Columbus Crew still best in the East? LA Galaxy are in big trouble and who's at fault for DC United's illegal substitution?

Alejandro Pozuelo - Toronto FC - Celebration

We saw the race for top spot in the East heat up, the Galaxy continue to struggle, the substitution that never was in DC and a controversial penalty in the Cascadia derby. Here are the top takeaways from Saturday's action.

Are the Crew still the best in the East?

After conceding only two goals in their first 10 games, the Crew have now conceded eight in their last 5 and although there is no reason to panic or ring the alarm bells, their past two results have given hope to Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union and Orlando City in the fight for the Supporters' Shield and supremacy in the East. I’m on record as saying I think the Crew will win the East and I’m comfortable sticking with that but it is going to be much closer than I could have anticipated. Ultimately it will come down to which team can keep their key players healthy. 

As efficient and tough to beat as the Crew still are, there’s just no replacing Darlington Nagbe and he can’t come back soon enough to add the unique touch he possesses in the attacking half that they sorely miss in his absence. Without him, they lose the penetrating dribbles from deep that force opponents to engage and leave gaps that Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes exploit so well. They don’t look as formidable when he is not in the lineup.

Alejandro Pozuelo is Toronto’s best player and maybe even the best attacking player in the entire league. He has been on fire in the last two weeks as Toronto have beaten the Crew and the Union to stake their claim as the top dogs in the East, but if they are forced to play without Jozy Altidore — even when he’s not scoring he offers things with his link-up play and aerial threat that no one else does — for a number of games, they won’t be as dominant as they can be. He hasn’t scored much this season, but when Altidore is fit and playing well, their attack is more dynamic and dangerous in open play as well as on set pieces. His absence following an injury suffered in a win over the Union on Saturday could be a big hindrance in their quest for the Shield.

The Union have looked good all year but in the big games against the Crew and Toronto FC, they’ve come up short and all three of their losses have been away from home. Can they go to Mapfre or BMO Field in the playoffs and get a win? The evidence so far would suggest not. They played well enough to get something out of the game against Toronto but their defending against crosses was not good enough and that’s what ultimately cost them. I wouldn’t pick them in a one-off game, away from home, against the better teams. 

I can’t say enough good things about the job Oscar Pareja has done — he’s easily my pick for coach of the year —  but I still see Orlando as being one step below Columbus and Toronto because they have dropped points in games they shouldn’t have, such as the defeat to Miami and the draw against Atlanta. They are always as ruthless as they can be against weaker opposition — something that the Crew, and to an extent Toronto definitely are. 

Obviously top spot can go to any of the teams mentioned above, but I am going to stick with the Crew for this reason: they won’t keep conceding at the rate they have in the last five games, they will return to the form that saw them concede just two goals through their first 10 games and that’s what will make all the difference. They’ll squeeze out wins from close games simply because they’ll often only need one, at most two, goals to win a game.

Galaxy are in big trouble

It’s time for Galaxy fans to panic. There’s no point sugarcoating it because when’s it’s as dire as this, it’s best to be blunt. This team has problems at both ends of the pitch. First let’s deal with the obvious: Chicharito needs a goal. Badly. The Galaxy have yet to win when he starts a game and although he isn’t solely responsible, the reason they struggle so much when he’s on the pitch is because their team isn’t designed to play to his strengths.

Cristian Pavon is not a winger that hugs the touchline and whips 10 crosses a half into the box and neither is Sebastian Lletget. Those two, along with Efrain Alvarez like to come inside and combine and play quick give and goes and dribble at the backline. Chicharito can certainly play with players who like to play that way, but he is at his best when he knows crosses will be put into the box and he can use his world-class movement to get separation from the center backs in order to get his shots off.

He is not great at creating his own shot, he needs to be fed and right now the Galaxy are better when Pavon is focused on his own game and having others fit in around him, rather than trying to adjust his game to fit around Chicharito. They have the quality to figure out how to play with each other but time is running out fast. 

Defensively they haven’t been good enough either. They tend to play a high line but it’s confusing to understand how Schelotto decided that this was the best approach to take. They don’t have a lot of pace in the defense and so they’d be better off sitting slightly deeper and forcing teams to break them down rather than encouraging teams to play balls in behind them by keeping a high line.

They also struggled really badly in dealing with crosses against San Jose. On several occasions, the Earthquakes faced little resistance in getting the ball out wide and into the box. There was no pressure on the man crossing the ball, and the targets in the area usually weren’t well marked either. A few weeks ago, when they went on a little win streak, I felt good about this Galaxy team but I now see that they were punching well above their weight and their true level is closer to what we’ve seen recently. Unless Chicharito really gets hot, or they completely revamp how they approach the defensive side of the game, I just can’t see them making the playoffs.

Quick Hits 

Higuain is already showing his class

Make no mistake about it, Gonzalo Higuain was brought in to score goals first and foremost. Given time, I'm confident he'll do just that. I'm also confident that he will add so much more to Miami’s attack because even though two games is not a great sample size, there are already glimpses of the other things he can bring — things you can only pick up by playing at the very highest levels of the game.

For example, take his assist on Lewis Morgan’s second goal where he could have forced the shot but didn’t, and instead was very patient, showed some good touches and played a perfectly weighted pass into his teammate's path. Expect to see him creating as much for his teammates as they do for him because he has a great touch, can hold the ball up, and has the composure inside the 18-yard box to make the right play and not force a shot just because he’s the Designated Player and superstar.

Disaster for DC

Take nothing away from Atlanta United who got a much-needed win that can hopefully kick start their own disappointing season, but Saturday's 4-0 win stood out more for the disastrous night endured by D.C. United. There was plenty that went wrong in terms of tactics and play but the illegal substation fiasco is perhaps the perfect illustration of how dysfunctional D.C. United are right now.

I really have no idea how something like this can happen because game day rosters are selected by the coach on the day before or on the  morning of the game, and then the assumption is that an assistant coach or the team administrator will submit the official roster to the officiating crew before the game. It’s a very simple process that D.C. somehow managed to mess up.

Post-game, Ben Olsen expressed that he had no idea how this happened, something that's hard to fathom. More likely in my mind, is that he knows but wanted to protect the guilty party — either an assistant or administrator — that failed to write “Canouse” on the official roster that gets handed to the officiating crew. The bottom line is that a serious miscommunication occurred somewhere in the chain of command, and given everything else that has been going on at D.C., it is indicative of larger issues at the club — poor roster management, failure to replace key players, and below par on-field performances for much of the last few years that may ultimately lead to the need for a new direction in the offseason. 

Penalty mystery in Seattle

For years, the defense referees could use for bad decisions they made was that they had to make a snap decision while us, the armchair referees, had the luxury of viewing five or six replays. That excuse no longer holds water because thanks to VAR, refs now have access to the same replays that we do which is why, several hours later, I am still in disbelief at the penalty given to the Whitecaps in their Cascadia clash against the Sounders.

This is me being completely objective: not only was it not a penalty, if anything it was a foul by Lucas Cavallini on Yeimar Gomez Andrade. First, the alleged contact looked like it took place outside the box. Second, Cavallini initiated the contact by trying to use his body to unbalance Yeimar. And lastly, Yeimar didn’t even make an attempt at a challenge because all that happened was that Cavallini charged into his back and then lost his balance. After viewing a few angles, I didn’t even see a tangle of feet — there was no contact by Yeimar in Cavallini and I am shocked that the referee could see a few replays and still decide to uphold the call to award a penalty. At least he overturned the red card!

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization