Seattle continued to reel, Portland rose to the top of the West, yet it was Vancouver that captured the Cascadia Cup following an abbreviated, but important MLS Week 33.
1. Seattle's swoon continues
As brilliant as the Seattle Sounders have looked at times this season, the only thing that truly matters is the club's playoff performance. And at this rate, the Sounders figure to be entering November in disarray.
The club that was a shoo-in for the Supporters' Shield just a few weeks ago, dished out big money for Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey and boasts star power and depth all over the field has lost the plot, with Sunday's 1-0 loss at rival Portland extending the club's losing streak to three games and winless streak to five. Among those loses are a 5-1 drubbing in Colorado and a 4-1 embarrassment at home against Vancouver.
Dempsey has one more rabona cross attempt and one more dislocated shoulder than he does goals since signing with the club. Midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso lost all semblance of composure after throwing a flying elbow at Timbers instigator and captain Will Johnson and will be forced to miss at least the next game, pending any further disciplinary action. Michael Gspurning was pulled from goal in favor of Marcus Hahnemann. The club's defense, which had conceded just 29 times in 29 games prior to this losing streak, is out of sorts. Eddie Johnson injured his groin on international duty. Even though the club's on-field performance in Portland showed marked improvement and Steve Zakuani narrowly missed a chance to salvage a tie in stoppage time, the three points still went the other way.
The bottom line is, no matter how much Seattle spends and how much optimism there may have been surrounding the club, the Emerald City outfit will be judged on postseason success and triumphs alone. If the edition of the Sounders that started the season miserably and is ending it in the same manner after a 15-5-2 stretch in the middle is the one that shows up in the playoffs -- the club needs to clinch a berth first, with one win from its last two games enough to do the trick -- it will be yet another offseason of wondering what went wrong instead of celebrating a long-desired MLS Cup trophy.
2. Vancouver's prodigy shines
What was more unlikely entering the last week, Vancouver winning the Cascadia Cup or Kekuta Manneh becoming the youngest player in MLS history to record a hat trick?
The Whitecaps needed an array of results to go their way in order to secure nine points in Cascadia matches and have them hold up. After Camilo rescued a point off Portland in Week 32 with his magical brace, Seattle did the Whitecaps the ultimate favor by failing to secure the single point it would have taken to bring the cup back to CenturyLink Field in their midweek matchup. The Sounders rolled over and allowed the likes of Manneh and Daigo Kobayashi to slice their defense apart in a 4-1 rout. Seattle's 1-0 loss to Portland on Sunday night sealed the deal.
With all of the skilled experience on Vancouver's roster, it was Manneh whose contribution ultimately brought cup to Vancouver for the first time in the club's MLS history. The 18-year-old, Gambia-born forward found the seams, took Seattle's slow-footed, poorly positioned center backs to the woodshed and finished with the composure of an All-Star to more than double his goal total for the year and make the under-fire Martin Rennie look like a tactical genius for inserting him in the starting lineup for just the fourth time this season.
Vancouver needs to take care of business in its final two matches of the season, both of which come against fifth-place Colorado, in order to return to the postseason, but the club enters that stretch with a trophy in hand, another young talent on the rise and a wave of positive momentum.
3. International break conflicts
The argument is as old as MLS, but the league can't possibly continue to schedule season-altering games during international breaks. With the league's point of pride -- parity -- meaning that so many teams are still alive at this late juncture in the season and with more internationally capped players plying their trade in the league, games during the international break are plaguing rosters around MLS more than ever.
The Houston-Sporting Kansas City clash, which features two of the league's stalwart teams pushing for playoff positioning, lacked two impact starters for each side -- Graham Zusi and Matt Besler for Sporting KC and Oscar Boniek Garcia and Jermaine Taylor for Houston. Seattle was forced to play Vancouver and Portland without Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans, and, making matters worse, Johnson tweaked his groin while training with the USA and could enter the playoffs (assuming Seattle clinches) at less than full strength. Colorado, one of the league's hottest teams, had its conference positioning on the line against San Jose without the likes of difference-making forwards Deshorn Brown and Gabriel Torres, while the Earthquakes had to go to battle without center back anchor Victor Bernardez.
Ultimately, a bigger salary cap to create deeper rosters would be a remedy, but the easiest solution is to alter the schedule -- whether that means shortening the length or getting more creative with midweek games during the season -- to prevent playoff and title contenders from having their seasons potentially altered by avoidable personnel conflicts.
4. Wondo's latest accomplishment
Chris Wondolowski is not going to lead MLS in scoring for a fourth straight year, and he most certainly is not going to match his and Roy Lassiter's single-season mark of 27 goals, yet his 2013 campaign was not for nothing. Wondolowski's vital goal to lift San Jose to a 1-0 win over Colorado in their midweek clash was his 10th of the season, giving him four straight seasons of double-digit scoring.
Putting things in perspective, the likes of Landon Donovan, Dwayne De Rosario, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle and Conor Casey, all of whom have at least 60 goals in their careers, have never achieved that feat. Of active players, only Wondolowski, Alvaro Saborio and Carlos Ruiz (the early 2000s one, not the 34-year-old version) have managed to string together four such seasons in a row.
While Wondolowski's overall production is down, it is not for a lack of chances. He still ranks fourth in the league in both shots (97) and shots on goal (42) with a pair of games remaining. In terms of his other seasons of double-digit goals, last year he had 127 shots, with 55 on frame; in 2011 he had 109 and 52 and in his turning-point 2010 campaign, he managed 18 goals off just 68 shots and 36 on target. The conversion efficiency is not there in 2013, but Wondolowski is still getting his looks, and as well all know, it doesn't take much for him to catch fire. With San Jose on the cusp of the playoffs, defenders for LA and FC Dallas better beware.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
Defenders: Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Jose Goncalves (New England Revolution)
Midfielders: Daigo Kobayashi (Vancouver Whitecaps), Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo), Shea Salinas (San Jose Earthquakes), Will Johnson (Portland Timbers)
New York Red Bulls (15-9-8) This is not a typo: The Red Bulls control their own Supporters' Shield destiny and can land the first major piece of silverware in club history by finishing off the season with wins over Houston and Chicago. Regardless, the club has already cemented its berth in the playoffs, so there is margin for error, but with seeding and trophy pride on the line, expect the Red Bulls -- unbeaten in six matches -- to go all out.
Real Salt Lake (15-10-7) RSL spent the weekend on bye, watching as Portland snatched first place in the Western Conference with its win over Seattle. RSL and Portland go head-to-head for a final time, with Jason Kreis' side maintaining bragging rights thus far from both regular season and U.S. Open Cup action. A third win in four meetings for RSL would put the club in pole position for first place in the West, considering it closes the season against Chivas USA.
(13-5-4) The Timbers sit in first place following a cathartic statement 1-0 victory over Seattle in their final Cascadia Cup clash of the year (at least in the regular season). Kalif Alhassan's goal provided the difference as Portland overcame the absence of Diego Valeri to thwart the rival Sounders, leapfrog RSL by a point and pull even with New York on points for first place in the Supporters' Shield hunt.
Sporting Kansas City (15-10-7) Sporting KC cemented a playoff berth with its 0-0 draw with Houston and Philadelphia's draw with D.C. ensuring a top-five place regardless of how the season ends. The Supporters' Shield is still in reach for the club, which also must focus on the CONCACAF Champions League. Sporting KC faces a group-deciding game against Olimpia sandwiched between its two final regular season games against D.C. and Philadelphia.
LA Galaxy (14-11-6) LA spent the weekend on bye, but it will spend more time worrying over the health and fitness of Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane, who had to pull out of their World Cup qualifying matches with hip and ankle injuries, respectively. The Galaxy will need to be at full strength for games against three desperate opponents -- Montreal, San Jose and Seattle -- with a playoff berth yet to be secured.
Colorado Rapids (13-10-9) Despite goal-line heroics from Clint Irwin and Drew Moor, Colorado conceded an icebreaking goal to San Jose and fell 1-0 at Buck Shaw Stadium in its midweek clash to leave just enough hope for San Jose and Vancouver of snagging a playoff berth away from the Rapids. Colorado sits in fifth place, a point clear of the Quakes and three clear of the Whitecaps -- against whom they finish the season with two consecutive games.
Seattle Sounders (15-11-6) What plagued the Sounders at the futile beginning of the season has come back to haunt them again as the 2013 campaign closes. Seattle is still almost assuredly going to make the playoffs, but going five games without a win -- including three straight losses in which it was outscored 10-2 -- is hardly the way Sigi Schmid's side wants to close out the regular season.
Houston Dynamo (13-10-9) Playing without internationally deputized Oscar Boniek Garcia and Jermaine Taylor, the Dynamo held serve at home against Sporting Kansas City, playing to a 0-0 draw. Will Bruin's early chances were either denied or missed, but the Dynamo managed to extend their unbeaten streak to five games before a headlining showdown against New York this weekend.
Philadelphia Union (12-10-10) Jack McInerney could not have picked a more opportune time to end his scoring slump. McInerney's stoppage-time goal against D.C. was his first since June 1 and ensured the Union did not drop all of the points against last-place United. Instead, Philadelphia is level with Chicago and Montreal on points, though both have an edge in the wins tiebreaker. With a matchup against Montreal up next, all is there for the taking for John Hackworth's side.
Chicago Fire(13-12-7) The Fire raced out to a 3-0 lead in Dallas before holding on for a valuable 3-2 victory. Mike Magee's MVP candidacy grew with his goal and assist, and he is now level with Marco Di Vaio atop the Golden Boot standings. Winners of two straight, the Fire are barely in fifth place and could use three points from their clash with Toronto FC to potentially ease some of the pressure off their season finale against Supporters' Shield hopeful New York.
New England Revolution (12-11-9) Captain Jose Goncalves put the Revs on his back Saturday, helping the club overcome an awful injury to Saer Sene by capturing a valuable 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact. Goncalves' goal and marking of Marco Di Vaio helped the club move to within a point of Montreal, Chicago and Philadelphia in the standings. New England will need to take care of business against Columbus in the final two games while getting a little help to sneak into the playoffs.
Montreal Impact (13-11-7) What has happened to Marco Schallibaum's side? The Impact are reeling at an awful time, with Saturday's loss to New England extending the club's winless run to five games (0-4-1). As a result, what appeared to be a surefire playoff berth has yet to be clinched, and Montreal is in some danger of missing out with upcoming games against LA and Philadelphia to determine plenty.
San Jose Earthquakes(13-11-8) The Goonies have not said die yet and are on the cusp of completing a season-long battle to climb back into playoff positioning. San Jose's midweek 1-0 win over Colorado -- its third triumph in a row -- brought the sixth-place Earthquakes to within a single point of the Rapids and LA Galaxy. San Jose and LA square off in a California Clasico with plenty on the line this weekend.
Vancouver Whitecaps(12-11-9) Improbable Cascadia Cup champions, the Whitecaps put themselves in position to snare a playoff spot late by torching the Sounders at BC Place behind Kekuta Manneh's improbably hat trick. With two remaining games against the Rapids, Vancouver can sneak into a postseason berth for a second straight season, but it will need to reverse the scoreline from the clubs' other meeting this season, which Colorado won 2-0.
Columbus Crew(12-15-5) Columbus comes off a bye week ready to take on the Revolution in consecutive games to close the season. Mathematically, Columbus has not been eliminated just yet, but the realistic chances of the club securing a postseason berth are minuscule. However, it can at least play spoiler and take the Revs down as well in their home-and-away clashes.
FC Dallas (10-11-11) Kenny Cooper did what he could to keep FC Dallas' faint playoff hopes alive, but the club has nobody to blame but itself for falling behind 3-0 at home to Chicago with its season on the line. Officially eliminated from playoff contention, FCD is left wondering what could have -- and perhaps should have -- been after starting the season 7-1-3 and looking like a bona fide contender.
Chivas USA (6-18-8) The Goats were off following a 5-0 drubbing to the LA Galaxy the week before, and they don't play again until Oct. 23 when they try to prevent Real Salt Lake from claiming the Supporters' Shield. The following week, in the season finale, they'll try to do the same to the Portland Timbers. Either way, it's a brutal way to end an altogether brutal campaign.
Toronto FC (5-16-11) The Reds were on a bye week and have long been out of the playoff picture, but they can have a major say in who makes the postseason from the Eastern Conference with games against Chicago and Canadian rival Montreal remaining on the docket. After conceding their Canadian championship crown to Montreal this season, it surely would provide TFC with a bit of joy to potentially keep the Impact out of the playoffs.
D.C. United (3-22-7) D.C. was oh so close to spoiling the Philadelphia Union's night and snapping its latest winless stretch, but a late equalizer forced the team to settle for a 1-1 draw as that winless streak continued to 10 games. The U.S. Open Cup champs close out the season with two nationally televised games against tough opponents, with them needing a win over either Sporting KC or Houston to avoid setting a new mark for fewest wins in a season.