MLS Power Rankings: Flaws abound for playoff-bound clubs
Sporting Kansas City's staunch defense, another key injury for the Los Angeles Galaxy and more from MLS Week 30:
When Sporting Kansas City starting forward Teal Bunbury went down for the season after suffering a knee injury Aug. 26, the big unknown was whether the club had enough firepower to maintain its place atop the Eastern Conference. But the real question should have been this: If opponents can't score on Sporting KC, does Bunbury's injury even matter?
The club is 3-0-2 since Bunbury's departure, with Friday's 2-0 win over second-place Chicago. C.J. Sapong has come through as a steady replacement for Bunbury in the starting lineup, and Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi have done their part while flanking the second-year player to complement a defensive unit that is the best statistical group in the league. Sporting KC has conceded just 25 goals in 31 matches, followed by Seattle (31 goals allowed in 30 games) and Real Salt Lake (34 in 31).
Steady goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen boasts a league-high 14 shutouts, including three in a row and two that have come away from the club's home. Nielsen has only had to make 66 saves in 31 matches, though, the fewest among regular starting goalkeepers with at least 20 starts this season. His success has been, in large part, a product of the players in front of him. The starting unit of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers is balanced, organized and smart. The midfield triangle lining up in front of them is tireless; if there's a common trait among all Sporting KC players on the field at a given time, it's having an endless work rate, something that coach Peter Vermes deserves plenty of credit for cultivating over the course of a long season. With the club in the midst of a nine-game unbeaten run, the longest active streak in MLS, the well-oiled machine is finding its groove at the right time.
The attacking questions will remain as the club's 39 goals scored are the second-fewest among the 10 teams currently in playoff position (Vancouver has scored 31), and the team has not scored more than twice in a game since July 4. But with the club owning the possession game and overwhelming teams with its pressure and disciplined marking, any attacking deficiencies may not cost it in the playoffs.
Thierry Henry made sure to hog the spotlight with his three-assist, golazo masterpiece against Toronto FC on Saturday night, but his performance also served to mask the Red Bulls continuous problem of conceding early goals. Ryan Johnson's sixth-minute beauty put the club in yet another early hole, as the groans of the faithful could be heard from Harrison, N.J., and throughout the Twitterverse. Sure, the Red Bulls have the attacking pieces to overcome early deficits, but that is completely missing the point.
The bottom line is that the Red Bulls have no shot of winning the first trophy in team history if they continue to begin games so recklessly in the back. It is one thing to do it against the likes of lowly Toronto FC, but the times when they have conceded early against strong opposition, the outcome has not been nearly as favorable. The Red Bulls have conceded in the opening 25 minutes of a game in 17 of 31 matches this season, and they are 1-5-4 in such matches against teams currently in playoff position.
Sporting KC showed New York how problematic falling behind early against a team that defends well and can dictate the tempo can be a couple of weeks ago, and with the club's next two matches coming against Chicago and Sporting KC, the margin for early error will be quite slim. For New York, failing to correct its early-game woes could easily mean the difference between having Henry share the spotlight with his teammates and a trophy in hand and having another talent-stacked, yet fatally flawed team come up short of the grand prize.
As routine as New York's opening-minutes struggles have become, the strongest constant throughout this MLS season has been the Earthquakes' late-game heroics. Steven Lenhart's latest tally to salvage a wild, 3-3 home draw against FC Dallas brought the club's total to a staggering nine goals scored in second-half stoppage time as the late-game aura around the club continues to grow.
Much like New York pressing its luck in the early going, though, can San Jose really continue to live so dangerously late in games against the league's best when the playoffs begin? It's uncanny how the Earthquakes always seem to come through, but at some point they are going to run into a veteran, disciplined unit that won't fall victim to the antics of Lenhart, Alan Gordon, Chris Wondolowski & Co. And at that point the club needs to be better for the duration of 90 minutes instead of relying on somebody to come through with its back against the wall.
It is also worth noting that the late-game heroics that salvage draws in the regular season lead to points, but heroics that force ties in the postseason may do nothing but extend a match into the crapshoot that is a penalty shootout, which is far from a comfortable way to advance. San Jose is definitely balanced and disciplined enough to win the MLS Cup, but the club's penchant for having games come down to late drama increases the riskiness of making them a sure-fire favorite.
Just as the season began with major questions at center back for the Los Angeles Galaxy, it appears that the end is unfolding in the same way.
Stalwart defender A.J. DeLaGarza went down with a left knee injury in Sunday night's draw at Colorado, and while the prognosis has not yet been determined, the Galaxy have to prepare themselves for a worst-case scenario. DeLaGarza's presence in central defense alongside Omar Gonzalez was key in the club's run to the MLS Cup last season and has been key in the club's resurgent run this year. Unlike at the start of the season when Gonzalez's absence due to a torn ACL appeared to be the undoing of the Galaxy, the team is better positioned to cope with this injury.
When Gonzalez was out, his absence was far from the team's only issue, even though it became the scapegoat for the team's woes. The club struggled from front to back, though, with the forwards yielding little and Juninho uncharacteristically struggling as the midfield lacked its typical sharpness all in addition to the back line being unable to find the same cohesiveness and cleanliness as last year's championship unit.
Most of that was corrected when Bruce Arena paired Landon Donovan up top with Robbie Keane, Juninho and David Beckham found their groove and Gonzalez worked his way back to health and fitness well ahead of schedule. As talented and important as DeLaGarza is to the Galaxy's fortune, there is no question that he is much more of a complement to Gonzalez than the other way around. As long as Gonzalez is still providing his size, presence and coverage in the center, Los Angeles should be able to navigate through a potential loss of DeLaGarza.
In the nine matches since Gonzalez returned full time to the starting lineup, the Galaxy have posted five clean sheets and conceded eight goals total (four coming in that embarrassing 4-0 loss in Seattle on Aug. 5), with the club going 6-1-2. The Tommy Meyer, David Junior Lopes, Andrew Boyens center back variety pack (Leonardo is still nursing a sore knee and never was right after coming back from a serious injury) is tested from this season's early travails, and Meyer showed well in his first action since May as DeLaGarza's replacement in Colorado. Make no mistake about it, this is far from an ideal scenario, and if the Galaxy are to lose DeLaGarza for an extended period of time, it would be a blow, but it would not be as completely debilitating as it was starting the season without Gonzalez and having the rest of the club out of sorts.
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Jeff Parke (Seattle Sounders), Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Midfielders: Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo), Gershon Koffie (Vancouver Whitecaps), Lloyd Sam (New York Red Bulls)
Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew)