win. Houston had managed only two tallies in four, while suddenly cold Philadelphia had just one goal to their name over the same stretch. Houston compounded its problems by creating chances only to see those opportunities go begging. The Union’s poor run came just as Conor Casey’s ability to carry the team petered out. Jack McInerney’s long stretch without a goal was, by this point, an accepted state of affairs The Union can’t really count on the youngster at this point in the season.
The game itself wasn’t much to talk about, beyond the missed chances. Houston grabbed the crucial three points thanks to a set piece goal from Ricardo Clark. The win vaulted the Dynamo back into a playoff position - one point ahead of the Union - but hardly guarantees anything moving forward. For now, it’s enough that Dom Kinnear has a win on which to build a platform for a playoff push. The question for the Union is whether the missed opportunity to pick up points at home will come back to haunt them down a stretch run that includes three games of five games (Sporting twice, Montreal once) against the Eastern Conference elite. It doesn’t get any easier from here.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Fire welcomed the New England Revolution to Toyota Park with a chance to potentially jump into a playoff place on the line. Chicago won 3-2, but the game wasn’t without some controversy. Because both teams needed the points, a wide open affair produced chance after chance - including a goal by Saer Sene that was incorrectly ruled offside and an equalizer from Chicago’s Mike Magee that appeared to benefit from an offside Juan Luis Anangano committing a foul on Jose Gonsalves - befitting of a late season playoff six-pointer atmosphere. Instead of the conservative tactics typical when neither team can afford to lose, the Fire and Revolution played like two teams who couldn’t afford not to win.
The Fire’s Alex scored the game-winner in the 86th, a hard low shot off a poorly cleared corner. Yes, the Revolution were punished by some poor officiating, but their mistakes are equally to blame for a loss that could have big ramifications on their playoff chances. New England now sits two points out of a playoff spot with six games remaining.
Two games in the Western Conference met the standard for six-pointers this weekend. Colorado, one of the League’s more underrated teams late in the season, overcame a one-goal deficit to beat FC Dallas at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The game had the feeling of “last stand” for FC Dallas, if only because a win would have launched them back into the playoff spot at the expense of the Rapids. None of Dallas’s remaining games are against clubs currently ahead of them in the Western Conference, meaning they’ll be dependent on other results to climb back into the postseason places.
FC Dallas took a lead in the 51st minute through David Ferreira, only to concede the equalizer eight minutes later. Rapids summer signing Vincente Sanchez led the charge for Colorado, scoring tying goal and then setting up the game-winner by hitting a driven cross that deflected in off of FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges. The win was big for Colorado, pushing them into third place in the West with five games to go; FC Dallas’s loss would be crushing, if not for Portland’s draw with Chivas USA, a result that keeps the final playoff place within reach for Schellas Hyndman’s team.
The only playoff six-pointer that did not produce a winner this weekend was San Jose-Vancouver, a match-up that ended in a goalless draw. That neither team could find the net does well to sum up their respective recent playoff pushes: ineffective, bordering on disastrous. San Jose is a specter of their 2012 selves, their goal-scoring down dramatically over last year’s Supporters Shield-winning campaign. A mid-season coaching switch has done little to improve those problems. Meanwhile, Vancouver has ample talent but is frustratingly inconsistent. A run of five games without a win, all while head coach Martin Rennie tinkers with his lineup in a bid to find just the right combination, has given the backend of the Whitecaps season the sheen of futility.
The good feelings around the return of Jay DeMerit from an ankle injury were muted by Vancouver’s failure to grab three points necessary to keep their playoff hopes alive.
By virtue of their win over RSL, the Sounders established themselves as a Supporters’ Shield favorite, with the requisite playoff expectations a top seed would bring. The national TV stage, the large, boisterous crowd, and the level of star power on the field for Seattle grabbed the most attention this weekend. In the end, both of those top Western Conference teams should find themselves playing for any MLS Cup come November.
The greater intrigue, and the larger impact on the very makeup of the playoff field, came in the form of those for “six-pointers”, games that not only represented a chance to pick up points for several teams, but also brought the opportunity to earn them at the expense of another team vying for a precious playoff spot.
For Houston, Chicago, and Colorado, this round was a success and may very well be the weekend that pushes those teams towards the postseason. For everyone else, the road just got much, much more difficult.
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