Breaking down all of the significant happenings, both on and off the field, from Week 26 in MLS:
It has been quite a while since MLS had a week packed with so many notable events. Between serious injuries, goals of historical significance and signings, hirings and purchases, MLS turned the calendar from August to September with the wave of momentum that most teams are seeking as the season winds down.
On the injury front, Sporting Kansas City and the New England Revolution each lost a starting striker to a torn ACL. New England's season was already a lost cause, but having leading scorer Saer Sene go down with the injury after scoring two more goals in a mid-week draw put an end to the 11-goal-scorer's campaign and already puts a question mark surrounding his availability for the start of next season.
Teal Bunbury's situation is the same to Sene's, except that his team is fighting for not only an MLS Cup title, but a Supporters' Shield as well. Fortunately for Sporting KC, reigning league Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong is waiting in the wings to step back into the starting lineup, but he has to rediscover the form that made him a U.S. national team call-up in January in order to make Sporting KC more than just a one-pronged attack and relieve the pressure firmly on Kei Kamara's shoulders.
One player carrying the weight of his team is D.C. United's Dwayne De Rosario, whose 100th goal of his storied MLS career further etches his name among the greats in league history. By joining Jeff Cunningham, Jaime Moreno, Landon Donovan, Ante Razov, Jason Kreis and Taylor Twellman in the exclusive 100-club and adding that to a career that includes an MVP award, six Best XI nods and four MLS Cups, De Rosario leaves no doubt that he is one of the best to ever lace up a pair of MLS cleats.
On the player transaction front, Marco Pappa leaving likely playoff club Chicago in the heart of the postseason race for his transfer to Heerenveen could be a demoralizing development for some teams, but not one as offensively balanced as the Fire, who turned the page with a critical home victory over Houston. Speedy winger Patrick Nyarko stepped up to deliver not even a minute into the match, and his role, which had diminished a bit with some of the club's mid-season acquisitions, should be cemented on the flanks.
Elsewhere, former MLS All-Star Juan Toja being selected by the New England Revolution through the allocation order made sense in that with the roster freeze date coming in less than two weeks, the Revs were not going to have another chance to use their place atop the order. Whether Toja actually is in the team's plans or he is just being used as a trade chip remains to be seen, though. There is a log-jam of attack-minded midfielders in New England, between Toja, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Ryan Guy and Kelyn Rowe, and there is only room for so many cooks in the kitchen.
Changes swept from the owner's suite to the coaching boxes as well, as Chivas USA became Jorge Vergara's team after he and wife Angelica Fuentes purchased the other 50 percent of ownership stake from the Cue family to take the reins of the Goats. Conflicting reports surrounding the future of general manager Jose Domene and the club's dwindling play coupled with Vergara's quick-trigger track record could make for some major alterations.
One of the league's biggest changes this season involved Peter Nowak's ouster as coach of the Philadelphia Union, but that place is permanently going to be filled by John Hackworth, who had his interim tag shed on Thursday. Hackworth's experience on the youth international level makes him a perfect fit for a club with so many young players whom he has coached at different points in their careers, and while he has brought stability back to the franchise, he will need to prove that he can identify and manage other veteran talent to mesh with his budding crop of young players in order to get the Union back to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
The most significant development in a wild news week for MLS, however, was the appointment of University of Akron coach Caleb Porter as the next manager of the Portland Timbers. While he will take over after the end of this college season and keeps an eye on all things Timbers from afar in his on-campus office, current Timbers players will be playing for their places on the team next season. The 2012 U.S. Under-23 national team coach has been labeled many things over the last calendar year, everything ranging from visionary and brilliant young mind to failure, following the Olympic qualifying debacle.
Porter's leap to the professional ranks comes at a time during which he has accomplished everything he can on the collegiate stage and has plenty to prove on the next level to show that his methodology, tactics and style have a place on the grander stage. When he looks around MLS -- specifically the Cascadia region where former Zips Darren Mattocks, Darlington Nagbe and Steve Zakuani ply their trade -- he will see his influence on the league in the form of the players he has molded over his years at Akron. Come the 2013 season, it will be his chance to take a squad with success-starved fans and try to mold it into a winner while confronting his sharpest critics. Some of the greatest coaches in U.S. Soccer history have made collegiate success their launching pad, and Porter's road to joining the likes of Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley begins in December.
The expression on Steve Zakuani's face, an ear-to-ear smile after being mobbed by teammates, said it all. It feels great to be back.
Zakuani, making his first start with the Seattle Sounders since breaking his leg in a horrific challenge by Colorado's Brian Mullan 15 months ago, notched an assist Sunday that opened eyes not only because of its general quality, but because it came off the right leg that he has worked so feverishly to rehabilitate and it brought back stark memories of the moments that made him one of MLS' premiere attacking prospects up until his injury.
With a burst down the left, Zakuani used a creative touch and his trademark speed to leave his defender in the dust and capped off his run with a pinpoint cross through the six-yard box to set up Mauro Rosales for the opening goal in Seattle's 1-1 draw in Dallas. It was a genuine "wow" moment and a sign that his confidence, self-belief and ability are all well on their way to returning.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has been extra cautious in bringing Zakuani's comeback along, being very mindful of rushing him back too soon. Granted, he has depth afforded to him on the team's roster that makes that an easier decision, but credit Schmid and the Sounders organization for the approach they've taken to handle the fan favorite and star-in-the-making.
Signs of Zakuani's breakout have appeared in the last few weeks, with his two-goal showing in a reserve league game two weeks ago and his ensuing inclusions on the match day roster with the first team. Those signs have led to something tangible now. After playing a total of 10 minutes as a substitute in two matches over the last two months, Zakuani turned in a 66-minute shift in which he was lively, active and caused a world of problems for FC Dallas right back Zach Loyd. Zakuani's return to form is the equivalent of a huge late-season addition for the Sounders, and with CONCACAF Champions League matches stretching Schmid's roster options while the club jockeys for playoff position, his ability to step into the lineup as he continues to build his fitness level should make for little to no drop-off in either competition in the coming weeks.
D.C. United's safety net is gone. Not only did the team fall out of the top five in the Eastern Conference after Saturday's loss at Real Salt Lake, but as Columbus continued its flip-of-the-switch surge and moved ahead of D.C. by a point with a game in hand, the club has to confront the very real possibility that this season, one that held so much promise for months, could end before the postseason begins.
D.C. concluded a five-game, 14-day stretch by going 1-2-2, and after two weeks off, the club's legs will be tested again with a four-game, 14-day jaunt. However D.C. responds during training during the international break, the club is going to have to figure out how to solve the team's woes away from RFK Stadium. D.C. has lost six straight games away from home and has just three road wins on the season. With four of the club's remaining seven games coming on the road, there is no other option but to find a remedy to the problem.
The silver lining for D.C. is this: Despite the road challenges ahead, the club's next five games are against non-playoff teams, and the head-to-head matchup with Columbus in the penultimate game of the season will be played at home, where D.C. has not lost since opening night. If the club can take care of business leading up to that bout and remain within striking range of the lower playoff seeds, then the game may very will determine which of the two sides advances to the playoffs, and whether D.C.'s playoff drought, which is now on the cusp of reaching five seasons, will continue. Plenty can happen between now and Oct. 20, but that's the date to circle for fans wanting an intense, playoff-like atmosphere before the actual postseason gets underway.
Another one-time playoff shoo-in is finding itself mired in a poorly timed slump as well.
After Saturday night's failure in Los Angeles, the Vancouver Whitecaps have lost four straight games and have given up two goals in each of those games, bringing the following question into the heart of the spotlight. Has there been too much mid-season change for a club that did not need a whole lot of fixing? After all of the moves the Whitecaps have made to allow Martin Rennie to mold the roster to his liking, all of the team's earlier success in Year 2 as an MLS franchise is on the cusp of being undone.
The silver lining for Vancouver is this: Rival Seattle did the Whitecaps a favor by holding FC Dallas to a draw and preventing them from gaining even more ground in the race for fifth place (Vancouver leads by four points and has a game in hand), and Chivas USA fell further from grace with their latest loss, nullifying their games-in-hand advantage over Vancouver. Another saving grace is that the club can effectively put away Dallas with a win at FC Dallas Stadium in the first match following the international break and gain some momentum heading into the postseason with four straight home matches, three of which come against non-playoff opposition. It is approaching do-or-die time for plenty of MLS teams, and the Sept. 15 clash with FCD has all the makings of being exactly that for the Whitecaps.
Goalkeeper: Michael Gspurning (Seattle Sounders)
Defenders: Ramiro Corrales (San Jose Earthquakes), Hanyer Mosquera (Portland Timbers), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Wilman Conde (New York Red Bulls)
Midfielders: Sal Zizzo (Portland Timbers), Juninho (Los Angeles Galaxy), Paulo Nagamura (Sporting Kansas City), Patrick Nyarko (Chicago Fire)
Forwards: Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew), Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United)