Power Rankings: Eastern contenders fail to make moves

Monday September 9th, 2013

The Red Bulls outplayed Will Bruin (left) and the sixth-place Dynamo on Sunday, winning 4-1.
Robert Chamblis/Icon SMI

Eastern Conference playoff contenders all stalled out, Edson Buddle crept closer to 100 goals and Sporting KC took a calculated gamble in MLS Week 28:

1. Houston's hard times: If Houston Dynamo manager Dom Kinnear had any hair remaining, it surely would've been pulled out following this week.

It would have been enough to see his side lose to a desperate, undermanned (i.e. no Federico Higuain) Columbus Crew team that just had its coach fired. It would have been enough to see captain and star winger Brad Davis suddenly get called into the U.S. national team as a reinforcement just a day before a vital home game against the New York Red Bulls. It would have been enough to see USA-caliber forward Will Bruin continually miss the mark on golden chances. It would have been enough to see the lax, soft defending by Adam Moffat and Bobby Boswell allow Thierry Henry, of all people, to coast in on goal undeterred.

Eventually, it was enough for Kinnear, who was sent off in the final stages of Houston's lackluster 4-1 loss to the Red Bulls, and as a result won't be in the coach's box for Saturday's crucial bout against the Philadelphia Union.

It would not be a shock at all to see a Kinnear-coached team fall into a rough patch only to bounce back at the right juncture. After all, Houston endured a four-game winless streak -- like the one it is currently on -- at almost the exact same time last season only to make the playoffs as a wild card team, catch fire in the postseason and nearly capture the MLS Cup. With Oscar Boniek Garcia missing both games this past week, center back Jermaine Taylor on international duty as well and Davis' void leaving Kinnear with short time to prepare for his absence, in addition to a number of other key injuries, the Dynamo were not fully equipped and performed accordingly.

Despite such woes, all is not lost for Houston. Ricardo Clark's return from an unspecified illness should provide an immediate boost in terms of shielding a wounded back line that has underperformed and been uncharacteristically exposed on multiple occasions during Houston's recent funk. A return to fitness for Corey Ashe and Eric Brunner would help patch up the space in front of goalkeeper Tally Hall considerably. If Bruin continues to get the great looks at goal that he has been seeing, logic would suggest that a finisher of his quality would connect and win back some confidence.

For it to be this late in the season and have so much unsettled for a side with loads of carryover from its two MLS Cup-reaching teams, though, is an unexpected development, making Kinnear's frustrations completely understandable.

2. Eastern class separation: Fortunately for Houston, its crisis of a week didn't really cost anything in terms of the conference playoff standings. Sure, the club missed two golden opportunities to make up ground and gain steady footing among the top five, but every one of its closest competitors for the final two playoff places lost over the weekend.

Chicago sustained a self-inflicted wound with a late own goal to drop a result to shorthanded Seattle. New England saw goalkeeper Matt Reis sent off in the opening minutes, paving the way for an uphill climb and eventual loss to Montreal. Philadelphia laid an egg on the West Coast, falling to 10-man San Jose. What the results have done is create a clear gap, for the first time, between the top three sides in the conference -- Montreal, New York and Sporting KC -- and those competing for the two places in the one-off wild card round.

The standings may not have indicated it for some time, but there is a clear class distinction in the East. Following this past weekend's exploits, with the top three all turning in well-oiled showings as others stumbled, the table finally reflects that.

3. LA's international incident: The Colorado Rapids have played the LA Galaxy three times this season, and on all three occasions all three Galaxy Designated Players were nowhere to be found.

During the first encounter in March, Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane were on international duty, while Landon Donovan still had not returned from his playing hiatus (doesn't that seem like ages ago?). In their second meeting, in late July, Keane was nursing an injury while Donovan and Gonzalez were helping the US to a Gold Cup final triumph over Panama.

Saturday, all three -- in addition to new Panamanian goalkeeper Jaime Penedo -- were on international duty again, leaving Bruce Arena to turn to his talented, but young, attacking core with little veteran experience on which to rely. Not surprisingly, Arena was none too pleased with the hand he was dealt, and after watching one of his former international players, Edson Buddle, deliver a decisive goal and the 98th of his career in the 1-0 Colorado win, he vented.

"It's ridiculous we have to play these games in these [international fixture] windows," Arena said following the loss, one that snapped his side's three-game winning streak. "We have such a congested schedule, I don't think we've played Colorado yet this year with our [full] team, which is ridiculous. You know, you're in playoff races, and I think every time, I don't know if every time is a fixture window but for whatever reason we've not played them yet with our full team."

With the growing number of international call-ups in MLS, and given the intensity of the playoff races come September, perhaps MLS should reduce its schedule congestion by shortening the season some. An NBC Sports report alluded to a 28-game schedule being considered for the future, which would certainly alleviate Arena's woes. For the time being, though, in the current incarnation of MLS, paying for top talent often means losing that talent when international teams come calling, and that should not be all that stunning for Arena or the Galaxy, who have become accustomed to shipping away high-profile players during World Cup qualifying and other international dates.

DART: Chicago gifts Seattle a win, while L.A. falls at home

4. SKC moves on from Kamara: Sporting Kansas City had to make a tough decision in transferring fan favorite and starting forward Kei Kamara to Middlesbrough ahead of the English transfer deadline. On the one hand, the transfer fee the club received will help its long-term viability, and ever since his loan to Norwich City, the organization has been preparing for his departure. That it was able to have him return from Norwich, sign a new contract to maintain his transfer value and have him be a productive cog in the season prior to profiting on his exit makes it a pretty understandable course of action.

On the other hand, there's still the possibility that Sporting KC brass could look back on the move with some regret in a couple of months if a playoff run to MLS Cup does not materialize. Sporting KC has intense championship aspirations, and Kamara's seven goals in 15 games, coupled with his work rate, have made him a valuable piece of the SKC puzzle for the last four years. Should a lack of killer instinct haunt the club in the postseason, hindsight won't be pleasant.

Still, this is an instance in which the club can have its cake and eat it too. As vital as Kamara had been to Sporting KC, the club has a chest of riches -- albeit less-tested -- when it comes to striker depth. Soony Saad has been marvelous since claiming a role in Peter Vermes' regular rotation. Forgotten man C.J. Sapong was U.S. January camp-caliber not all that long ago, and Kamara's departure opens up more minutes for him to reclaim his confidence and form. Second-year forward Dom Dwyer, fresh off scoring four goals in the USL PRO championship while on loan with Orlando City, is emerging as a viable option as well.

All of the above gave Vermes and club CEO Robb Heineman just cause to part ways with a popular, productive player while looking out for the present and future fortunes of the team.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Clint Irwin (Colorado Rapids)

Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Chivas USA), Jamison Olave (New York Red Bulls), Djimi Traore (Seattle Sounders)

Midfielders: JeVaughn Watson (FC Dallas), Shea Salinas (San Jose Earthquakes), Will Johnson (Portland Timbers), Jonny Steele (New York Red Bulls)

Forwards: Lamar Neagle (Seattle Sounders), Claudio Bieler (Sporting Kansas City), Marco Di Vaio (Montreal Impact)

Week 28 MLS Power Rankings
New Rank Old Rank Team
1 1 Real Salt Lake (14-8-6)
RSL retains its perch atop the Western Conference after a bye week, but it watched the results around the league give Friday's nationally televised clash against the hard-charging Seattle Sounders even more meaning. With a victory, RSL would restore some breathing room in the Supporters' Shield race against a team that has two games in hand and trails by only two points. A loss would put Seattle in the driver's seat for the Shield.
2 3 Seattle Sounders (14-8-4)
Seattle's six-point haul with a depleted squad (no Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson or Brad Evans for both games, and no Obafemi Martins and Leo Gonzalez for one) not only highlighted the club's depth but it also has the Sounders, winners of seven of their last eight games, positioned for a Supporters' Shield charge. Lamar Neagle inherited the scoring responsibilities with goals in wins over Chivas USA and Chicago and continues his resurgence since returning to his hometown club.
3 4 Montreal Impact (13-7-6)
Unbeaten in four games after a 4-2 victory in New England, the Impact have fully righted the ship after a summer hiccup and sit in a favorable place atop the Eastern Conference standings. Marco Di Vaio's two goals give him a league-leading 17 for the season, and he looks the part of the favorite to win the Golden Boot, considering form and health of his closest competitors.
4 2 LA Galaxy (13-10-4)
The Galaxy's three-game winning streak came to a halt, with former striker Edson Buddle doing the damage in a 1-0 loss to Colorado no less. Bruce Arena's side can take solace in the fact that it was without its starting goalkeeper and DP trio, but the failure to secure any points keeps the pressure on with teams trailing in the standings gaining ground over the weekend.
5 5 Sporting Kansas City (13-9-6)
Sporting KC asserted its dominance in a thorough 3-0 beating of Columbus to keep pace with Montreal and New York atop the Eastern Conference. With Kei Kamara off to Middlesbrough, the club's other attacking components will need to fill the void for the playoff run. Soony Saad has done just that with his opportunities, and so too has Benny Feilhaber, who has been quietly enjoying a return to form in recent weeks.
6 6 Portland Timbers (10-5-12)
Portland is back to its winning ways after a 4-0 thrashing of Toronto FC, one that got out of hand with three goals in the final 10 minutes. It is no coincidence that the club's fortunes turned with the return of captain Will Johnson, who scored a career-high seventh goal in his first match back from a shoulder injury and helped restore order after a three-game winless run.
7 7 Colorado Rapids (11-8-9)
Edson Buddle is up to 98 goals in his career after torching his former club LA with a vicious strike and guiding the Rapids to a 1-0 win and a much-needed three-point haul at the StubHub Center. Each one of Colorado's final six games will have six-point-swing potential as the club looks to return to the postseason after missing out last year.
8 8 New York Red Bulls (13-9-6)
For all of the Red Bulls' road struggles this season, they've managed to win at two of the toughest places to play, Kansas City and Houston. The 4-1 win over the Dynamo was as encouraging a victory as the club has had this season, with complementary parts Jonny Steele, Eric Alexander and Bradley Wright-Phillips each playing major roles in the spirit-lifting win.
9 9 Philadelphia Union (10-9-9)
The Union won't want to look at the game film from their 1-0 loss in San Jose Sunday night, with the club unable to take advantage of an Earthquakes side that was depleted in defense and down to 10 men for the final 33 minutes of the contest. The club returns home to face Houston in a game that can either go a long way in cementing Philadelphia's place in the top five or ensure a struggle down the home stretch.
10 14 FC Dallas (10-7-10)
FC Dallas refuses to go away. The club has followed up its 11-game winless stretch with a three-game unbeaten streak, with the most recent result being a vital 3-1 victory over Vancouver despite leading scorer Blas Perez's being unavailable. Mauro Diaz and Jair Benitez's game-deciding goals were both of the highlight-reel variety, and they have FCD feeling quite good ahead of a match with Colorado that could catapult the club back into the playoff picture if it can pull out another win.
11 10 Houston Dynamo (10-10-7)
Houston's struggles, both to get a top-choice team on the field and to churn out successful results, continued in a bad way Sunday, with a lackluster 4-1 loss to New York following up a surprising 2-0 loss to Columbus on Wednesday. The Dynamo did not lose any ground in the playoff chase despite the losses, but there are greater signs of worry for Dom Kinnear's side heading into a vital clash with Philadelphia at PPL Park.
12 12 New England Revolution (10-10-7)
New England's 4-2 loss to Montreal turned in the early minutes, with goalkeeper Matt Reis controversially sent off after taking Marco Di Vaio down in the box. There is no question that a penalty should have been called on the play, but there is plenty of room to argue that Di Vaio was not denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and that Reis should not have seen red. The Revs played hard to stay alive, but that's a tough mountain to climb against a strong opponent.
13 11 Vancouver Whitecaps(10-10-7)
The Whitecaps are going through another one of their funks, with a 3-1 loss in Dallas extending their winless streak to four games at an inopportune time. Martin Rennie's curious decision to start Nigel Reo-Coker at right back surely did not work out, as FC Dallas exposed his lack of savvy and experience at the position. Vancouver suddenly finds itself five points out of a playoff place with a brutal schedule to close the season.
14 15 San Jose Earthquakes (10-11-7)
Despite being without its top center back tandem and going down a man for the final 33 minutes, San Jose used a moment of class from Shea Salinas and an all-around gutsy effort to land a 1-0 victory over Philadelphia and maintain its playoff hopes. The Earthquakes have played a game more than the three teams they are chasing and are five points out of a playoff berth, but Mark Watson's side is not going down quietly.
15 12 Chicago Fire (10-11-5)
Chicago had every right to claim at least a point against Seattle, but Gonzalo Segares' inadvertent own goal in the waning minutes coughed up the points and had the Fire heading home unsatisfied. All eyes will be on goal-scorer Mike Magee's apparent leg injury, especially with a two-game week on the docket and a playoff spot still there for the taking.
16 16 Columbus Crew (9-14-5)
The Crew kicked off the post-Robert Warzycha era in solid form, earning a 2-0 midweek win over Houston, before coming crashing back down to earth and being supremely outclassed by Sporting KC over the weekend. Yielding an early penalty to a team like SKC, which is tough to beat once it has the lead, is a recipe for disaster, which is how the remainder of Saturday night's contest played out.
17 17 Chivas USA (6-15-7)
The Goats continue to give top effort down the stretch, narrowly losing in Seattle before returning home to take a 1-0 win off lowly D.C. United. Erick Torres earned another chance to do the robot following his opportunistic goal, and he now has seven goals in just nine games since joining the club on loan from parent club Chivas de Guadalajara.
18 18 Toronto FC (4-13-10)
The wheels fell off both on and off the field for TFC this week. First, president and general manager Kevin Payne was shown the door not even a full season into his Toronto venture, another flareup in the club's turbulent front office history. Then, the Reds saw a 1-0 game get out of control in a 10-minute flurry and eventually lost 4-0 to Portland.
19 19 D.C. United (3-19-5)
Still winless on the road, D.C. saw its futile campaign hit a new low following a 1-0 loss to Chivas USA. The rare chances that were created were blown, and the goal that was conceded was a gift. If there is a silver lining, it is that Chris Pontius returned from injury as a second-half substitute after missing the last seven matches with a hamstring knock.

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