By Tom Dart
October 07, 2012

Chris Wondolowski edged closer to history but New York and Houston suffered serious setbacks on a dramatic day of MLS action.

1. Draw spells danger for Dynamo -- Every spring in stadiums across England, you can hear the thud of backs being patted, as the soccer community congratulates itself: no easy games in the Barclays Premier League, chaps. No matter how late in the season, all teams, even if doomed or disinterested, try hard.


It is true in MLS as well because last impressions count. There is always something to play for. Fresh, ravenous fringe players are eager to show they belong on the roster next year. Veterans with expiring contracts want to finish strongly. Teams that are desperate to impress meet teams that are desperate to pick up points, and these are very different kinds of pressure. The former can be liberating, the latter, constricting.

It helps explain how the Montreal Impact, with its dismal away form, came close to being the first team to beat the Houston Dynamo in its new stadium on Saturday night.

The injured Brad Davis somehow remains underrated (outside southeast Texas) despite finishing as MVP runner-up in 2011. Missing his guile and precision down the left, Houston still found a goal from that flank, thanks to a sharp dribble from Calen Carr, whose cross set up Will Bruin for the 22-year-old's twelfth goal of the season. Carr easily skipped past Alessandro Nesta: aged 36, it has been a while since the great Italian defender's legs worked as quickly as his brain.

But Montreal equalized on the counter attack after 66 minutes through Sanna Nyassi and after that, it was anyone's game.

Dominic Kinnear's side were indebted to another unheralded key player, goalkeeper Tally Hall, who made some smart stops, not least in the wild closing stages when both sides went all-out for the win and defending became distinctly optional.

After a big blown offside call when Columbus beat Philadelphia last week, MLS will be relieved that its officials got a critical decision correct in Houston. On the down side, it denied us a great story: Brian Ching scoring a last-gasp winner against his former team. In one of the close-season's best stories, the long-serving Dynamo veteran was selected by Montreal in the 2011 expansion draft after Houston strangely left him unprotected -- then traded back to the Texans last February.

In the 93rd minute on Saturday, Ching collected Cam Weaver's flick-on and superbly lobbed goalkeeper Troy Perkins, but the officials correctly divined -- after much consultation -- that Weaver's faint touch on the long punt had rendered the substitute offside.

The draw likely ends Houston's hopes of making the top three. The consolation is that the fixtures list seems to play into its hands, despite the pest potential of eliminated opponents. Its two remaining MLS fixtures are at home to the Philadelphia Union and away to the Colorado Rapids. Rivals play each other, so some must drop points. On October 20, Columbus faces DC United. Then Chicago Fire clashes with DC on the last weekend of the regular season. New York Red Bulls have to play KC.

2. Start spreading the nerves -- With the Red Bulls replacing their GM last Wednesday and former France and Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier now overseeing "sporting aspects", whatever that means, this was not an ideal time for head coach Hans Backe to lose a home game against an Eastern Conference rival.

The Red Bulls have some great players, but they are not a great team. NY has conceded more often than Philadelphia and the New England Revolution, who are eighth and ninth respectively in the Eastern Conference. Backe's team has gone eight games without keeping a clean sheet.

A solid Chicago Fire pickpocketed the win with two similar opportunist goals: balls played in behind a flat-footed back four for the onrushing Sherjill MacDonald to surge clear and score past Luis Robles, though there was a pungent whiff of offside on the second.

After Sporting Kansas City's pressurizing style did a superb job of neutralizing the Red Bulls as an offensive threat in KC's 2-0 win in Harrison on September 19, it was a surprise not to see the Fire try the same tactic on Saturday.

Ghosting in the gaps between defense and midfield, Thierry Henry dictated the play in the first half as Chicago sat back and protected their box. It often meant Henry dropping deep to receive possession 40 yards or more from goal, but a player of his caliber is dangerous no matter how distant.

You could make the case that man-marking Henry would simply free up team-mates such as Tim Cahill to make unchecked runs into the area, but if the Frenchman isn't afforded the opportunity to pick out passes at will, then the ball won't get into the final third as often. No MLS defense could entirely suffocate Henry over 90 minutes, but it has to be worth trying. And given his temper - a yellow card on Saturday for a reckless tackle and a sustained berating of the referee at half time - sticking tight and getting physical might frustrate him into a rash act.

New York's next fixture? At home to Kansas City. Looks familiar; looks difficult. Suddenly the side is scrambling to finish in the top five, let alone the top three.

3. The wonder of Wondo -- No need for the San Jose Earthquakes to mount an incredible comeback this week, not with Chris Wondolowski in such devastating form. Stick a fork in the MVP race, it's surely done now after the striker's hat-trick in a 4-1 demolition of the Colorado Rapids took him to 25 goals for the season.

After last Saturday's late heroics against FC Dallas, Frank Yallop's side got the job done early at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Marvin Chavez (assisted by Wondolowski) opened the scoring on two minutes, and MLS' top scorer found the net nine minutes later, and again in the 51st and 83rd minutes. Andre Akpan's consolation came from a penalty deep into stoppage-time.

With two regular-season fixtures left, Wondolowski is now only two goals behind Roy Lassiter's all-time high mark of 27, set back in 1996, MLS' inaugural season, with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. This was his second hat-trick of the campaign as San Jose tied club records for wins and points in a season and secured an unassailable nine-point lead in the West.

4. Time to take notice of DC United -- An early start for DC and a 1-0 win over Toronto meant that Ben Olsen's men rose to second place in the Eastern Conference until the Fire leapfrogged them with victory over the Red Bulls.

Quietly, insidiously, DC is finding momentum at the right time, with thirteen points from its past five fixtures. Houston gets the attention for its unbeaten run at BBVA Compass Stadium, but DC has not lost on its own patch since the opening game. Also encouraging: Dwayne DeRosario told TSN on Saturday that he could return from injury during the playoffs. DC has compiled a 4-0-1 record without its best player.

Not that the visitors were impressive. They carved out few opportunities. Chris Pontius had a great half-volley chance from near the penalty spot after 67 minutes but sent the ball into the granite Ontario sky.

Toronto couldn't even get the kick-off right, one player encroaching way into the opponents' half. But then this club knows all about false starts, having lost its first seven MLS games this term.

The 87th-minute winner summed up Toronto's season of futility. After a miskick on halfway by Jeremy Hall, Maicon Santos drove the ball across goal from the right and the diving ex-DC goalkeeper Milos Kocic squirted the ball under his body and to Hamdi Salihi like a center handing a football to a quarterback. It was the moment when the prospect of DC's first playoffs appearance since 2007 was revised from "possible" to "probable".

5. All eyes on Seattle -- One of the quirks of sports is that fans feel fierce antipathy to their nearest neighbors -- in other words, those with whom they should have the most in common. So derbies are ideal marketing tools, automatic passion-stirrers regardless of league position.

Nowhere is this truer than the Pacific Northwest, where Seattle hosts Portland on Sunday night, the home team chasing three points that will keep them firmly in the quest for a top-three place in the Western Conference, thereby avoiding a one-game elimination play-off. And just ask the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves how distressing those can be.

The Los Angeles Galaxy's 2-1 defeat at home to Real Salt Lake on Saturday means that the Sounders are only a point below Bruce Arena's team with two matches in hand.

The game is a hot ticket not because of novelty value -- a doubleheader, a sighting of David Beckham, a new club in a new league, say -- but for the opposite reason, a familiarity between clubs that is deepening their rivalry and intensifying interest.

Local pride is at stake in the curvaceous shape of the Cascadia Cup but this is an occasion with symbolic significance for the entire league. The attendance reportedly will be excess of 66,000: potentially the second-largest standalone crowd in MLS history.

No doubt the cities' strong countercultural ethos partly explains their enthusiastic embrace of soccer: if something's not mainstream, chances are it'll be popular. But with centrally-located stadia, sell-out crowds and dedicated fans, the Sounders and Timbers exemplify some of the reasons why MLS is gradually gaining credibility across the country.

As a bonus, around 1,500 visiting supporters will help make the game an aural as well as a visual feast. The interplay between home and road fans is a dynamic fundamental to soccer culture in other nations but typically lacking in MLS since the distances between most clubs make large traveling contingents a rarity.

The match is live on ESPN and a packed CenturyLink Field will sparkle on the small screen. This matters. The NFL, after all, has grown powerful through broadcast revenue by making games into spectacles. It is event television. So is Sunday's match in Seattle.

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