In Week 19 we saw the Galaxy get back to winning ways though Chicharito continued to struggle, the race for the top seed in the Western Conference could be decided by an unlikely player, and the Dynamo need some players to step up.
Chicharito doesn't start ... and LA win
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez came off the bench against Vancouver | USA Today Sports Images
In the 84th minute, the stage was set for Chicharito to be the hero.
Cristian Pavon dribbled down the right hand side and played a delightful cross right into his path. The Mexican star has made a living finishing the kind of chance he was being presented with, but instead of finding the back of the net, he skied the ball over the bar. It wasn’t just a miss, it was a really bad miss and it may have been a reflection of a player who is now overthinking things that once came naturally to him.
This is the life of a footballer: When it’s all going your way, the ball will inadvertently hit your knee and fly into the net. When it’s not going your way, the goal seems to shrink and no matter what you try, you miss. That’s where Chicharito is right now and it probably explains why he was benched by Guillermo Barros Schelotto in favor of Yony Gonzalez (Chicharito was his 50th minute injury sub).
The simple fact is that the Galaxy are better when he is not playing. Harsh, but statistically true. This isn’t because he’s a bad player. He’s clearly not, but his game simply doesn’t fit that of his teammates. They look freer when he is not on the pitch and both the numbers and the eye test back this up. The Galaxy have not won any game that he has started and against Vancouver, Pavon—even though he tried to do too much at times—once again looked something like his best self with Chicharito out of the picture.
The ball moved quicker, the Galaxy had 18 shots with five on goal and most importantly, they won. Defensively, they were also better, allowing seven shots and keeping their first clean sheet in over a month. It was the type of Galaxy performance we saw when they won four games in a row immediately after the MLS is Back Tournament—four games in which Chicharito didn’t play. Read into that what you will.
Would Chicharito accept being a super sub? Of course not. He’s there to be a starter. But how much longer can the Galaxy sacrifice wins in the name of waiting for Chicharito and Pavon to click in the attack? That’s the dilemma Schelotto has to solve ASAP and if he does, as unbelievable as it might be, the Galaxy will have a chance to go on a run again and actually make the playoffs.
The name that could tip the scales out West
A few weeks ago I had a Twitter exchange with Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson. To be clear, it was a friendly exchange: He responded to my claim that Jordan Morris was the most dangerous player in MLS after Carlos Vela by giving me a list of players who should also be in the conversation. He listed the usual suspects like Diego Rossi and Sebastian Blanco, but to my surprise he also mentioned Jeremy Ebobisse.
At the time I didn’t think he belonged on such a list, but I am here to say that I was wrong. After scoring again against LAFC in Week 19, he’s on his way to his second double-digit scoring season and the impressive thing is he only starts about 70 percent of the Timbers' games.
Sporting Kansas City may yet have a say in who will top the West, but in my view, it’ll be one of the the two Cascadia teams that ends the season on top. The Sounders pretty much know what they will get from key guys like Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz while the Timbers know what the two Diegos — Valeri and Chara — will bring. So it may well come down to the performance of a player like Ebobisse to tip the scales in his team’s favor.
Against LAFC he scored a very good goal, but it was his overall play that was impressive. He was very strong on the ball, combined well with Valeri and looked dangerous all night long. He is far from the finished product and that’s what’s scary. He’s already really good and will only get better. Strong in the air, quick on the ground, a better finisher than you’d expect and he chips in with big goals.
I’ve watched both the Timbers and Sounders a lot this season and there isn’t much to separate them. So that’s why a player like Ebobisse, who isn’t always the first name on the team sheet, but is having another monster season, can be the one to make the difference. To do that, he'll need to be healthy after coming off injured vs. LAFC.
What's happened to Houston?
Niko Hansen (left) needs to try to fill the shoes of Alberth Elis in Houston | USA Today Sports Images
Early in the season, the Dynamo were one of my favorite teams to watch. They attacked at pace, especially on the counter. And when the ball was lost, they pressed like crazy to force turnovers. The attack was so dynamic and the system employed by Tab Ramos really brought the best out of the players. They looked like a lock for the playoffs.
But after Sunday's 2-2 draw against Minnesota United, they now have only one win in their last 10 games — a run of form that currently has them on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason. We must credit the team spirit and togetherness they showed to claw their way back to earning a point after being down 2-0, but there are larger issues to address.
One obvious reason for the downturn is the departure of Alberth Elis. The aforementioned 10-game run started after his last appearance for the club on September 5.
At his best, Elis was in the conversation for most electrifying winger in the league and he gave them a great balance to what Darwin Quintero gave them on the left. They could come at you from both sides in deadly fashion. Without Elis, teams have been able to zero in on Quintero, who still has managed to be effective, but the threat on the right is not the same as it was. Ariel Lassiter and Niko Hansen have seen the most time at right midfield/right wing but they haven’t produced enough. Hansen did score the equalizing goal against the Loons and so maybe that’ll spark a nice little run for him.
The Dynamo also struggled at center forward. Christian Ramirez and Mauro Manotas are both very capable players, but they have only four goals between them. To be a serious playoff contender you simply need more from the No. 9 role. Sometimes the system or tactics are the issue, but in this case it’s on the players. I like the way Tab Ramos sets his team up and so for Houston to get back to winning ways, it’s just going to come down to several attacking players improving their overall performances.
Star power can't save Higuain
I’ve been full of praise for Gonzalo Higuain since his arrival in Miami. He’s played well, he’s improved the game of those around him and he’s genuinely seemed invested in what Inter are trying to build. I also love his passion—he’s not afraid to get involved in little physical battles and arguments with opponents. However, uncontrolled passion can easily lead to overzealousness and that’s what seems to have gotten Higuain in trouble.
For referee Tim Ford to show a red card after the game against Montreal for foul and abusive language, I can only assume he stepped way over the line—a line that is actually more lenient for the superstars to begin with. Big-name players get away with a lot more than your regular players, and so maybe Higuain assumed his name would protect him. Or maybe he was too upset to think anything. In any case, he has let his team down because now they’ll miss him to suspension when they most need him. I love the passion he has, but it must be channeled properly otherwise both he, and the fans, will suffer.
What? Caden Clark didn't score?
Caden Clark (left) was quiet against Nani and Orlando | USA Today Sports Images
Caden Clark played his worst game since making the jump to MLS and that’s OK.
I’d even argue that it’s a good thing because it’s a reminder that he is only a teenager. Special talent yes, but still a teenager who needs to have bad games so he can learn and mature, gain experience and figure out how to find consistency in his game.
There will be more of these games going forward: games in which he struggles to complete his passes, shows a couple of flashes, but is largely anonymous and doesn’t put a screamer in the top corner. We have to understand that it takes time to develop and we have to give him the room to have below-average games while understanding that they are not the true reflection of his talent, but rather a necessary stepping stone to what he will become: a pretty good player with a very bright future.
More evidence of Toronto's class
Pablo Piatti celebrates with his teammates after his late winner | USA Today Sports Images
Simply put, they are the best team in MLS right now.
No one else can absorb the injuries to key players like they can and no one else can win in as many ways as they can. They’ve impressed me when I’ve seen them play brilliantly and blow teams away, but just as impressive are wins like the one against Atlanta where they’re not at their blistering best. Good teams find ways to win even when they are below peak performance and that’s what they are doing so well right now.
Six of their last seven wins have come by a single goal. It's a sign that they know how to do just enough to secure the three points and that’s what they have over every other team. They are able to win regardless of how they play. When other teams seem to drop points, this team digs deep and finds a way to score the extra goal they need.
It's no secret that their key man is Alejandro Pozuelo — he truly is a joy to watch. He makes them tick with his passing and playmaking, set pieces and, of course, his goals and assists. Once they get Jozy Altidore back and Michael Bradley gets match fit, which will only add to their already impressive depth, I can only see them going from strength to strength.
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.