Crew quietly grinding while Red Bulls, Earthquakes are struggling
Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 19:
The least likely hat trick came from Sanna Nyassi, who had previously amassed a grand sum of two goals during time with Seattle and Colorado. He's mostly been used as a winger, just like his brother Sainey Nyassi at New England. And since has he doesn't even start regularly for the Rapids, hitting for three while his team destroyed the Red Bulls back line in a 4-1 romp-and-stomp probably registers as the most surprising hat trick among five in the league this year.
Speedy Colorado forward Omar Cummings helped with three assists, but also credit Rapids coach Gary Smith with his tactics on this one. Recognizing that Red Bulls center backs Tim Ream and Carlos Mendes are capable defenders but probably incapable of claiming many footraces, he paired Cummings and Nyassi up top for Wednesday's match at DSG Park. Sure enough, Nyassi absolutely shredded the Red Bulls back line when given room to turn and run -- which happened way too often.
Justin Braun's hat trick for Chivas USA against Houston is or isn't surprising depending on your point of view. He hit for three once before, back in May as Robin Fraser's team stunned New York. That was the franchise's first hat trick, so it registered as big news for the Rojiblancos, especially since the result rang the upset bell. But Braun has been stubbornly quiet since.
Braun, 24, is sometimes seen as a faster, more athletic Brian Ching. And clearly any striker capable of concocting two hat tricks in one season is carrying lots of ability. But his consistency, his choices near goal and his ability to be more clinical inside the opposition penalty area still need polish -- hence the long cold spells.
Elsewhere, Sporting Kansas City's Kai Kamara was an ounlikely two-goal scorer. Not only has he been out of the scoring column for a while, he woke up with a gimpy ankle, prompting team docs to advise rest. But Kamara said he "had a feeling," and that gut instinct paid off with a Livestrong Sporting Park twofer in a 4-2 blast past helpless Toronto. (Seriously, who wouldn't have a "feeling" against Toronto?)
Teammate Omar Bravo also scored two. But that's not so surprising considering how pitifully inept TFC's defense remains despite recent reinforcement.
Finally, Vancouver's Eric Hassli struck twice in a 2-2 draw at San Jose. In his case, the goals don't register much shock. With eight this year the Frenchman stands among league leaders. But his achievement is noteworthy because nothing else noteworthy came attached; strange or wondrous things, as you may know, tend to occur when Hassli finds goal.
Backe won no friends among Red Bulls supporters with his choice to rest all starters two weeks ago in a U.S. Open Cup match at Chicago. A side wrought with reserves never had a chance in a 4-0 loss to a full-fledged Fire side -- a stunt that drew official censure from Red Bulls supporters clubs. Clearly, Backe was hedging his bets that leaving Thierry Henry, Tim Ream, Joel Lindpere and others to put their feet up and take it easy would pay off on the back end.
Well, it hasn't. Safe to say that Backe's starters couldn't have done much worse in subsequent matches if they had played twice on that night two weeks ago in Chicago.
It actually started out OK, with an uninspiring but suitable 0-0 draw at Chivas USA. But four nights later, as Round 19 got under way, the team suffered one of its worst losses yet under Backe. They were down a goal inside of two minutes and then proceeded to flub and flounder their way to a 4-1 clocking at Colorado.
Three nights after that they were back at home against FC Dallas. (A team also coming off a midweek road contest.) Schoolboy marking mistakes in the back facilitated two goals for the visitors in a 2-2 draw. So, summing up, the Red Bulls took two of a possible nine points in the matches since more or less running up the white flag against in Open Cup competition.
First, the week's bad news. It started by drawing at home to Vancouver, 2-2. Any team with playoff aspirations simply must win at home against expansion sides. Period.
Things went from grim to downright ugly in Saturday's 4-0 loss at Real Salt Lake. Yes, the penalty kick awarded to RSL and the subsequent ejection for San Jose's Bobby Burling are highly dubious, and the league certainly needs to take a look at Alvaro Saborio's stumble into the penalty area, where the contact fell squarely into the combustible zone of "very little, if any." Still, RSL had been in charge of the night in every way, and the result always seemed to be heading one way.
As a result, the Earthquakes are looking all the way back to June 11 for their last league win. And it's hard to say things are moving in a good direction when the personnel door just keeps revolving; another newcomer debuted Saturday. That fruitless roster churn may be the sorer point here.
The Earthquakes have used 27 players in MLS matches this year. Go back to last year and 35 players have earned MLS minutes in Earthquakes colors over one and a half seasons. Those aren't exactly Toronto numbers (the rebuilding club is up to 35 this year already ... and counting) but it hardly says "roster stability." In fact, it begs the question: is there a personnel plan in place, or are they making it up as they go along? Remember this is for a club that hasn't had CONCACAF Champions League adding roster stress, like some others. They also went out of the U.S. Open Cup in May, and even earlier a year back.
More stable teams are usually in the low 20s at this point in terms of player usage. Real Salt Lake (23) and Los Angeles (23) are good examples. A top table side (Philadelphia is up to 19) or a championship side (Colorado is at 21) is even lower. Even rebuilding Chivas USA has used just 24 players this year.
But the Crew does all the little things on defense that make it such a difficult team to face. Saturday's 1-0 win at home over expansion Portland (on an own goal, no less) is the latest bit of effectiveness in a season of grit and grind, where they just strangle the life out of games and somehow come away with some or all of the points. Plus, it says something about the strength of the East that Columbus can share the conference lead with a humble plus-two goal difference.
But this really needs to be said about coach Robert Warzycha, who doesn't seem to inspire a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings among supporters in Ohio, probably for a lot of the above-mentioned reasons: when it comes to flat out gathering up the results, the guy is a Pied Piper.
Warzycha is 35-21-24 over two years and change at Crew Stadium. His regular season winning percentage (.587) is tops among all Eastern Conference coaches' marks at their current clubs. Yes, better than Hans Backe, who was getting praise aplenty before his defense went south, players went missing and his team hit the skids. Yes, better than Steve Nicol's, a man who has won enough to get his Revs into four MLS Cup finals. Yes, better than Dominic Kinnear's, and he has won two titles in Houston.
Considering that 2011 was ostensibly a season of roster reconstruction at Crew Stadium, maybe those gritty-but-not-pretty wins and ties don't look so bad.
Goalkeeper: Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas)
Defenders: Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Julius James (Columbus), Ante Jazic (Chivas USA).
Midfielders: Sanna Nyassi (Colorado), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Blair Gavin (Chivas USA), Kei Kamara (Kansas City).
Forward: Omar Cummings (Colorado), Justin Braun (Chivas USA), Marvin Chavez (Dallas).