Daytime games held many MLS storylines on Saturday
Saturday's MLS games featured an unusual trio of daytime games that held just about every storyline of the week - the Red Bulls' resurgence, contentious refereeing decisions, and more late drama in San Jose.
Game of the day
The Union declared Saturday to be Star Wars Day at PPL Park, and some players duly turned to the dark side. Three were sent off in the final six minutes.
First, Lamar Neagle of Seattle and the Union's Sheanon Williams pushed, shoved and locked heads like rutting stags after they clashed when chasing a loose ball. No punches were thrown or head-butts attempted but the referee, Jorge Gonzalez, decided the posturing merited a red card for each player. Yellows would have been more appropriate.
As the game entered stoppage time, Seattle defender DeAndre Yedlin had a rush of blood to his flamboyantly-coiffured head. After missing Michael Farfan with a dangerous sliding tackle near midfield, the 19-year-old tried again three seconds later with a skidding lunge that chopped down the midfielder and sent him rolling into the fetal position.
Yedlin's ejection did not affect the result, but the officials missed a clear handball by Seattle's Leo Gonzalez right at the end. Gonzalez blocked a Conor Casey shot with a move worthy of a volleyball court. The defender fell clutching his nose, apparently because the force of the ball striking his outstretched arm had caused him to slap himself in the face. Either that or he was pretending the ball had hit his head, not his hand.
Union head coach John Hackworth used his post-game press conference to lambast the officials. It wasn't without cause.
The visitors took the lead in the 10th minute through Eddie Johnson, who was back from a hamstring problem for his first start since March 30. Five minutes into the second half, a double from Danny Cruz within 90 seconds transformed the match but Mauro Rosales soon leveled the scores.
Seattle remains bottom of the Western Conference, though Sigi Schmid's team has games in hand on the clubs above them. The Sounders have already played three fixtures fewer than the San Jose Earthquakes, two less than Vancouver Whitecaps, and one less than Chivas USA.
However, two suspended players worsens Seattle's personnel shortage. On Saturday the club was without five players through injury and Osvaldo Alonso was absent because his wife had just given birth.
However, they did get center back Djimi Traore back from injury. His presence was crucial for a side that often struggled to contain the Union's attacking duo of Casey and Jack McInerney. There are question-marks about the Union elsewhere, not least their young goalkeeper, Zac MacMath, but Casey and McInerney are shaping up to be one of the most effective forward combinations in MLS.
Player of the day
A Robles blunder may have contributed to Toronto FC's equalizer last week in a 2-1 Red Bulls win, but he was heroic on Saturday. The goalkeeper saved Federico Higuain's 72nd-minute penalty kick and Tim Cahill scored eight minutes later as New York beat the Columbus Crew 1-0 in a dull match in Ohio.
Higuain's fatal error? Scoring from the spot in his previous game. "Part of our strategy as a team is to study our opponent every week and it just so happened that last week he did take a penalty," Robles told MLSsoccer.com. "The one thing that helped about it wasn't necessarily the direction that he went, but that he takes a stutter-step. If I wouldn't have known beforehand, then maybe I would've gone too early, sold myself too quickly, and it just worked out for us."
A 28-year-old Arizona native who played in Germany from 2007 to 2012, Robles was capped for the U.S. national team against Haiti in 2009. Seeking a replacement for injured rookie Ryan Meara, the Red Bulls traded for the Galaxy's Bill Gaudette last July then signed Robles the following month. The inconsistent Gaudette hurt his back in September, Robles grabbed his chance and has played every game since. New York added 38-year-old Kevin Hartman, the MLS shutout record holder, as a free agent in March, so head coach Mike Petke has attractive options if Robles starts to struggle.
Their slow start to the campaign now just a memory, the three points in Columbus lifted Petke's team to the head of the Eastern division, above the Montreal Impact - who visit Red Bull Arena on Wednesday.
Stat of the day
Real Salt Lake's Ecuadorian forward was never likely to claim a headed goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night. Plata is 5-foot-2 while the veteran defender O'Brien is 6-foot-3.
But one of the joys of soccer is that skill often trumps size. The 21-year-old's movement exposed O'Brien's lack of pace and created both goals in a 2-0 win for RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium. Plata made dangerous runs in the gaps between Vancouver's outside backs and center backs, causing confusion in the Canadians' defense.
For the first goal in the 47th minute, O'Brien initially tried to match strides with Plata out wide on a breakaway but gave up and ran back towards the middle. However, by that time he had already given Luis Gil a head start and the RSL man had enough space to connect with Plata's cross from eight yards. As the counter-attack unfolded, O'Brien kept glancing at Plata when he should have watched Gil more closely.
O'Brien was too late to the danger again in the 70th minute as Plata slid the ball across the face of goal for Javier Morales to convert.
Vancouver's problems? They're towering. Martin Rennie's side was comprehensively outplayed and after taking maximum points from the first two games of the season the Whitecaps are on a seven match winless streak in MLS.
Goal of the day
A last-gasp strike for the San Jose Earthquakes? It barely qualifies as news. Frank Yallop's team has made the dramatic seem routine. It scored nine injury-time goals in 2012. The Earthquakes are on pace for a similar tally this year: Cronin's precise low diagonal effort from outside the box was their third goal past the 90th minute in ten fixtures this year.
The difference this season is that San Jose's comebacks are producing ties rather than victories. Last year's Supporters Shield champions hold a 2-3-5 record and are winless in six matches - four of them draws.
One factor is Chris Wondolowski's return to Earth after his otherworldly 2012. With four goals in ten starts, he is on track to claim about half as many goals as he scored last year, when he equaled Roy Lassiter's single-season record of 27.
Wondolowski did not find the net against Montreal at Buck Shaw Stadium but he was productive all the same, assisting on both goals as San Jose rallied from a 2-0 deficit to claim a point. As the Earthquakes piled forward in search of an equalizer, Wondolowski was lurking surprisingly far from goal. But his position just inside the penalty area proved perfect as he nodded substitute Walter Martinez's long ball into the path of Cronin, who expertly controlled the pass and beat Troy Perkins.
It was the least the Earthquakes deserved: they forced 14 corners to Montreal's one. But while San Jose are as resilient and direct as last year, the same ethos is not bringing the same results.