Monday April 1st, 2013

Landon Donovan is hoping to work his way back into form and the national-team picture.
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

MLS Week 5 featured the return of a league icon, some tremendous performances off the bench and a record that certainly looks meant to be broken:

1. Week of the SuperSub. The combination of the international break and players recuperating from injuries -- one in particular putting an end to a sabbatical -- resulted in more late-game heroics across MLS.

No in-game entrance was more notable than Landon Donovan, who shrugged off a few-month hiatus and nearly scored within seconds of donning his No. 10 LA Galaxy jersey and the captain's armband for the first time since MLS Cup 2012. While Donovan demonstrated expected rust, he also brings yet another fearful element to a team overflowing with attackers.

The emergence of Jack McBean, 18, whose nifty turn helped set up the Galaxy's first goal Saturday, and continued blossoming of Jose Villarreal, 19, has manager Bruce Arena swimming in a sea of attacking options for the present and the future. It was Villarreal's superb scissor-kick equalizer off the bench that has the Galaxy still unbeaten and looking in fine form as they prepare to take on the two-time defending CONCACAF Champions League winner Monterrey in the CCL semifinals this week.

On the other end, a pair of young Toronto FC subs combined for a stellar moment that nearly delivered another marquee win for first-year manager Ryan Nelsen. Luis Silva and hometown hero Jonathan Osorio combined for an electric play that brought the fans at BMO Field to their feet and demonstrated that Toronto has a bit more attacking depth than in the recent past.

Elsewhere, some of the more established forwards in the league and world made good on their late-game cameos. Thierry Henry produced two wow moments, one on his self-set-up bicycle kick attempt that went just wide, and the other his smooth take down and finish inside the area to deliver the Red Bulls' first win of the Mike Petke era. Conor Casey had thought that he had salvaged a point for the Philadelphia Union in that same match, with the lumbering, veteran American forward making his mark with his new club off the bench with a classic near-post header to level the score prior to Henry's heroics.

Blas Perez returned from Panama international duty to score the game-winner in FC Dallas' 1-0 triumph in New England to push the surging club to the top of the Western Conference standings, and Kenny Miller returned from Scotland international duty to score a consolation goal in the Vancouver Whitecaps' 2-1 loss to Chivas USA. All in all, Saturday was quite the transition period back from the international break for those used to playing straight from the opening whistle.

2. Houston, we have home-field advantage. Congratulations are in order for the Houston Dynamo, who matched Real Salt Lake's streak of 34 matches unbeaten at home across all competitions with a 2-0 dismantling of the Supporters' Shield-holding San Jose Earthquakes.

The Dynamo's streak spans their time at Robertson Stadium and the sparkling BBVA Compass Stadium, which has emerged as one of the true fortresses in MLS. There have been times that Houston has looked vulnerable at its home park -- most notably in games last season against Toronto FC of all teams -- but Dom Kinnear's side always finds a way to navigate the path to at least one point and keep the streak going. Between the narrow field, comfort playing in the Houston humidity, a strong veteran core and a typically passionate fan base, the Dynamo have all the ingredients to continue the streak.

Whereas Real Salt Lake's record ended in demoralizing fashion -- a loss to Monterrey in the 2010-11 CCL final -- Houston certainly has the schedule in its favor to take sole possession. The Dynamo welcome the Chicago Fire, who have looked downright dreadful through four games, to BBVA Compass Stadium in their next home game April 14.

3. What's up with Seattle? The Sounders are quite the conundrum. On paper, this team should be one of the fiercest in MLS, and even though it has struggled in league play, it managed to make it to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. If the Sounders who have shown up in recent league matches appear against Santos Laguna in their two-legged tie, it is going to make for an ugly exit.

The Sounders are 0-3-1, the worst start in franchise history, in last place in the Western Conference. Losing two key starters from the successful teams of the past in Fredy Montero and Jeff Parke was always going to require a period of transition and adjustment. The last two matches have been played at some of the toughest places for opposing teams to win, San Jose and Real Salt Lake. The back line has not looked in sync even though the new pieces, rookie DeAndre Yedlin and veteran Djimi Traore, have been standout individual performers. The cohesiveness and organization will come with time.

As for the attack, Obafemi Martins has yet to have a semblance of normalcy with the club, first arriving from Spain for about a day to make his debut ahead of international duty with Nigeria, and then returning from that break to play again Saturday. His partnership with Eddie Johnson can't possibly be fruitless for an extended period of time. The fortunate thing for the Sounders is that the long MLS season and 10-team playoff format makes for a sizable margin for error, especially in March. Don't expect Seattle to stay this down for long.

4. The unexpected Golden Boot showdown. Few (OK, nobody) would have said that one of the individual battles to watch this season was the Mike Magee-Robert Earnshaw tussle in Toronto, but the two current Golden Boot front-runners continued their assault on in their lone head-to-head this season. Are they likely to lead the league in scoring by the end of October? Probably not, but these aren't flukes.

Magee netted his league-leading fifth goal to kick off the scoring in Week 5, completing a fantastic run to the far post to meet Marcelo Sarvas' cross through the area. Magee has already matched his goal output from 2012 and 2011 as a much more efficient finisher. His five tallies on 19 shots are far superior to his five on 56 shots a year ago and 28 the season before. He is now two tallies shy of matching his career-high seven-goal rookie season from a decade ago, and he is showing success is not just a product of service from Robbie Keane and Donovan.

Earnshaw, meanwhile, continues to be the beneficiary of horrendous defense. Whether it was Sporting Kansas City's collective lapse, Carlo Cudicini's massive head-scratcher to come 30 yards off his line on Saturday or a pair of penalty decisions that have gone Toronto's way, the Welshman is quickly making his mark. A good poacher and opportunistic finisher can have loads of success in MLS (see Wondolowski, Chris), and with Earnshaw accounting for four of Toronto FC's five goals, it sure seems the Reds will be leaning on their new signing.

Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Raul Fernandez (FC Dallas)

Defenders: Chance Myers (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Will Johnson (Portland Timbers), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Eric Avila (Chivas USA), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Giles Barnes (Houston Dynamo)

LYTTLETON: Champions League quarterfinal preview

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