A new Eastern Conference leader and a familiar face in Seattle were the highlights of another jam-packed Saturday in MLS.
Game of the day
New York Red Bulls 3, Sporting Kansas City 2
Any of four teams could have held first place in the East on Saturday night, but the Red Bulls claimed leadership of the conference with a notable victory at Sporting Park.
Even after last week's 4-3 home win over Real Salt Lake there remained suspicions that New York has a soft center, that it cannot fully be trusted because it has not proved itself against top opponents on the road. Well, if this was the acid test, the Red Bulls emerged without a hint of corrosion.
Kansas City was without playmaker Graham Zusi, but Mike Petke's team was missing the increasingly important Tim Cahill. Two underrated midfielders, Jonny Steele and Dax McCarty, ably compensated for the absence of the Australian's endless running and snappy tackling.
Steele collected a diagonal pass from McCarty and beat Sporting keeper Jimmy Nielsen at his near post for the opener after 26 minutes. As a skillful Designated Player, Claudio Bieler would be no one's first guess as a leading candidate for miss of the season, so the way he headed over the bar from point-blank range three minutes before the break was surreal.
But Kei Kamara equalized shortly afterwards when New York's goalkeeper, Luis Robles, could only parry a Soony Saad header. Three minutes past the hour, Fabian Espindola sprinted clear and finished expertly after Sporting tripped into its own would-be offside trap. Then the visitors made it 3-1 as the bionic-armed Robles threw the ball far beyond the halfway line to Steele. He crossed for the substitute Lloyd Sam, who scored impressively.
Another man off the bench, Dom Dwyer, pulled a goal back for KC late on, and an injury to New York's Kosuke Kimura prompted ten minutes of injury time and some tense moments that prompted Petke to explode in fury at the refereeing and be dismissed from the technical area.
New York held on for a statement win, though the scoreline did not tell the full story. Sporting's sense of frustration did not come only from the result, but from a sense of injustice. Two of the Red Bulls' goals were borderline offside and Kansas City outshot its opponent by 27 to 5. What seems like a classic counter-attacking road display at a tough venue could also be depicted as a fortunate win that owed much to bad defending, poor finishing and questionable officiating.
Player of the day
Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders
Scarves aloft, flags fluttering, hands clapping, Seattle's fans welcomed Dempsey, aka Deuce, aka Superman, to the club before the 3-0 win over FC Dallas on Saturday night.
Standing on the turf, Dempsey was introduced to the CenturyLink Field crowd by majority owner Joe Roth as the big screens played a slick video of the forward in action, set to the tune of his rap song, "Don't Tread." Sample lyrics: "Everybody out your seat/Bob your head to this...the dream is real/Don't tread on this".
The fans were bobbing indeed, nodding like dolls, because the dream is definitely real. They can multi-task in the Emerald City: they were cheering and pinching themselves at the same time. Roth, of course, knows all about spectacle, star power and how to thrill an audience: He is a Hollywood film producer.
Dempsey kept it brief and stuck to plain prose when he took the mic, voice as diffident as Clark Kent's. "Seattle, I just want to thank y'all and the Seattle Sounders organization for making me feel so welcome and at home," he said. "I look forward to getting on the field and playing in front of some of the best fans in the world [pause for crowd roar] and I think we'll accomplish some great things here, so once again, thank you."
The Texan unzipped his hooded sweatshirt and flung it off to reveal a rave-green Sounders jersey. No phone box necessary.
By signing the U.S. captain from Tottenham Hotspur, Seattle is finally acting like an MLS superclub. Earlier this season it made Obafemi Martins the highest-paid player in Sounders history at $1.75 million in guaranteed compensation this year, according to MLS players' union figures. Martins himself has an impressive European pedigree. But he was just the appetizer.
If NBC ProSoccerTalk's report of an $8 million annual wage for Dempsey is correct, that is more than the combined salaries of the other eight Designated Players in team history.
Yet this is not a Beckham-esque international marketing coup, not an attempt to sell replica jerseys in Japan. Dempsey spent most of his career in England at low-profile Fulham, then started only 22 Premier League games last season at Tottenham and was in the shade of a media spotlight fixed firmly on Gareth Bale.
In England he was always underrated -- including, evidently, by his manager at Tottenham, Andre Villas-Boas. Dempsey's ability to play on the wing, as a striker or an attacking midfielder, meant that as a player he lacked a clear identity.
There is no danger of that in his home country, where he will be an automatic first choice, the focal point of the team and an iconic figure for the franchise and the league. MLS now has a club other than the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls that can and will pay players as much as they could earn in a top European league while at their peak.
One that will shell out a significant transfer fee for a 30-year-old reliant on pace whose performance levels will likely dip within three years, making his resale value negligible.
One that is appealing to prospective signings not because its location offers the possibility of living next door to Tom Cruise or having an apartment overlooking Central Park, but for pure soccer reasons: big, passionate crowds in a city that is serious about the sport.
When New York City FC joins the league in 2015, bankrolled by the near-infinite wealth of Manchester City's owners, that will make four clubs with significantly more financial muscle than the rest, further increasing the pressure on MLS to relax its rules, unscrew its salary cap a little less tightly and embrace celebrity at the expense of parity.
"The opportunity came up. Going into the season I thought I was going to be at Tottenham but MLS and the Seattle Sounders, they moved mountains to get me here. I'm excited to be back in America, I love being here," Dempsey told Seattle's television broadcasters Ross Fletcher and Kasey Keller at halftime, still wearing his team shirt. He was not bought in time to play in the match.
"This is the league that gave me my opportunity, my chance to be a professional, so I'm happy to come back in my prime and be able to come back and make a difference and not come back when I was past it... I'm excited about coming up here, the atmosphere at the games is just incredible," the former New England Revolution player said.
Let's not forget, Seattle has been one of the most underwhelming teams in the Western Conference so far this year, with results failing to reflect the roster's talent. But now it will believe it has the weaponry to shoot itself to MLS Cup, even past the Galaxy of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.
Seattle is adding a man capable of averaging a goal every two games to an attack already boasting two of the best forwards in the league, Eddie Johnson and Martins.
Both scored against a supine, depressed Dallas team that rolled over and played dead as obligingly as if it was competing for a prize at the Westminster Kennel Club. Brad Evans added a third from the penalty spot in the last minute to ensure the evening ended as excitingly for Seattle as it had begun.
Amid Dempsey-mania in Seattle, Dempsey-doubt elsewhere in the country and the sparking of a debate about what his arrival means for the future of MLS, there was a neat link to the past in the form of Marcus Hahnemann. The 41-year-old goalkeeper made his MLS debut for Seattle on Saturday in place of the injured Michael Gspurning.
A club legend, Hahnemann was a Seattle player in the mid-Nineties: at the dawn of MLS and long before the city had a franchise in the league. Then, nearly a decade before Dempsey, he lived out the fantasy and became a success in England.
Now Dempsey's signing offers the glimpse of a possible future where escaping MLS for Europe will no longer be one of the key criterions for an American player's greatness. And coming home will not be a sign of weakness.
Stat of the day
62 - Minutes between a penalty award and the kick itself
Jaime Castrillon equalized in the 70th minute to give Colorado a 2-2 draw that saw the Rapids lift the Rocky Mountain Cup for the first time since 2006, having already tied and beaten Real Salt Lake this season.
Speaking of lengthy waits, this match's end was a long time coming. Just as Alvaro Saborio was lining up to take a penalty kick for Salt Lake in the 21st minute, news of an impending thunderstorm prompted the referee to call the players off the field. Despite more than an hour's delay at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, Saborio was unfazed and put his kick low to the right of Clinton Irwin for the goal.
Goal of the day
Ryan Johnson, Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
It's still early in the Caleb Porter regime, but this already feels like a goal typical of Portland's style under his coaching. The defense worked hard and pressed to rob Vancouver of possession near Portland's own penalty area, then broke quickly and directly through Darlington Nagbe. He fed Diego Valeri on the right and his cross dropped perfectly in the gap between the center backs for Johnson, who headed expertly into the top corner.
The Whitecaps fought back from that 49th-minute goal to draw level 20 minutes later through Jordan Harvey and claim a valuable point at JED-WEN Field.