There was much moving and shaking in the MLS Eastern Conference on Saturday, as the New York Red Bulls won a thriller against Real Salt Lake, Montreal Impact got a late winner against Sporting K.C., and a New England Revolution player achieved a remarkable breakthrough.
Game of the day
New York Red Bulls 4, Real Salt Lake 3
For the second week in a row, Real Salt Lake adopted a physical approach in a big game against a potential MLS Cup foe. For the second week in a row, it gave up a winning goal deep into stoppage-time. Maybe RSL should do the math: more fouls (RSL committed 28 in the game) equals more of those pesky added minutes to negotiate.
In any case, at Red Bull Arena and with Tim Cahill, Jonny Steele and Dax McCarty in midfield, Mike Petke's team was never likely to be cowed by a series of spicy challenges on Saturday.
New York began like a side eager to atone for its lackluster showing in the previous week's goalless draw with Toronto FC and was 2-0 up by the 23rd minute through a Tim Cahill header (what else?) and a penalty from Fabian Espindola.
It was the perfect response from Cahill, who had been hurt by a high, cleats-first tackle from Yordany Alvarez in the fourth minute. Like RSL defender Chris Wingert's nasty foul on Kei Kamara after five seconds in last week's 2-1 defeat to Sporting Kansas City, this was a reckless move that could have brought a straight red rather than a yellow card.
The odd thing about Silviu Petrescu's night was that the referee was relatively lenient on rough play but adopted a hardline stance on slight contact if it occurred inside the penalty box.
After giving New York a soft penalty kick when Abdoulie Mansally tangled with Brandon Barklage, Petrescu had to whistle for another to remain consistent when Salt Lake striker Olmes Garcia tumbled under fair pressure from Markus Holgersson in the 44th minute. Back from Gold Cup duty with Costa Rica, Alvaro Saborio converted the spot kick to put a sour spin for New York on a first-half it had bossed.
The home team stayed superior after the break but some hapless defending allowed Saborio to equalize with ten minutes left, as RSL continued its habit of scoring late in games. That was the starting-pistol marking one of the wildest races to the finish in MLS so far this season.
As the game opened up and New York lost some of its positional discipline there was more space for RSL's quick-footed and creative players to exploit. Saborio claimed his hat-trick two minutes later with a terrific goal - the most elegant of toe-poked shots.
But Petrescu's penchant for awarding penalties came to the Red Bulls' rescue in the 89th minute, though this was the most obvious decision as Aaron Maund tripped Espindola, who was appealing before his body had even hit the floor.
No one could deny that officials have a tough job given the Academy Award-worthy acting ability of many players coupled with the imperative to promote flowing, attacking soccer by punishing cynical fouls. But this match was MMA in midfield and NBA near the net: a fierce battle that became a virtual non-contact sport once the ball was inside the penalty area.
Espindola was again lethal from 12 yards against his former club and both teams had chances before McCarty's headed winner from a Barklage cross as the clock ticked into the 95th minute.
This was an evening where the sporting gods chose to punish fans who sought to beat the traffic. Across MLS there were three decisive goals in stoppage-time and one after 85 minutes and this match had four goals after the 80th minute.
Salt Lake get internationals Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran and Kyle Beckerman back next week and Wingert returns from suspension. New York is second in the Eastern Conference and a formidable 7-2-2 at home.
This was New York's first win over RSL since 2009. After the no-show in Toronto, the Red Bulls showed on Saturday that against top opposition they can raise their standards and carve out a significant result. That bodes well for a playoff campaign that looks increasingly likely.
Goal of the day
Blake Smith, Montreal Impact v Sporting Kansas City
A year on from the London Olympics, Smith recalled the Games with a somersault celebration worthy of an elite gymnast. Then he hurdled an onrushing team-mate.
It was worth going crazy over this goal, a 96th-minute winner that revitalized the race for leadership of the Eastern Conference. Other goals on Saturday night were possibly more aesthetically pleasing but this was a sharp team effort with great significance.
Kansas City was without its imposing regular center backs, Matt Besler (Gold Cup) and Aurelien Collin (suspension). Perhaps this was why Marco Di Vaio was able to slip in Smith at the death, and he scored through goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen's legs.
Montreal has toiled of late but is now just a point behind Peter Vermes' men, who remain top but are only two points clear of the Philadelphia Union in fourth.
Stat of the day
1 - Number of goals from Houston Dynamo strikers since May 8
When Houston eviscerated D.C. United 4-0 at RFK Stadium more than two months ago, no one would have imagined that the forward line of last year's MLS Cup runner-up was about to endure an arid spell of Saharan proportions.
Cam Weaver's 61st-minute strike from close range at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday night ended the team's run of nine MLS fixtures without a goal from a forward. Not surprisingly, Houston had scored only five times in that spell.
Though a striker, Weaver was an unlikely candidate to merge ball and net. This was his first goal in MLS since May 28, 2011. Sadly for the 30-year-old, his glorious moment was ruined within two minutes as the Chicago Fire immediately bit back to claim a 1-1 draw.
Dynamo left back Corey Ashe lost possession, allowing Patrick Nyarko to cross from the right for Mike Magee. He was unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, which tells you all you need to know. Magee has seven MLS goals since the start of June: two more than the entire Dynamo roster in that time.
While Houston's captain, Brad Davis, returned from injury, Dominic Kinnear's side lost left winger Andrew Driver to a right Achilles injury early in the contest. And the day's results were a small reminder of the utterly obvious: scoring pays.
The New England Revolution leapfrogged the Dynamo into the fifth and final play-offs place with a 2-1 win at RFK. New England and Houston are level on points and games won but the Revolution has the edge by virtue of having scored more goals.
Player of the day
Kevin Alston, New England Revolution
He was on the field for a mere six minutes as a late substitute, but that tiny amount of time symbolized a giant triumph.
The win over D.C. was the 25-year-old former All-Star defender's first appearance since he was diagnosed in April with a rare but treatable form of leukemia. A D.C. native, Alston had family and friends in the stands at RFK, and said the backing of his teammates was a great help.
"As soon as the game was over, everybody came over to congratulate me," he told MLSsoccer.com. "I was trying my hardest not to cry. I was fighting tears. They've been supportive since the start and they showed it again tonight."
Watch highlights with recaps of all of Saturday's MLS action