As the Columbus Crew continue to stumble (2-1 loss to Montreal), we saw Toronto FC take full advantage (1-0 win in New England). We also saw the Portland Timbers win big to stay right on the Seattle Sounders' heels, and Gonzalo Higuain opened his MLS account in the most spectacular fashion.
Toronto overtake Crew for No. 1
I did not see this coming just a few weeks ago when the Crew’s march to the Supporters' Shield seemed unstoppable. They were winning every game while keeping clean sheets and it looked like they’d be able to pull away from the chasing pack.
But then came the injury to Darlington Nagbe and the stop-start campaign that Lucas Zelarayan has had due to injuries began to catch up with Columbus. Toronto sensed the opportunity and have now racked up five wins in their last six games. That run has coincided with the Crew's toughest stretch of the season.
The difference between the two right now is the strength in depth. Toronto can absorb the losses of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Auro and others — even for multiple games at a time — and not suffer a drop in their level. Meanwhile, the Crew have four players that they absolutely cannot replace: Nagbe, Zelarayan, center back Jonathan Mensah and forward Gyasi Zardes. They’ve had to endure long spells without both Nagbe and Zelarayan and for a time they were able to have guys step up and plug those holes. But over a series of games, you simply cannot replicate the quality those two possess, especially in the final third.
Toronto on the other hand can afford to lose almost anyone except Alejandro Pozuelo and not see too much of a difference in their performance. I still think the Crew get it done in the end, but since winning silverware often comes down to the little details and there isn’t much between the Crew, Toronto, Philadelphia and Orlando — it may well be Toronto’s ability to seamlessly replace key players that makes the difference in the end.
Rivals in battle for West top seed
Sporting Kansas City, and to a lesser extent Minnesota United, may yet have a say in who wins the Western Conference, but there’s every chance we are headed for a straight shootout between the eternal rivals — the Sounders and the Timbers, who both won on Wednesday, including the 6-3 walloping that Portland handed LA.
There really isn’t much between these two squads. Both have mercurial playmakers who would get into any team in MLS in Diego Valeri and Nico Lodeiro. Both have multiple players who can find the back of the net — Ruidiaz, Morris, Lodeiro and Roldan on one side and Ebobisse, Valeri, Yimmi Chara and Felipe Mora on the other. Both have holding mids who dictate the tempo of the game, break up plays and get everyone else involved in Diego Chara and Joao Paulo.
The only difference I can see between the two right now is the goal difference. The Sounders are +20 and the Timbers are +6 even with their six-goal outburst. This isn’t necessarily the exact thing it’s going to come down to, but it quite easily can. Portland have only scored one fewer goal than Seattle, but they’ve conceded 13 more. The numbers say it all: The Sounders backline — especially when you include the goalkeeper — is the edge they currently have over the Timbers.
In a combined best XI, more Sounders players would be in the back five — goalkeeper and back four — than Timbers. Based on that, if I had to pick one team to win the West, I’d go with the Sounders. They are going to concede less over the remainder of the season and that may translate into three or four extra points in the bag over the Timbers. With that said, considering that the Timbers have won the two most recent head-to-head matchups, if these two meet in a playoff game, there’s no reason to bet against Portland.
The real issue with LA Galaxy
This time no one could pin the loss on Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. When it comes to the LA Galaxy, I’ll just keep repeating the obvious after their 6-3 home loss to the Timbers (highlights above): Unless they make serious changes defensively — either personnel wise, tactically, or both — they will miss the playoffs this season.
First, let’s address the personnel: They need a leader in the back four. They need someone who is not just a good player, but a good organizer. Someone who is vocal, who can adjust on the fly, and can be a lockdown specialist when called upon.
It’s not that the Galaxy's defenders are bad players, it’s that they don’t seem to be able to read when to step as a unit and when to drop off. If one steps, the other three drop. When two drop, the other two step. They never seem to be on the same page. That brings me to the tactics.
The high line the Galaxy sometimes try to play just doesn’t work. There isn’t enough recovery speed in that backline to make up for all the times opponents are allowed to just run through unopposed. It also doesn’t help when attackers are left unmarked almost every time a cross comes in — Portland scored at least three goals from situations in which they had more room than they should have had.
Of course, defense is not just down to the back four. Good teams attack and defend as one. But it’s time for the organization that has consistently signed superstars who can put the ball in the net to reverse course and start building from the back again by investing heavily in guys who can stop balls from going into the net.
Foul or no foul?
Bruce Arena argues the goal (above) that cost the New England Revolution a 1-0 defeat to Toronto FC started with a foul. Not me.
It’s a fine line between shoulder-to-shoulder and shoulder-into-the-back, but I felt that Ayo Akinola just about stayed on the right side of that line and used his body really well to unbalance Andrew Farrell before calmly applying a finish that the likes of Clint Dempsey in his prime would have been proud of.
That’s what’s so good about Akinola: The raw pace and physical presence grab your attention first, but once you watch closely you realize that he has an unexpected touch and finesse to his game that allows him to produce delicate finishes like the one he did against New England to earn his team all three points.
Most impressive win
Sorry NYCFC fans, your team was exceptional tonight, but the most impressive win belongs to the Portland Timbers.
Yes, the Galaxy are in free fall and didn’t necessarily put up a good defensive effort, but you still have to be able to exploit their weaknesses and that’s what Portland did. They’ll be disappointed to have conceded three goals themselves, but if you can score six away from home for the second time this season, you can’t have too many complaints.
Jeremy Ebobisse put in another good shift and Yimmi Chara seems to be getting more dangerous by the week, but as is often the case with the Timbers, the highlight of the night was an exquisite finish by Diego Valeri. There have been few finer playmakers in league history and he continues to produce golazos that very few players could pull off even in training.
Goal of the night
The game-winning free kick at Red Bull Arena (above) is what Inter Miami were probably dreaming of when Gonzalo Higuain put pen to paper — goals that make you say wow. It was a goal worthy of winning any game, but for a team desperately in need of points, it was that much sweeter.
He has been good so far in the early days of his MLS career, but ultimately he will be judged by how many times he puts the ball in the back of the net and there really wasn’t a better way for him to open his account. Power, precision and a decisive impact: His free kick had it all.
Answering the call
Due to international call-ups, injuries, and squad rotation forced by the hectic schedule, we saw many players in action who aren’t necessarily starters week in and week out. Squad depth is important in any league, but in MLS, where there is usually so much parity, it takes on even greater significance. Teams that are able to avoid missing a beat when they make changes are the teams that will come out on top in the long run.
Here a few players who stepped up when their number was called on Wednesday:
Anthony Fontana (Philadelphia Union): The Union gave a second start of the season to Anthony Fontana and he responded with a solid outing in which he record three shots. He only played 53 minutes but at times, he was the most dangerous player on the pitch. On most other teams he probably would be getting way more minutes, but this Union team is loaded in midfield and he’s had to be patient for most the season. In particular, it was his control in tight spaces and ability to turn out of pressure that has caught the eye so far.
Shane O’Neill (Seattle Sounders): He has looked solid every time he has played this season. He probably feels a little hard done by to have lost his place to Xavier Arreaga in recent weeks considering he hasn’t put a foot wrong all season. But he responded in the best way possible — with a flawless performance. He has surpassed the expectations most Sounders fans would have had for him. Strong in the air and in the tackle, good on set pieces in both penalty areas, and very comfortable even when he is dragged out to wide areas by forwards making inside-out runs.
Amar Sejdic (Montreal Impact): Slotting into the role usually reserved for Emanuel Maciel, Sejdic stepped up and gave what were perhaps his best minutes this season. He was extremely comfortable in possession, and what he lacks in natural speed, he made up for with his positioning and reading of the game especially as the Crew sought the equalizer late on. He was also very good at linking the defense and attack by helping Montreal move the ball from one end of the pitch to the other. It was an all around strong performance from a player who’s had to make do with a mostly reserve role so far this season.
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.