Saturday's MLS action featured some stunning goals and sketchy goalkeeping as the San Jose Earthquakes and Chicago Fire boosted their title ambitions.
1. San Jose takes 11-point divisional lead -- Chris Wondolowski is not exactly flying under the radar right now. The San Jose striker scored twice in midweek to cement his status as the firm favorite for MVP honors. So it was surprising, if not shocking, that the Seattle Sounders allowed him the freedom of the six-yard box to score what proved to be the winner in an enthralling top-of-the-table Western Conference clash.
Goal number 22 of the season for Wondolowski was as simple as they come: a deep corner was knocked back across the face of goal and touched in by the striker from two yards, close enough to read the logo on Michael Gspurning's goalkeeping gloves. As was noted by various wags, Wondolowski now has one more goal this term than the entire Chivas USA roster.
A free-range Wondolowski was a recurring theme at CenturyLink Field, and if it could partly be ascribed to the forward's shrewd movement, slack Seattle defending was also a factor. Not that Sigi Schmidt's team spent too much time in its own half after the break as San Jose showed its rugged side to absorb concerted pressure, often riding its luck.
Seattle can now forget about topping its division, but this was still a feel-good night for the club in one respect. Steve Zakuani returned this month after 500 days out with a broken leg and he claimed his first goal in 17 months. It was a tap-in, but will be a huge confidence-booster.
It was also the equalizer after Simon Dawkins bashed the visitors into the lead from 25 yards after only 86 seconds. The early goal set the tone for a match that was both dramatic and frantic. It felt like a playoff atmosphere -- something both clubs will be experiencing soon enough. San Jose will surely win the Western Conference, and probably the Supporters' Shield. But after victories for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake on Saturday, second, third and fourth places out West are up for grabs.
2. Chicago goes from Rolfe to ROFL -- That is, Chris Rolfe and the Internet acronym for Rolling On Floor Laughing. Not that mocking Alvaro Fernandez is the aim, but his miss is the stuff that YouTube classics are made of. Soon after the hour, facing an open goal, unmarked and six yards out, the Uruguyan headed the ball over.
If you didn't laugh, you'd cry. And the Chicago Fire can afford to smile: it was already leading 2-1 and the scoreline did not budge, placing the side only two points adrift of Sporting KC at the head of the Eastern Conference. Intriguingly, the pair meet at Livestrong Sporting Park on Friday. So an away win sends the streaking Fire top.
That realistic aim seemed like a pipedream early on in Saturday's match when another Fire blooper gave the Columbus Crew an early lead. Few will need reminding that Sean Johnson's blunder against El Salvador in March helped cost the US a place at the Olympic Games. This was even more careless: under scant pressure the goalkeeper sidefooted the ball to Jairo Arrieta who unwrapped the gift by rounding him to score.
But Chicago has now won seven of its past eight matches and Rolfe's scoring smarts are a key factor in the purple patch. He drew the teams level midway through the first half with a composed finish when clean through and doubled his tally three minutes later with a sweet strike, his sixth goal in his past seven appearances.
Credit to Patrick Nyarko for a bamboozling run toward the penalty area and Rolfe for the immaculate lofted 20-yard finish, but when he took the shot there were seven Crew players within seven yards of the ball.
Johnson atoned with a couple of superb saves and the outcome leaves the Crew in sixth place, a point behind Houston Dynamo, which plays Philadelphia Union on Sunday. Columbus had better hope the Dynamo is somehow distracted by Saturday night's media reports that AEG has turned down a bid to buy the club from Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander.
3. Red Bulls red-faced after dramatic finish -- It's hard to know whether to credit the New York Red Bulls for their opportunism or criticize them for their carelessness. Hans Backe's 10 men stole a 91st-minute lead at Gillette Stadium, then surrendered two points four minutes later with virtually the last action of the game.
First, New England Revolution goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth came for a cross but lost out to Tim Cahill, allowing Joel Lindpere to nod the ball in. Then Shuttleworth's counterpart, Bill Gaudette, tarnished an otherwise excellent showing by flailing in no-man's-land as the NY back line let Darrius Barnes head in his first MLS goal.
A moment to cherish for New England's largest crowd of a turgid campaign and a freakish way to arrive at a predictable outcome. The Revolution is now unbeaten in sixteen matches at home against New York, a record stretching back a decade. Jay Heaps' team deserved a point, not least because a Jerry Bengtson "goal" was wrongly disallowed for offside inside four minutes.
The result won't help New York chill out, any. Thierry Henry's one-game ban for an off-the-ball cheap shot on Sporting Kansas City's Kei Kamara dominated the build-up, as much for the ludicrous leniency of the suspension as for the apparent headbutt itself - Henry was skipping the match anyway to avoid Gillette's artificial turf.
So the last thing the Red Bulls needed was another player sitting on the MLS disciplinary committee's naughty step. But Connor Lade was dismissed for a second yellow card after 74 minutes. And Wilman Conde was lucky to escape punishment for a gratuitous shove on Kelyn Rowe in the first half. Does New York have the temperament to handle the season's climax?
4. Stellar Galaxy dismantle Toronto -- Applause all round after the Galaxy's first goal: Juninho ran to the touchline and appeared to give head coach Bruce Arena a clap, while everyone else at the Home Depot Center hailed the Brazilian himself. Rightly so as the opener was no mean free kick, curling at pace to leave Toronto goalkeeper Freddy Hall frozen on the spot.
But there was even better to come from Juninho: a crashing 30-yard diagonal shot into the top corner that surely deserves the goal of the week accolade. This time, Hall dived; this time, he had even less chance. Juninho, like San Jose's Dawkins, is not a player a defense should be giving space. No matter how far out.
After two spectacular individual strikes, the Galaxy showed they can also combine to lethal and elegant effect. Like a golfer lofting a ball out of a bunker with a wedge shot, a cocksure Robbie Keane chipped in LA's third to cap a terrific move.
The Galaxy then pressed the mental pause button to allow Terry Dunfield a soft goal that made it 3-1 after 38 minutes. That ended LA's run of clean sheets at five games, but Arena's team is rounding into form at the right time of year. It ran out 4-2 victors. Hard to believe that Toronto knocked the Galaxy out of the Champions League back on March 14. Easily to believe that the Canadians then embarked on an 11-game winless streak.
5. Sporting subdued but solid -- In wet and windy conditions the goalless draw between Montreal Impact and Sporting KC was a damp squib. Sporting head coach Peter Vermes made four changes from Wednesday's triumph over the Red Bulls but it still looked like a third game in nine days had taken a mental and physical toll on a side that favors a high-energy pressing style. Given the context, KC was rightly content with a point against opponents with an excellent home record.
Montreal's need for victory surprisingly didn't translate into an urgent performance. Shut out at home for the first time since June 27, Jesse Marsch's team was over-cautious until mounting a late assault. KC mustered just two shots on target but Vermes' somnambulists will surely be wide awake on Friday. The most memorable incident happened off the field, with KC's Jacob Peterson bizarrely red-carded by referee Jorge Gonzalez for foul and abusive language - having already been substituted.
Saturday marked the start of fall, meaning it's the time of year when the amounts of light and darkness in a day are almost equal. That's an apt metaphor for Montreal after this result: a decent display and result but one that effectively ended their supermodel-slim hopes of reaching the postseason. Frankly, no team that's lost more games than it has won deserves a place in the playoffs. Still, it has been an admirable first MLS season for the Impact. It won't be with us in November, but the franchise has lived up to its name.