MLS Week 19: San Jose sweeps RSL; Sporting KC's deep bench
From San Jose's emphatic season sweep of RSL to another big moment for an unheralded rookie, here are five thoughts from Saturday night's MLS action:
After a one-sided drubbing at Buck Shaw Stadium, there can be no doubt as to which team in MLS is the one to beat.
The San Jose Earthquakes' 5-0 thrashing of Real Salt Lake was a statement on a number of levels. It was an overall emphatic statement for the Earthquakes, who swept the three-game season series from RSL and now hold a four-point lead atop the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings over Salt Lake with a game in hand. It was a statement for Chris Wondolowski, whose hat trick gives him a league-best 17 goals in 18 games this season, including goals in all three matches against RSL. It was a statement for the lesser-heralded players on San Jose, like the under-appreciated central midfield tandem of Sam Cronin and Rafael Baca, who bossed the match; and the center back tandem of Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez, who yielded next to nothing in the way of quality chances that tested goalkeeper Jon Busch.
It's hard enough to defeat San Jose at even strength, but going down a man is a recipe for disaster, and RSL allowed that to happen in two of their three meetings this season, with captain Kyle Beckerman being the guilty party Saturday while trying to come to the defense of often-tackled teammate Javier Morales. RSL can try to take solace in a few things, though. The fact that starters Nat Borchers, Ned Grabavoy and Tony Beltran missed the match because of injury and would ideally be available in a potential postseason rematch is something to keep in consideration. Four of San Jose's goals Saturday were scored after RSL went down to 10 men, and six of the 10 goals RSL conceded to San Jose this season came with the club undermanned. At 11-on-11, things aren't nearly as lopsided.
Against non-San Jose competition, RSL has given up just 16 goals in 18 games, so the sky isn't falling for RSL, but many teams have gone down a man and not cowered like RSL did Saturday, which is pretty shocking for as proud a team as Jason Kreis' squad typically is. What that shows is that San Jose's psychological and tangible edge over Salt Lake is quite real, which is even more valuable than the point lead in the table. Plenty can and will happen between now and when the playoffs start in November, and there's no guarantee that the two clubs will meet again, but as of now all signs point toward "Advantage: San Jose."
One of the questions facing Sporting Kansas City during its record 7-0-0 start was whether it could keep up that pace considering that Peter Vermes rarely strayed from his first-choice XI. Up until the last stretch of matches, the answer to that question did not appear to be in the affirmative, but now that Vermes has a bevy of other players he can count on, the club has gotten back to doing what it does best.
The club's U.S. Open Cup run and overall more congested schedule has forced Vermes' hand, but his growing trust in his reserves has made all the difference in keeping star players fresh while developing quite the second unit. Take stock of who started Saturday night's game on the bench: Graham Zusi, C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury, Julio Cesar. Few teams in the league could keep four starting-quality players on the bench by choice and not skip a beat, but that's exactly what Sporting KC was able to do. The visitors always appeared to be in control in Columbus, even with them nursing a one-goal edge for the majority of the match before Bunbury came off the bench and put away the Crew on a textbook counterattack.
Peterson Joseph, whose "Haitian Xavi" nickname was verified with a deft pass off the outside of his foot to play Jacob Peterson in for the opening and eventual game-winning goal, is just one of the unsung players to step up for Vermes, and with MLS veterans like Peterson and Paulo Nagamura to turn to, the club's depth is becoming a true asset. Sporting KC will need to find a way to replace industrious central midfielder Roger Espinoza, who is off to Olympic duty to represent Honduras, but if the last few games have shown anything, it's that a winning combination is available for Vermes by looking down the bench.
Just when things were turning around for Toronto FC, another major setback presents itself to the much-maligned Canadian side.
Sure, the club capped a six-point week by snapping the New England Revolution's five-game unbeaten run and giving coach Paul Mariner a victory in his return to Gillette Stadium, but the club suffered yet another set blow in a season full of them with what appeared to be a knee injury that crippled in-form striker Danny Koevermans. The Designated Player's left knee buckled when trying to cut in the area by a back-tracking A.J. Soares, and he immediately fell to the turf -- key word being "turf," not "grass" -- before being stretchered off and subbed out.
After a putrid start to the season, Koevermans had come on strong, scoring nine goals (eight in his last 11 games) and 17 in 25 matches in his MLS career. He has been about more than just the goal-scoring, too. His runs always attract the attention of defenders, he is an underrated passer (see his role in Toronto's build-up for Luis Silva's goal) and his physical nature takes its toll on opposing center backs as well. There has been no official diagnosis of Koevermans' knee, so all is premature speculation as of now, but it would appear that TFC will have to find a way to replace all of that for the foreseeable future.
Koevermans' injury is the latest example of how detrimental turf fields can be and provided all the evidence necessary for why the older European stars that come to MLS (i.e. Thierry Henry and David Beckham) are so hesitant to play on such surfaces and why European teams that come over for summer friendlies insist on temporary grass surfaces being installed. Turf claimed the Achilles of Colorado forward Conor Casey in Seattle last year and it appears to have done a number on Toronto's lumbering striker in New England Saturday night.
Has any player in MLS had a more disappointing season than Brek Shea? Coming off what was widely believed to be a turning-point season filled with U.S. national team appearances and a winter full of transfer links and rumors of a move to Europe, Shea has taken some massive steps back in his progression as a professional.
The latest instance of Shea's ineffectiveness was his point-blank miss off a cross from Fabian Castillo against Colorado Saturday night, one that he launched over the bar when the slightest of touches from six-yards out would have down the trick. His frustrations appear to be impacting his emotions on the field as well. He already served a three-game ban for kicking a ball at an assistant referee earlier this season, and his mannerisms are not those of a player taking to the field with supreme confidence.
It has not been all catastrophic for Shea, who has had moments where his talent shines through (for example, his control at the top of the box and slip pass followed up by a nifty spin move in the box on two plays at the end of the first half against the Rapids provided a glimpse into his skill), but the finishing product just has not been there for someone was has been an MVP candidate in this league. With three goals (none since April 28) and no assists, Shea's dismal campaign is one of the major contributing factors to FC Dallas' last-place showing and perhaps all of the expectations thrown upon the shoulders of the 22-year-old winger were a bit too unrealistic for him to fulfill this soon.
Antoine Hoppenot is quickly evolving into the Alan Gordon of the Eastern Conference. That is, when the Philadelphia Union rookie forward enters a game, things start to happen for the his team's attack.
The unlikely late-match catalyst for a team that has found its form under interim coach John Hackworth (who is certainly earning the right to wipe that interim tag from before his name), Hoppenot was at it again Saturday night, with his perseverance, guile and skill on the ball allowing him to weave through the Montreal Impact defense and set up another late goal for Philadelphia. It's not just the play that led to the goal that was so impressive, though. His presence of mind to try and kill off the clock instead of going at goal late in the match with Philadelphia holding onto a lead was a play that most wide-eyed rookies would not have the smarts or self-discipline to make.
Ever since his game-winning goal against D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup, Hoppenot has been a vital piece of the Philadelphia resurgence. The 5-foot-8 sparkplug has two goals off the bench and has been a surprising handful for opposing defenders. Other rookies such as Ryan Meara, Nick DeLeon, Darren Mattocks and Austin Berry have made more grand contributions so far this season, but Hoppenot is working his way into the top rookie discussion with his recent showings. Not bad for a third-round supplemental draft pick.