Sporting Kansas City finally loses, while the San Jose Earthquakes continue to rise in Week 7 in MLS:
That's simplifying things a bit much and taking away credit from Portland, who countered Sporting KC's physical style with brutal physicality and sound defending of its own, but the fact remains that an unforced own goal is all that stands between Sporting KC and being unbeaten. Kris Boyd's teasing cross wasn't met with by single Portland runner, but a lack of communication between Chance Myers and trailing midfielder Julio Cesar resulted in a panicked Myers header into his own goal.
There are other factors that played into Sporting KC's first loss, too. Peter Vermes opted to eschew his depth and trot out his first-choice starting XI despite Saturday being the club's third game in a week's time, likely looking at the bye week to come and thinking that his side would get the rest they need during that period. Weary legs going up against a fully rested Portland side was likely a factor, with a lack of sharpness in the final third resulting in Sporting KC being held goal-less for the first time this season.
Portland, which snapped a four-game losing skid, had plenty of say in the result as well, making the necessary adjustments to stifle Sporting KC's attack. John Spencer opted to stack out-of-favor right back Lovel Palmer behind Jack Jewsbury in a more defense-oriented central midfield to break up KC playmaker Graham Zusi's rhythm. The plan worked, with Spencer saying it was Palmer's best game as a Timber. It is hard to say that a blueprint for countering Blue Hell has been established considering that Sporting KC still had its way in the possession battle, but at the very least, Portland gave some ideas to the teams who have Sporting KC looming on the schedule.
Credit goes to coach Ben Olsen for managing his roster and playing his hot hands, but a number of players thought to be unconditional starters remain nothing more than high-profile reserves. Bill Hamid, Andy Najar, and Designated Players Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic all continue to remain conspicuously absent from the club's lineup despite being healthy and fit.
In Olsen's defense, there is good reason for their respective absences. Joe Willis has been sound in goal ever since Hamid left for U.S. U-23 national team duty; Danny Cruz, who most might forget started in last year's MLS Cup final, has brought an infectious energy to the right wing ever since given the reins when Najar was with the Honduras U-23s; Maicon Santos has emerged as one of the finds on the offseason transfer market, capitalizing while Salihi has struggled to find his footing in MLS; and Boskovic has watched as Dwayne De Rosario has shifted back into a midfield role while Chris Pontius has a go of it up top and rookie Nick DeLeon becomes a fixture on the left wing.
For Hamid, who could generate plenty of transfer value for the club, it's uncertain what will it take for him to reclaim his spot. By letting Willis remain the starter, Olsen is sending the message that Hamid, who as recently as last fall had been called the U.S. national team's No. 2 keeper by Jurgen Klinsmann, is not his bona fide No. 1. By keeping Najar, another potential European transfer target, on the bench and favoring Cruz' work rate and defensive qualities, he is not allowing the 19-year-old winger to develop any semblance of consistency.
At the rate things are going, Salihi is going to find it mighty difficult to get starters' minutes with in-form and versatile players ahead of him. Boskovic, meanwhile, who was talked up all preseason as an integral part of the attack, is an afterthought and is surely doubtful to last in D.C. past July, when the club has an option to extend his stay.
With D.C. clicking offensively and avoiding the mistakes that cost it points over the last few years, having too much depth is a welcome problem for Olsen. Players constantly speak of how in-house competition brings the best out of everyone, but the brewing personnel situation involving four integral members of the club is one worth keeping in mind as the season continues to unfold.
The latest examples involved Ramon Hernandez, who nearly turned the Los Angeles Galaxy's win over the Colorado Rapids into a draw; and Elias Bazakos, who really tilted the scales in favor of the San Jose Earthquakes in their win over Real Salt Lake Saturday night.
Hernandez' penalty call in the 90th minute of a one-goal game has to be among the worst ever granted in the league. The only contact on Jeff Larentowicz' s hopeful lob over the top was initiated by Colorado forward Andre Akpan, who stretched out his right arm to brace himself off Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant and his left arm to do the same off center back David Junior Lopes.
Usually players will be up in arms if they think a penalty is deserved, but Akpan went down on his own accord and didn't seem to have "penalty" cross his mind as he got up, based on his reaction. Yet Hernandez, trailing the play by a good 30 yards and at an awful angle, saw fit to put the result in the balance anyway, sparking a Galaxy protest surrounding the referee that was reminiscent of something found in a testy Barcelona-Real Madrid encounter. The only reason that the poor call isn't the talk of the league is because Josh Saunders saved Omar Cummings' penalty kick, but for Hernandez to be so sure, from so far away on such a routine play with the result riding on the line was just baffling.
In San Jose, Bazakos became the latest referee to be duped by pesky forward Steven Lenhart, who initiated all contact on Jamison Olave's otherwise fair shoulder-to-shoulder challenge that saw the Colombian see red for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and reduced RSL to nine men for the final 23 minutes of the 3-1 Quakes win. In Bazakos' defense, he likely could not see Lenhart grabbing Olave's shorts and yanking the defender into his path from the angle at which he was trailing the play, but like Hernandez, he has to be absolutely certain to make that call with as much at stake because of it.
San Jose, the most improved team in the league, sits in first place in the Western Conference after the win, and victories over trailing clubs RSL and Seattle can be directly attributed to Lenhart living up to his reputation as a wily instigator and one who claimed Bazakos as his latest referee victim.
Zac MacMath's early shaky showings have given way to a 332-minute shutout streak in which the second-year goalkeeper has rediscovered his steady hands and sound positioning to reward Nowak's faith in him. MacMath's resurgence is coming at a time when Philadelphia needs it, too. Injuries to captain Danny Califf and some overall instability at the back have pressed Sheanon Williams into center back duty and underrated rookie right back Ray Gaddis into the starting lineup.
Goalkeeper: Zac MacMath (Philadelphia Union)
Defenders: A.J. DeLaGarza (Los Angeles Galaxy), Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Beitashour (San Jose Earthquakes)
Midfielders: Patrick Nyarko (Chicago Fire), Eddie Gaven (Columbus Crew), Lovel Palmer (Portland Timbers), Reggie Lambe (Toronto FC)
Forwards: Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo), Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Maicon Santos (D.C. United)