From another memorable Seattle-Portland tussle to Thierry Henry's showcase to a full slate of matches with playoff implications, here are five thoughts from Saturday's do-or-die night of MLS action ...
1. Cascadia Cup clash lives up to its billing -- All of the fanfare surrounding the Cascadia Cup matches between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers and the ensuing hot-blooded action on the field are becoming quite predictable. And that is fantastic for MLS.
It is an absolute given that no matter where the game is being played, a capacity crowd will make for an atmosphere on par with any rivalry bout in any league around the globe. It is a given regardless of where the teams sit in the league standings, an equal amount of intensity and energy will be brought to the table by both sides. And, it's a given the annual meetings between the two make for the best overall entertainment spectacle -- taking the quality of play, emotion on the field and in the stands and special aura surrounding the game into account -- that the league can showcase.
Saturday's 1-1 draw at a raucous Jeld-Wen Field, which was the first game to broadcast on NBC's flagship network station, fulfilled all of the above and was a great advertisement for the league's potential from a spectator's point of view. The Sounders stayed alive in the race for the Cascadia Cup, which Portland could have clinched with a win, and it took a late Rodney Wallace header to offset Fredy Montero's masterful strike, setting the stage for an even grander spectacle in the final match between the two teams slated for Oct. 7 at CenturyLink Field.
The fact a game with little postseason implications at this juncture can be so enthralling speaks to the volume and importance of the history between the two sides and about what their rivalry means to the league. Just imagine what the rivalry could become if Portland improves to the level of a perennial contender. Much like the way the Manchester derby in England accelerated to new heights last season with Manchester City's rise to prominence, a Timbers' surge to new heights would be invaluable to the Pacific Northwest's already special soccer treasure.
2. Henry shows his class -- New York Red Bulls star and captain Thierry Henry deflects plenty of attention onto his teammates. He has called Brandon Barklage and Connor Lade the players of the season. He says Rafa Marquez is the key to the club winning its first MLS Cup. He has had plenty of (deserved) praise for midfield stalwart Dax McCarty. When all is said and done, though, it is Henry that is the one capable of bringing the Red Bulls to unprecedented heights.
Henry's class and talent shined under the bright lights of Red Bull Arena in New York's 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew. With two goals and an assist, including a majestic stoppage-time Olimpico -- a goal directly off a corner kick -- to finish off the Crew in a huge matchup and deliver three points that have New York within two points of first place Sporting Kansas City, whom the Red Bulls play Wednesday, in the Eastern Conference.
Henry's Olimpico, which was clearly intentional, will steal the headlines and appear on highlight reels around the world, but his effort over the duration of the 90+ minutes was yet another example of how influential he can be on the whole. Fresh off a 17-day rest, Henry delivered precise pass after precise pass, and his touch to take down Marquez' pinpoint long pass and finish for an equalizer helped New York overcome a sluggish start and find its way. Yes, Henry needs his teammates to step up their game if the Red Bulls are to claim silverware this season, and his emotional outbursts when his teammates don't convert up to his standard can be off-putting, but as he displayed quite assertively Saturday, he is capable of shouldering the load and earning league MVP consideration in the process.
3. De Guzman delivers for Dallas -- When FC Dallas went out and acquired underachieving Designated Player Julian de Guzman from Toronto FC three months ago, the transaction was met with raised eyebrows, plenty of questions and celebrations in the stands at BMO Field. Perhaps FCD coach Schellas Hyndman and his front office knew what they were doing all along, though, as it is the rejuvenated De Guzman's contribution that has breathed plenty of life into Dallas' wild playoff dreams.
On a night when FCD seemingly did everything to win but put the ball in the back of the net in a must-have match, the Canadian international's self volley from distance off a cleared corner kick in the waning seconds of stoppage time brought Dallas from the brink of disappointment to the cusp of an improbable postseason spot, capping off a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. The goal was a microcosm of FC Dallas' season, which has been marred by injuries, suspensions, an infamous dust-up between Hyndman and Brek Shea and an overall sense of Murphy's Law only to have the club fight in the face of overwhelming adversity and remain alive. Despite having everything go against their favor -- a missed penalty, a hit crossbar, a goal waved off for offside in the 90th minute, Fabian Castillo over-hitting a wide open look inside the area in stoppage time during a frenetic finish -- Dallas persevered.
It should be noted the club does not control its own destiny, as slumping Vancouver still leads Dallas for the fifth and final berth in the West by one point and has a game in hand. What the result ensured, though, is that the race for that spot will go down to the wire, and anybody still doubting Dallas after Saturday should probably rethink things considering how the never-say-die club has rallied to this point.
4. Olsen pulls right strings for D.C. -- On a night when Ben Olsen was inducted into the D.C. United Hall of Tradition, cementing his already-secure place in club lore, he pulled all the right strings in helping the club adjust to life without injured captain and reigning MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an MCL sprain. Olsen's most curious move was to pull effective and distributing midfielder Branko Boskovic after 56 minutes and replace him with Lewis Neal, a midfielder not known for his scoring and creating prowess. Naturally, Neal went on to score the game-winning goal in D.C.'s huge, albeit sloppy, 2-1 victory over the New England Revolution, a win that puts D.C. back in the playoff picture after briefly falling into sixth place. At this point in the season, though, style points don't count, and getting the win, period, is all that matters.
In addition to taking off Boskovic, who has played 90 minutes just once in 20 appearances this season, Olsen went defensive at the end of the game to bring in veteran Robbie Russell, a proven winner who helped the club see out the match. D.C. players and coaches claimed this week how much more better equipped the team was this season to deal with a loss like that of De Rosario as opposed to when Pontius went down with a broken leg last September, a development that ultimately undid D.C. down the stretch. Now with other players stepping up, Olsen using his bench wisely and the club on a franchise-best 14-game unbeaten streak at home, D.C enters a stretch of four games against teams out of playoff contention, which should soften the blow of losing De Rosario somewhat and allow D.C. to build off Saturday's win.
The result was not all on Olsen, as goalkeeper Bill Hamid stepped up with three gigantic saves late, and Chris Pontius celebrated his new contract with a goal and an assist to bring D.C. back from an early 1-0 deficit. Nevertheless, coaches often get skewered for lineup decisions and choices of substitutes, but Olsen deserves credit for getting it right in an all-important win. Conversely, what was up with the New England sideline instruction in the dying minutes, when the Revs allowed goalkeeper Matt Reis to take a potentially game-deciding free kick from 35 yards instead of Lee Nguyen at the death?
5. Au revoir, Montreal -- The Montreal Impact have had plenty of success in their expansion season, and they put up quite a fight the second half of the season to put themselves in the mix for a playoff berth, but Saturday night's 3-1 loss to the Chicago Fire should put the finishing touches on bidding the Impact adieu from the postseason race.
Despite holding an early lead, Montreal coughed up three straight goals to continue its road woes and follow a similar path to that of the expansion Timbers last season, who were ultimately undone by their inability to win away from home. The Impact are 2-12-1 away from both Olympic Stadium and Stade Saputo, with seven points just not being good enough to make it to the playoffs. The fact that the Impact are even close is a testament to how well they have played at home.
With just four games remaining (and their chief competitors each having six to go), Montreal is five points out of fifth place and faces the likes of Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo in its next two matches. Kudos to Jesse Marsch and his staff for building a competitive expansion team and one that has a strong foundation to build off in Year 2, but it appears as if their bid to crash the MLS party and make it to the playoffs right away will be coming up short.