Pontius making strong push, divide grows out East; more MLS thoughts
From Chris Pontius' U.S. men's national team push to the bottom of the Eastern Conference falling even further behind, here are five thoughts from Saturday's MLS action:
When Jurgen Klinsmann releases his roster for the U.S. men's national team's Aug. 15 friendly against Mexico at Azteca sometime this coming week, there is an increasingly good chance that D.C. United forward/winger Chris Pontius will see his name on it.
Pontius' season-long run of form continued in Saturday's 1-0 victory for D.C. over the Columbus Crew, one in which D.C. flipped the script on the Crew after what transpired in Columbus two weeks ago. Pontius scored the game-winning goal, his career-high 10th of the season and one that came on the heels of his MVP-inspiring game-tying goal against Chelsea in the MLS All-Star Game. His goal against the Crew did not require the most inventiveness of all time and was more clean-up duty after Nick DeLeon's tremendous run down the right than anything else, but his overall work rate, peskiness down the left flank and continued ability to pop up in the right place at the right time makes him an attractive attacking option for Klinsmann.
For Pontius, a call-up seems likely considering the combination of him earning it plus European-based players who may not get the call because of the timing of the friendly conflicting with the start of their respective seasons. Should he get tabbed, it would mark the biggest landmark in his return from a long-term injury suffered last fall. Pontius was called up by Klinsmann as an injury substitute last September for a U.S. friendly against Costa Rica, but he did not play. Even so, it seemed like a great steppingstone for a young talent on the rise only for him to break his leg eight days later, preventing any further national team involvement after that. With five goals in his last six games and overall attacking qualities that translate to the next level, Pontius should be among the group vying for the United States' first win south of the border.
Considering the Colorado Rapids' past stoppage time collapses against Real Salt Lake and the Rapids' trend of blowing one-goal leads during their futile six-game losing streak, Colorado and its fans had to wait until the final whistle -- and even a few seconds after just to be safe -- to count their precious three points, but their first win over RSL in more than three years could not have come at a more necessary time.
With the 2010 MLS Cup champions reeling, Colorado got a potential turning-point result with the 1-0 win over its rival at the perfect time. Four of the Rapids' next five games are against the teams who join them outside of the playoff picture in the West (FC Dallas, Chivas USA and two against last-place Portland), meaning the potential for a large point haul has presented itself at a time when the team is feeling good about itself for the first time in more than a month. Even then, it might not be enough to catch the likes of Los Angeles and Vancouver for a playoff berth, but at the very least, the Rapids remain in the hunt.
For RSL, meanwhile, the club had already clinched the Rocky Mountain Cup with two victories earlier this season but had a golden opportunity to sweep their rival while putting pressure on San Jose by overtaking the Earthquakes for first place in the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield race. Instead, the club came up well short in its third game in a week and is now starting to feel some heat from a lurking Seattle side in league play and pressure in the CONCACAF Champions League after a midweek fiasco in Costa Rica. The loss to Herediano could not have gone much worse from a player personnel standpoint. Jamison Olave suffered an injury to his hamstring, one that will reportedly keep him out of action for a few weeks. In the shortened group stage, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio are already sitting on yellow cards, and Nat Borchers is suspended for the next match after receiving a red card. It's far from panic time for RSL, but the club that sets a high standard for itself will be quite disappointed with the most current state of affairs.
The New England Revolution felt like they would be better off without Shalrie Joseph in the long run, and they surprisingly traded their captain to Chivas USA this past week for assets that can help the team sustain a more balanced roster in the coming years. In the short term, however, the Revs were bound for a letdown, and that's exactly what transpired on the Gillette Stadium turf. The club's lifeless 1-0 home loss to Sporting Kansas City began the post-Joseph era with a whimper and looked like a performance of a club still dealing with the shock-value of the trade.
One of the areas the club will undoubtedly look to address with the allocation money and draft pick acquired for Joseph is the defense, and even though Stephen McCarthy is a young talent being brought along at central defense, he has been the weak link along the back line on more than one occasion -- against Sporting KC alone -- this season. McCarthy, who was transitioning from the midfield to center back this season, received a red card for pulling down C.J. Sapong and denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity as the last defender in the clubs' Week 2 matchup, and his lapse in judgment and hesitation Saturday allowed Teal Bunbury to loop a 50-50 ball over him and coast in on goal for the go-ahead strike. The instance was a microcosm of the Revs following this week's trade: A lack of focus coupled with serious defensive needs.
There was plenty to take away from the Montreal Impact's 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union Saturday night, one that continued Montreal's strong home form and dealt a blow to the Union's playoff aspirations. The game was highlighted by a superb scissor-kick goal by Felipe, emotions that boiled over on both sides and a pretty unjust red card to Jack McInerney for a retaliatory push to Nelson Rivas after his egregious, blatant and red-card worthy head butt of Antoine Hoppenot (Mr. Rivas, the MLS Disciplinary Committee is on Line 1). What got lost in the shuffle was the vital contribution by Montreal rookie forward Andrew Wenger.
While Wenger has been waiting to have his number called by Montreal coach Jesse Marsch, the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft has sat and watched No. 2 pick Darren Mattocks light up the scoreboard. With starting striker Marco Di Vaio in Italy at a disciplinary hearing for a match-fixing scandal involving his former team, Bologna, though, Wenger stepped in for the Italian Designated Player and got the job done, converting his one true chance for his fourth goal of the season off a header late in the first half. In a rare start -- just his fourth of his rookie campaign -- Wenger made the most of his 70 minutes on the field and put the Union on their heels for the remainder of the match following his goal.
While battling injury and Di Vaio's arrival, Wenger had played just three minutes in the Impact's previous nine games, and when Di Vaio returns, that will most certainly facilitate Wenger's move back to the bench. At the very least, though, he's shown Marsch that he is capable of delivering when called upon and that more minutes are deserved.
As the calendar turns to August, there is still plenty of time remaining in the MLS season, but a clear divide is developing in the Eastern Conference, where the playoff spots seem all but sealed for the clubs currently in postseason position.
New England, Philadelphia and Toronto, the bottom three teams in the conference, respectively, are all facing must-win situations almost every night out to entertain thoughts of improbable playoff pushes, but all three fell Saturday while watching the teams in the fourth and fifth positions, D.C. and Chicago, secure three points apiece. As a result, the conference is transitioning into groups of haves and have nots, with the real remaining drama involving the seeding among the top five teams. That's not to say all five can coast the rest of the way, but, as it stands, it will take a major swing to prevent Houston, Sporting Kansas City, New York, D.C. and Chicago from being the five playoff teams to come out of the East.
Despite its loss, Columbus remains the strongest challenger for a postseason berth among the teams currently out of the playoff picture, but after the Crew's loss to D.C., the club no longer controls its destiny with its two games in hand and trailing Chicago by seven points. Even with Montreal's victory moving the club up to sixth place, the Impact have played five more games than the Crew and three more than the Fire, and time is not on their side.