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Power Rankings: Bocanegra returns; Sporting K.C. takes top spot

Photo: AP

Sporting Kansas City's Soony Saad celebrates after scoring against Real Salt Lake in the second half.

Carlos Bocanegra returned home, a pair of Galaxy youngsters filled some big shoes and a new team vaulted to the top of the MLS power rankings following the league's Week 21:

1. Bocanegra makes his return. Considering his stature in the U.S. Soccer realm, former national team captain Carlos Bocanegra's return to MLS could not have been met with less fanfare.

With an announced crowd of 7,851 scattered around the StubHub Center for a midweek, late night showing between two of the league's most futile franchises, Chivas USA and Toronto FC, Bocanegra took the first step in attempting to reclaim his place on the international scene, albeit in an unconventional manner.

More accustomed to playing on the grander stages of Europe, Bocanegra assimilated quite well into Chivas USA in his debut after being out of action for more than a month, playing a big role in helping the club end its 14-game winless streak with a 1-0 victory. Despite being listed as a left back, Bocanegra lined up in his typical place on the left half of central defense, and he marshaled the Chivas back line as if he had been immersed in it all season long. Vocally barking out instructions and positioning himself well throughout the game, Bocanegra's reintegration to MLS went about as well as could have been expected, save for one early rash challenge that was yellow-card worthy. Granted, he was going up against one of the worst sides in the league, which made for a simpler transition and a good vehicle to shake off some rust, but he answered a number of questions about his play immediately.

Now comes the interesting part. With three of the other top center backs in the USA player pool (Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson) plying their trade in MLS for the rest of this season, Bocanegra's return to the league presents him a chance to be judged and evaluated on a common playing field along with those with whom he is competing for call-ups and international playing time. Instead of playing in the relative obscurity of the Spanish second division, Bocanegra's skill level can be fairly compared and contrasted with the rest of those in the top tier of the USA's center back depth chart.

The chances for the 34-year-old Bocanegra to return back to the national team set-up ahead of the World Cup (assuming the USA qualifies) are getting slimmer by the month, and being left out of the Gold Cup is thought to be a significant blow to his hopes. Like Landon Donovan, Bocanegra is not used to being under pressure to play his way back onto the international stage, but by taking a bit of a risk in coming home to California and signing up for the Chivas USA project, Bocanegra has given himself another shot at proving himself and reaching a place where the fanfare is considerably more boisterous. And if it does not pan out, then U.S. fans will readily be able to see the reasons why.

2. Galaxy kids end Vancouver's streak. The Vancouver Whitecaps have been nothing if not acquiescent to the LA Galaxy's young stars over the last couple of seasons.

Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes both scored the first goals of their career against Vancouver, Villarreal doing so last season and Zardes following suit this past May. Both toasted the Whitecaps again in a critical Western Conference showdown, filling big shoes in the process. With Robbie Keane nursing a hip injury and Landon Donovan away reclaiming his international reputation with the U.S. national team, Bruce Arena turned to his two rising stars to get results, and they rose to the challenge.

The 21-year-old Zardes, especially, continues to wow, as the Homegrown Player and rookie's third goal of the season was an act of individual brilliance. Just getting to and controlling a long ball from Todd Dunivant that appeared headed out for a goal kick was impressive in its own right, but to have the wherewithal to take a quick look, chip the ball around defender Brad Rusin in such a tight space and immediately pull the trigger showed instincts that few forwards, young or old, possess in MLS. Doing so in the second half of a tie game between teams jockeying for playoff positioning -- the Galaxy took a one-point lead on Vancouver for third place in the West with the 2-1 win while snapping the Whitecaps' six-game unbeaten run -- makes the feat all the more magnified.

Both Zardes and Villarreal are spry, inventive and instinctual, with a knack for showing up in the right spot, and with Donovan and Keane running the show when present, there is no constant pressure on them to perform as they get nurtured and brought along through growing pains in a fostering environment. In the meantime, though, they have proven that they can shoulder the load when turned to, and that is a luxury that not many teams are afforded.

3. Goncalves restores order. New England Revolution center back and captain Jose Goncalves is a candidate for MLS Defender of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, so to see him struggle so much in the light of his All-Star Game snub in the Revs' 2-1 midweek loss to the Colorado Rapids was quite stunning. He was routinely beaten to an atypical effect and capped his day with a game-deciding own goal and a rash challenge that earned a yellow card, proving to be far from the stalwart standout he had been in the first 18 games of the season. After his ensuing performance against Columbus over the weekend, though, feel free to add "ability to bounce back from catastrophe " to his skill set.

Goncalves restored order with his defensive showing and late offensive heroics off a set piece that lifted the Revs to a 2-0 victory over the Columbus Crew and kept the club right in the hunt for a top-five place in the Eastern Conference. Facing a rested Crew side that was coming off a bye week, Goncalves got back to doing what has become the norm: Shutting down opposing forwards, maintaining organization across the back and reading the game extremely well. His game-winning goal was a just reward for his rebound showing in defense, and the totality of his performance showed just how valuable he has been and can be to the resurgent Revolution.

4. Impact play down curious Schallibaum speculation. The Montreal Impact are a shell of the version that took the league by storm in the opening third of the season, but the fact that the club's recent form led to rampant speculation regarding the future of manager Marco Schallibaum was shortsighted and, quite frankly, asinine.

Given that Jesse Marsch was unceremoniously shown the door after a rather successful opening campaign perhaps lent a bit more credence to the rumors about Schallibaum's demise, but they never really passed the smell test. It all stemmed from reports in South America that former MLS coach Juan Carlos Osorio was set to replace Schallibaum on the Impact bench -- a notion that made little sense based on everything on the surface. Despite a recent dip in form, Montreal is still in control of its own destiny in terms of taking the reins in the Eastern Conference, as it trails first-place Sporting Kansas City by four points with two games in hand. The club won the Canadian championship and will play in the CONCACAF Champions League, where it is the favorite to win its group.

To Montreal's credit, the club -- and Schallibaum -- played down everything immediately, and not every team would have acted so boldly. Often times teams will allow speculation, no matter how unreasonable it may seem, to linger while only offering a "no comment" that just adds fuel to any fire. The Impact addressed the situation in a press conference and had team owner Joey Saputo issue a comment on his personal Twitter account as well.

Schallibaum went out and guided his side to a 0-0 draw against FC Dallas over the weekend, as a sense of normalcy settled in for both the recently maligned Impact defense and the club as a whole after a bizarre few moments in the spotlight.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Donovan Ricketts (Portland Timbers)

Defenders: Drew Moor (Colorado Rapids), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Andrew Jean-Baptiste (Portland Timbers), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders)

Midfielders: Joel Lindpere (Chicago Fire), Justin Mapp (Montreal Impact), Nick LaBrocca (Colorado Rapids)

Forwards: Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake)

Week 21 MLS Power Rankings
 
New Rank Old Rank Team
1 3 Sporting Kansas City (10-5-6)
Sporting KC may have been without its center back anchor Matt Besler, but Ike Opara rose to the occasion once again when called upon to deliver the late heroics in helping the club knock off Real Salt Lake and tighten up the race for the Supporters' Shield. Even though he has been limited to just nine games, Opara has proven to be a valuable pick-up for Peter Vermes' deep squad, which has won three in a row and is unbeaten in six games.
2 1 Real Salt Lake (11-6-4)
Shorthanded RSL was stunned at home late in stoppage time, watching its eight-game unbeaten run come to an end after a bruising 2-1 loss to Sporting KC. Manager Jason Kreis was quite critical of referee Matthew Foerster -- it is not the first time he has been in the crosshairs of MLS coaches this season -- for not having a better handle on the physical nature of the contest, one that had its outlook change immediately after Chris Winger's sending off midway through the second half.
3 2 Portland Timbers (8-2-10)
Portland managed to gut out another point away from Jeld-Wen Field, playing to a 0-0 draw -- it's eighth road tie of the season -- against the Philadelphia Union and marking the ninth time that goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts has posted a clean sheet this season, which ties him for the league lead with New England's Bobby Shuttleworth. Amid all the Timbers' success this season, it is worth noting that they have only posted consecutive wins on one occasion this season, with that coming back in April.
4 5 New York Red Bulls (9-7-5)
The Red Bulls will want to have walked away from BMO Field with more than a point after a lackluster 0-0 draw with lowly Toronto FC, but with fellow Eastern Conference contenders Montreal and Philadelphia also playing to scoreless draws, the result does not come at much of a cost. Luis Robles' showing in goal might be cause for celebration, but only posting one shot on goal against a defense as vulnerable as Toronto's is not.
5 4 Vancouver Whitecaps (9-6-5)
The Whitecaps' unbeaten run is over at six games after a 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy, but Camilo's scoring streak continues. The Brazilian forward netted his league-leading 13th goal as part of the loss to set a new MLS career high. Eleven of those goals have come since May 18, and he presents about as scary a proposition for opposing defenders as there is in the league -- a skilled forward playing with supreme confidence.
6 6 Montreal Impact (9-5-5)
After giving up 12 goals in their previous four games, the Impact plugged the holes across the back line to turn in a clean sheet and salvage a 0-0 draw with FC Dallas. Montreal has still only won one of its last seven games, but being able to secure a point without Marco Di Vaio available (personal reasons) is a step in the right direction as the club gets set to welcome Sporting Kansas City to Stade Saputo in a massive showdown this weekend.
7 8 Los Angeles Galaxy (10-8-3)
Gyasi Zardes and Jose Villarreal proved that the future is now, with each young forward tallying a goal to lift the Galaxy to their third win in four games. Even more encouraging is that the Galaxy were able to nurse that lead and close out the game, putting their recent struggles in the final stages of games behind them. The Whitecaps did not exactly put the Galaxy back line or goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini to the test down the stretch, but if the club is to three-peat, then finishing off opponents needs to become a regular occurrence.
8 7 Houston Dynamo (8-6-5)
Houston sat through a much-needed bye week, with the time off able to help ailing players like star winger Brad Davis recuperate and ensure that more bodies are fresh ahead of this weekend's bout with Chicago. The Dynamo could put some space between themselves, the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders and the Fire, a team lurking in seventh place.
9 9 Philadelphia Union (8-6-7)
Playing through a lightning delay at PPL Park and a suspension for manager John Hackworth, the Union were unable to beat the Timbers and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, settling for a 0-0 draw. The club happily welcomed Jack McInerney back from Gold Cup duty, though, and the striker nearly contributed a game-changing assist in his first game action since June 29.
10 10 FC Dallas (8-5-8)
Center back anchor George John returned following a four-game absence and helped FC Dallas to a 0-0 draw against Montreal, but the club remains winless since May 25, a stretch of eight games. That streak will linger on past the MLS All-Star Game, as FCD does not play another league game until an Aug. 3 date against the Seattle Sounders that kicks off a run of seven games in a row against Western Conference competition.
11 11 Seattle Sounders (7-7-4)
Seattle has had a revolving door of lineups, between injuries, suspensions and international absences, and that again proved to be the case over the weekend, with Eddie Johnson (Gold Cup), Djimi Traore (hamstring) and Michael Gspurning (arm) missing out on the club's 1-1 draw with Colorado. Andrew Weber filled in admirably for Gspurning in goal, but he'll want to have done better on the set piece that allowed the Rapids to take the lead prior to rookie DeAndre Yedlin's highlight-reel equalizer.
12 12 Colorado Rapids (8-7-7)
The Rapids turned in a four-point week, coming from behind to down the Revolution before venturing to CenturyLink Field and emerging with a point following a 1-1 draw with the Sounders. Defensive leader Drew Moor stepped up in a big way in Seattle, scoring the club's lone goal and coming up with a goal-line clearance to preserve the result and keep the Rapids right on the cusp of the playoff picture.
13 13 Chicago Fire (7-9-3)
Chris Rolfe and Joel Lindpere led the way in an absolute rout of bottom-feeder D.C. United, which was decided in the opening minutes. Lindpere struggled in his first season with Chicago after three seasons in New York, but he has come on strong as of late, notching all five of his assists in 2013 in the Fire's last five games. With his place in the starting XI no longer a sure thing, his goal and two assists against D.C. certainly helped his case.
14 14 New England Revolution (7-7-6)
The Revs are still in search of their first win in Colorado in more than a decade after a midweek let down, but the club was able to bounce back and secure a 2-0 road win in Columbus just days later. Jose Goncalves and Diego Fagundez provided the late heroics in stoppage time, and the much-improved Revs are just two points out of fifth place as they attempt to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
15 15 San Jose Earthquakes (6-9-6)
The Earthquakes had a bye week, but with the signing of El Salvador attacking spark Jaime Alas and with Chris Wondolowski and Clarence Goodson rounding into form in the Gold Cup, the club is primed for an up-tick in quality once the CONCACAF competition comes to an end. Before the latter duo returns, though, the club faces a significant challenge when taking on the Timbers for the third and final time this season.
16 16 Columbus Crew (6-9-5)
Columbus was on the verge of securing a point until disaster struck in stoppage time, with the Revolution twice finding the back of the net to send the Crew to their fourth defeat in five games. The club did welcome starting goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum back from a shoulder injury, though, and he was moments away from securing a clean sheet upon his return before the wheels fell off.
17 17 Chivas USA (4-11-5)
The Carlos Bocanegra-Erick Torres era got off to a successful start, with the 10-man Goats persevering at home against Toronto FC in the debut of both new signings. It was not a world-beating performance by any stretch of the imagination, but the veteran center back and rising Mexican forward can go a long way in helping turn the club's season around and restore some semblance of honor in what has otherwise become a bit of a circus.
18 18 Toronto FC (2-10-8)
Up a man for about an hour against Chivas USA, Toronto FC failed to show any impetus and limped to a 1-0 defeat in a discouraging display and one that lacked any urgency until the final seconds. The Reds returned home to secure a point in a drab 0-0 draw with the New York Red Bulls, but it remains evident that this team continues to be one in transition and one for next season.
19 19 D.C. United (2-14-4)
D.C. United plummeted to a 4-1 defeat in Chicago, with a revamped lineup failing to keep the team in the game for even the opening minutes. Newcomer Luis Silva's goal-of-the-week candidate was the highlight of the day for a club that is in full-on rebuilding mode with the signings of multiple young American players who are full of potential for the future, but not necessarily the present.
 

WAHL: Landon Donovan proves he belongs as U.S. routs El Salvador

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