Sunday July 31st, 2011

From Landon Donovan's standout performance to Teal Bunbury's slump-busting goal, here are five thoughts from Saturday's early MLS games:

1. Landon Donovan answers his critics. Donovan has come under immense criticism over the last couple of months, mostly for a lackluster CONCACAF Gold Cup in which he was reduced to a reserve role, at least temporarily.

His ensuing play in MLS games left a bit to be desired, and the calf injury that kept him out of Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game made him a bit of an afterthought during the league's mid-summer showcase.

After his return to action Saturday night, one thing is certain -- Donovan is just fine.

The Los Angeles Galaxy captain scored twice and set up a third goal in the second half of a 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps. He's now tied with Thierry Henry for the league's Golden Boot, having scored 11 times on the season.

His opening goal was classic Donovan. He took advantage of rookie center back Michael Boxall slipping on the turf and ran onto a lofted ball by Sean Franklin. Donovan played the pass off his chest into space and hit a first-time, left-footed shot past former teammate Joe Cannon to break what was a tenuous deadlock just past the hour mark.

Donovan coolly finished from the penalty spot 14 minutes later after a Jordan Harvey handball. Just five minutes later, he iced the match with a perfectly placed cross from the left, one that he hit with the outside of his right foot to return the favor to Franklin by the far post. The win, which took place without the suspended David Beckham, extended the Galaxy's unbeaten run to 14 matches.

Donovan's recent dry spell is a reminder that slumps can happen to any player. His latest performance is a reminder that he's still in exclusive company among the upper echelon of MLS talent.

2. Jamison Olave was sorely missed in RSL loss. It didn't take very long for Olave's All-Star Game injury to affect Real Salt Lake.

Without the reigning MLS Defender of the Year on the field, the Columbus Crew -- yes, the first-place-in-the-Eastern-Conference Columbus Crew -- pounced on RSL's normally stingy back line to the tune of two goals in the first 10 minutes of a shock 2-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The fact that it happened with Olave out injured is no coincidence. Olave's replacement, Chris Schuler, was beaten off the dribble by Robbie Rogers, who squared to a wide-open Eddie Gaven for Columbus' opening goal in the fifth minute.

Five minutes later, another folly in central defense allowed Tommy Heinemann to head home another Rogers cross with relative ease.

Olave was a bright spot for MLS in the All-Star Game, bodying up and chasing down Wayne Rooney on several occasions before injuring his knee on a tackle that halted a Manchester United counterattack. His teammates have made up for his absence before, and in past games, Schuler, a second-year player, has shown well when called upon; however, if Olave is to miss a lengthy period of time with what was deemed originally to be an MCL strain, RSL is going to need better from Schuler in order to reassert its dominance in the back.

3. Home Houston continues to shine. If only the Houston Dynamo could play all of their games at Robertson Field.

The Dynamo bounced back from a road drubbing at Chivas USA with a comprehensive 3-1 home win over the red-hot Seattle Sounders, who had been unbeaten in their last nine league games.

Houston's inconsistency has been a trademark this season. Entering the night, Houston was the only non-Canadian team in the league yet to win on the road, which is a far cry from what the Dynamo championship teams of years past were able to accomplish.

Against Seattle, the Dynamo defense silenced one of the league's more prolific attacks, MLS All-Stars Brad Davis and Geoff Cameron were dangerous and active going forward and Brian Ching looked like the All-Star of old with his two-goal output. Houston has been the league's biggest enigma this season. It's a team that's capable of playing with anyone while also being capable of a horrendous showing. When the good Houston appears, it's one of the better units in all of MLS.

Given the team's track record this season, though, there's little guarantee that Saturday's success will carry over into next weekend's game at Philadelphia, when the Dynamo has a chance to snap its road woes and make more headway in the conference standings.

4. Friendly season is coming to a close. Thankfully. While the World Football Challenge still has another week remaining, no more MLS teams are involved. MLS didn't exactly emerge with much to brag about after this summer's batch of international club friendlies, aside from high attendance numbers and a heftier bank account. Aside from the Philadelphia Union's moral victory against Real Madrid and actual victory over Everton, the on-field results left plenty to be desired.

Manchester United was a one-league wrecking crew, torching New England, Chicago, Seattle and the MLS All-Stars by a combined 18-2 score in four victories. Madrid took apart the league's current leader, Los Angeles, and lesser-heralded teams like West Brom, Newcastle and Bolton also found success on their respective American tours.

The last of the high-profile exhibitions takes place on Sunday, when the New York Red Bulls face Arsenal at the Emirates Cup in London in an intriguing battle that gives Henry a chance to face his former team.

The friendlies have served their purpose -- garnering television and international exposure, getting younger players experience against major clubs, giving fans a chance to check out European teams, etc. -- but it's time for the exhibitions to be set aside and for teams to be able to focus on the task at hand: finding form for the stretch run of the league calendar.

5. Teal Bunbury to the rescue for Sporting Kansas City. Teal Bunbury had to deliver on his own bobblehead night.

The touted striker has been mired in a sophomore slump after a decent start to his second year in MLS, but he broke through when his team needed him late in a 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution on his own promotional night to help extend Sporting Kansas City's unbeaten streak to 13 games.

With Juergen Klinsmann taking the reins of the U.S. national team, Bunbury couldn't have snapped out of his lull at a better time, as he scored for the first time since his landmark performance in the third game of the season -- a span 18 matches -- to get back on the radar ahead of the United States' upcoming slate of friendlies. His timing also helped Kansas City to another late equalizer and its fourth 1-1 draw in July.

With Philadelphia falling at PPL Park on Friday night, just Sporting K.C. and Los Angeles remain as the only teams to maintain an unbeaten home record this season.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.