Taking stock of the MLSers who starred in the Olympics and a pair of statement victories: That and more from MLS' Week 22:
The Houston Dynamo's prime time clash against the New York Red Bulls Friday was supposed to be an evenly matched prize bout with first place in the Eastern Conference on the line. Instead, it went the way of how pretty much all Dynamo home games at BBVA Compass Stadium have gone -- utter domination and more points for the men in orange.
Houston's comprehensive 2-0 victory made the Dynamo 8-0-3 at their new digs while putting the club in first place tie with Sporting Kansas City after a long climb from the middle of the pack. The Dynamo are now unbeaten at home (both BBVA and Robertson Stadium) in 19 matches spanning the last two seasons. With home-field advantage at stake for the MLS Cup participant with the best regular season record, the Dynamo are dreaming of a return to the final, which will be played in its fortress.
While plenty attribute the Dynamo's home success to intangibles such as weather conditions and humidity, the fact is that Dom Kinnear has his squad playing as well as any in the league right now, and the club's switch to a 4-3-3 -- perhaps the managerial move of the year -- has accentuated the strengths of Houston's personnel. Considering the club's overall form, going undefeated at home in 2012 is a possibility for the Dynamo, considering that five of their remaining six home games are against opponents currently not in playoff position (Columbus, Toronto New England, Montreal, Philadelphia; Real Salt Lake is the exception). The win over New York was as dominant as it gets and sent a message ahead of Friday's rematch at Red Bull Arena, where Houston can put an end to the only other active home unbeaten streak that can challenge theirs.
When the U.S. Under-23 men's national team failed to qualify for the Olympics this spring, the next best thing that could have happened for MLS in the UK was the league's few Olympians going on a deep run and showcasing their abilities on the world stage. Thanks to Honduras' determined performance, that's exactly what happened.
Sporting Kansas City's Roger Espinoza, D.C. United's Andy Najar, New England Revolution's Jerry Bengtson and incoming on-loan Seattle Sounders winger Mario Martinez provided quite an advertisement for MLS during the Olympics, helping Honduras get out of the group stage and even pushing Brazil to the edge even while down a man before succumbing in the quarterfinals. All four players left their marks on the tournament at different junctures, conjuring up smiles in their respective teams' front offices in the process.
No player left a bigger impact than the 25-year-old Espinoza, who is living proof that going through the college system (he was a standout at Ohio State) and MLS can still be a viable option for young players in this country. His omnipresent performance in the midfield against Brazil was eye-opening and a prime example of a player seizing the Olympics moment and using it as a springboard for bigger things.
Najar's speed on the flank was par for the course for him, and his role in setting up the all-MLS goal that knocked off Spain (crossing the field to touch a ball off to Espinoza for a cross to Bengtson) was his most notable contribution, but it was his attention to tracking back and using his pace to defend that caught the eye as well. In his third year as a professional, that has been one of the holes in his game, but with English Premier League teams taking note of his progress, he helped his own cause.
Bengtson's three goals in the group stage spoke for themselves. He has only played two games for the Revolution since signing this summer, but the club has already seen value increase on its investment as Bengtson's name reverberates through the international community. As for Martinez, his integration to Seattle is flying way under the radar considering the club's move to offload Alvaro Fernandez and bring in German playmaker Christian Tiffert, but Martinez -- as he showed against Brazil with his audacious volley for a goal -- offers creativity on the left side and more balance to the Sounders. What fellow Honduran Oscar Boniek Garcia has done to complement Brad Davis in Houston, Martinez can potentially do for Mauro Rosales in Seattle.
Looking forward, Espinoza's case is the most intriguing of the bunch considering he is reportedly out of contract at the end of the season. If genuine, big-money offers come pouring in for Espinoza from Europe ahead of the close of the summer transfer window overseas, then Sporting KC has a decision to make. Considering his importance to the team, is it worth holding onto Espinoza for a possible MLS Cup title run while risking losing him for nothing in the winter? Or does the club make a strict business decision and cash in on the player while it can? It's a fascinating and unexpected development and one that few MLS Cup contenders have had to encounter at such a crucial juncture in the season.
When the Seattle Sounders coasted by the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-0 at CenturyLink Field on May 2, it was a classic "Yeah, but" victory.
Yeah, Seattle won, but the Galaxy were without David Beckham and Robbie Keane and essentially punted the result with the reserve-laden lineup that Bruce Arena selected for the match. There were no excuses this latest time around. Seattle dominated a full-strength Galaxy in their 4-0 rout on Sunday in front of more than 60,000 raucous supporters to deliver a statement as the push for the playoffs heats up.
For those who might offer that L.A. was operating on short rest because of Thursday night's friendly against Real Madrid, consider that Seattle, too, played Thursday, doing so in a meaningful CONCACAF Champions League match that took way more of a toll on its players than the World Football Challenge friendly at the Home Depot Center. Seattle was quicker to 50-50 balls, pressured aggressively and looked every bit like a team that has turned the corner after a brief summer swoon had plenty questioning its title credentials.
When the Sounders fully integrate newcomers Christian Tiffert and Martinez, the club's front six provides a pretty daunting and formidable unit, at least on paper. Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero lining up in front of a Martinez-Tiffert-Rosales trio that is backed by Osvaldo Alonso is about as strong as it gets in MLS. Questions will linger about the club's consistency in defense and its ability to finally reach its potential in the postseason, but the hope, excitement and anticipation have been restored in The Emerald City.
For the second time in less than three weeks, the U.S. Soccer community is mourning the tragic passing of one of its own.
Kirk Urso, the hard-working captain of the University of North Carolina's national championship team last winter and a positive contributor for the Columbus Crew in the opening portion of the season before injuries derailed his rookie year, died early Sunday morning from causes that are still being determined. The U.S. Soccer community is a tight-knit one, and between the number of former North Carolina, U.S. youth national team and club teammates and current Crew teammates and opponents, Urso was a beloved and admired figure who passed way too soon and whose sudden death sent shock waves that reverberated throughout the league.
Rest in peace, Kirk.
Goalkeeper: Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas)
Defenders: Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), Hassoun Camara (Montreal Impact), Austin Berry (Chicago Fire)
Midfielders: Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Felipe (Montreal Impact), Joseph Nane (Colorado Rapids), Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Mauro Rosales (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Omar Cummings (Colorado Rapids), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)