Power Rankings: Thanks to Neagle, Sounders are back at the top

Monday September 16th, 2013

Lamar Neagle (center) has scored in three straight games for Seattle.

The Sounders rose to the top of the standings, hard luck hit the Revolution and Jay DeMerit returned to action in MLS Week 29:

1. Lesser-heralded Neagle sparks Sounders ascension. The Seattle Sounders have completed the ascension from out of the playoff places to top of the Western Conference and Supporters Shield standings, and with the likes of Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson, Osvaldo Alonso and Mauro Rosales it can't be completely unexpected, right? The club has been built for success, and after some rough sledding in the early going -- which past juggernauts like LA have shown us is not necessarily an indicator of future fortunes -- Seattle has the look of a winner. One question lingers, though.

Where would the Sounders be without Lamar Neagle?

The Federal Way, Wash., native's role for the Sounders is two-fold. In February 2012, he was part of the trade that enabled Johnson to wind up in the Emerald City. Less than a year later, the Sounders shipped an international roster spot to Montreal to re-acquire him. At the time, it seemed like a fan-friendly move and one that would provide familiar depth for Sigi Schmid in the event of injury or suspension. Now, the Sounders' can't afford to take him off the field.

Amid all of Seattle's attacking royalty, Neagle's play has been a large catalyst for the Sounders' surge, one that has the club as winners of five in a row and eight of their last nine games. Neagle has goals in three straight games, and he has played all but two minutes of the recent nine-game run. When he is on the field, he offers energy, creativity and smarts in his runs and a refined finishing product. His peel-off run to meet DeAndre Yedlin's cross for the second Sounders goal was pure class and evidence of a confident player who has made tremendous strides in the last few seasons.

Given injuries and the international schedule, Schmid has not really had to concern himself with scrolling down a full-strength roster and making his selections, but there will come a time when he has to make the call regarding who to leave out, as there are only so many attacking places available on the field. Reputations and ability mean plenty, but it would be hard to imagine the Sounders going forward without the lesser-heralded Neagle occupying one of them.

2. Luck isn't on the Revs' side. With the playoff races so close, a few calls here and there are bound to determine a team's fate. Unfortunately for the New England Revolution, those calls have recently gone in the favor of the opposition.

In two straight games against Eastern Conference playoff contenders, the Revs have ended up on the wrong end of controversy, and as a result, their playoff chase has become that much more difficult. Two games ago it was goalkeeper Matt Reis questionably being sent off in the opening minutes of what wound up being a 4-2 loss to Montreal. This past week the Revs were robbed of a goal that would have put them up over Chicago 3-1 only to have a phantom offside call wipe that off the board.

Instead, while only nursing a one-goal edge, the Revs conceded an equalizer that was also covered in controversy. Mike Magee's goal, which allowed him to remain two goals behind league-leading scorer Marco Di Vaio (18 goals), was scored after forward Juan Luis Anangono effectively boxed out Revs center back Jose Goncalves from an offside position. That allowed Magee to have a clear look at goal, and the clinical finisher made no mistake to level the match.

Perhaps it is just desserts for the Revolution being the beneficiary of an overturned goal against Philadelphia in late August that turned the direction of that match in New England's favor. No matter, the soccer gods are frowning on Jay Heaps' men at this most vital time in the season, and the club is now two points outside of the playoff places while being left to wonder what could have been in the last two weeks.

3. DeMerit returns for Vancouver: When Jay DeMerit went down in a heap just minutes into the Vancouver Whitecaps' season, plenty wondered whether we had seen the last of the 33-year-old center back. If not for his career, then at the very least this season. Players of that age with that many miles typically face a tougher road back than most. Any doubters probably haven't seen "Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story" just yet, because if there is one thing DeMerit does not do it is lay down and give up in the face of adversity.

The Whitecaps captain and U.S. national team World Cup veteran returned six months after rupturing his Achilles on opening day as an injury replacement for Brad Rusin Saturday night, completing his comeback on the lower end of the time frame initially given for his recovery. DeMerit, who was fortunate not to have tallied an own goal upon his return, will be looked upon to play a big role with his club in a fight for its postseason life.

Rusin joined Andy O'Brien and Johnny Leveron among the wounded Whitecaps central defenders, leaving manager Martin Rennie with no choice but to insert DeMerit against San Jose's stable of forwards, who are some of the more physical, demanding forwards in the league. DeMerit passed his initial test in helping Vancouver keep a clean sheet in the 0-0 draw -- just the club's second since July 7, both of which came against San Jose -- and after defying some personal odds, No. 6 will be counted on to don the captain's armband and help the Whitecaps overcome hurdles in the standings in order to return to the playoffs.

4. Deja vu for Colorado, Dallas: FC Dallas playmaker David Ferreira scores the opening goal. Colorado finds an equalizer and then snatches victory with an own goal off a Dallas defender. Sound familiar?

The 2010 MLS Cup final script played out once again Saturday night, as the Rapids battled back from a goal down to take another 2-1 result off FC Dallas. Now, the stakes weren't nearly as high, as a championship was not won or lost, and the crosser, in this case Vicente Sanchez, did not tear his ACL a la Macoumba Kandji (fortunately for Colorado fans, because the 33-year-old veteran looks to have plenty of life left in his legs given his showing).

Playoff fates are hanging in the balance, though, as FCD could have crept past Portland and into fifth place with a win but instead remains on the outside of the picture looking in. Colorado, meanwhile, fortified its place in the top five with the three-point haul and had to considering that the teams on its heels, LA and Portland, each have a game in hand. There is plenty of soccer to be played, but after a brief return to form had FC Dallas thinking playoffs again, the last thing the club needed was a harsh reminder of its past failure.

5. Team of the Week:

Goalkeeper: Matt Lampson (Columbus Crew)

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

Midfielders: Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo), Vicente Sanchez (Colorado Rapids), Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew)

Forwards: Lamar Neagle (Seattle Sounders), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders), Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)

Week 29 MLS Power Rankings
New Rank Old Rank Team
1 2 Seattle Sounders (15-8-4)
There is no doubt who belongs in the top spot after Seattle played its way past Real Salt Lake Friday night with a 2-0 victory. The Sounders have won eight of their last nine games, including five in a row, to take over the top spot in the MLS Western Conference and Supporters' Shield races. Seattle has peaked early in the past only to fizzle out in the postseason, but it certainly seems like Sigi Schmid's side is hitting its stride at the right time as the final month of the season approaches.
2 1 Real Salt Lake (14-9-6)
Friday the 13th was unkind to RSL, which came off its bye week and was knocked off its perch for the first time in months following its loss in Seattle. For a team that had scored multiple goals in four straight games, RSL was shut down completely. Now Jason Kreis' side must stay on its toes as it faces four consecutive opponents who will be desperate for points as the season winds down.
3 3 Montreal Impact (13-8-6)
Montreal has little excuse for allowing Columbus to come into Stade Saputo and come back from a goal down to take a 2-1 result. The Impact failed to play the second half with the required focus and skill and paid the price. The club is still in fine standing for a top-three place in the Eastern Conference, but if it misses out on a top seed and the Supporters' Shield, Saturday's result will certainly stick out.
4 8 New York Red Bulls (14-9-6)
The Red Bulls sit alone atop the Eastern Conference standings by taking care of business against Toronto FC behind goals from Thierry Henry and Fabian Espindola. Mike Petke showed plenty of faith in rookie and supplemental draft pick Michael Bustamante to start him in a vital game for the club, and he came through in helping set up Henry's opening goal.
5 5 Sporting Kansas City (13-9-6)
Sporting KC remains five points clear of the wildcard playoff spots after a bye week, one in which it added another past member of Barcelona's La Masia academy in Argentine left back Fede Bessone. He will provide competition for Seth Sinovic and more depth for Peter Vermes' side, which ventures back into CONCACAF Champions League play this week.
6 4 LA Galaxy (13-10-5)
LA twice blew one-goal leads in a 2-2 draw with lowly D.C., with U.S. center back Omar Gonzalez at fault by committing a huge error for the first equalizer. Robbie Keane's MVP candidacy continues to grow, though, with the Irishman adding another goal and assist to his season tally. He has 13 and 11, respectively, and continues to be the most difficult forward to mark.
7 7 Colorado Rapids (12-8-9)
Colorado battled back from a goal down to FC Dallas to take an important 2-1 result to boost its playoff positioning. Midseason acquisition Vicente Sanchez was the catalyst, scoring and equalizer and sending in the cross that led to the decisive own goal. It was a vital result for the Rapids, who put a five-point gap between themselves and sixth place.
8 6 Portland Timbers (10-5-13)
Portland was left unsatisfied again after only being able to take a draw off Chivas USA and having to scramble just in order to pull that off. Diego Valeri came off the bench to score a valuable equalizer. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was perhaps fortunate to not have conceded a penalty to Erick Torres on a second-half breakaway, but the Timbers will take their point and move forward into a crucial game with Colorado Friday night.
9 11 Houston Dynamo (11-10-7)
Order was restored for Houston, which snapped a four-game winless skid and took three invaluable points off Philadelphia at PPL Park to climb back into playoff positioning. Ricardo Clark has long been touted as an unsung hero for Houston, going back to the days before he left for Europe, and he scored the game-deciding goal off a ball from Brad Davis. With Adam Moffat traded to Seattle, Clark's performance in the center of the field will become even more important.
10 9 Philadelphia Union (11-10-7)
After a 1-0 home defeat to the Dynamo, the Union are winless in five matches and have just one win in their last seven games. John Hackworth's side is trending toward mediocrity at the worst possible time and fell out of playoff positioning after being within a result of first place just weeks ago. The remaining five games make for a mixed bag, with two games against Sporting KC and one against Montreal in addition to matches against cellar dwellers D.C. United and Chivas USA.
11 10 FC Dallas (10-8-10)
FCD blew a chance to make some major headway in its quest to return to the playoff places, as Matt Hedges' unfortunate own goal snapped a tie and allowed Colorado to take a 2-1 result in their 2010 MLS Cup final rematch. Half of Dallas' six remaining games are against Eastern Conference foes, so the club will need to take care of business while hoping for other results to go its way down the stretch.
12 15 Chicago Fire (11-11-6)
Chicago completed the long ascension back into the playoff places with a four-point week that included a draw at Toronto and a win over New England. Alex came off the bench to immediately play hero, as he scored the game-winning goal in the waning minutes after Chicago twice came back from a goal down at home against a game New England side.
13 12 New England Revolution (10-11-7)
The Revs will have a serious problem with how they wound up losing to Chicago Saturday night, but harping on the past won't do the club any good. Playing against D.C. United has been the elixir for most clubs, but with the bottom-feeder motivated to avoid setting the league record for losses and playing hard, New England must be ready for a battle in order to snap its three-game winless skid.
14 13 Vancouver Whitecaps (10-10-8)
Vancouver was stifled by San Jose but managed to claw out a 0-0 draw away from home. That result won't do much for the team's postseason aspirations, as the Whitecaps have just one win in their last nine games and are winless in their last five with an absolutely brutal schedule to close the season. After a Canada clash with Montreal, Vancouver faces RSL, Portland, Seattle and the Rapids twice in succession.
15 14 San Jose Earthquakes (10-11-8)
The Earthquakes needed more than just a draw from their home clash with the Whitecaps given that they've played a game more than the four teams they are chasing in the standings and have just five games left to make up ground. The club's home unbeaten streak might be at 14 games now, but three of the next four games are on the road, with the playoffs becoming increasingly difficult to reach.
16 16 Columbus Crew (10-14-5)
Columbus won't go down without a fight, and that much was clear by the club's come-from-behind 2-1 win over Montreal at Stade Saputo. Federico Higuain sparked the comeback, setting up goals by Chad Marshall and Dominic Oduro and taking over in the final 45 minutes as interim manager Brian Bliss saw his side's faint playoff hopes remain alive.
17 17 Chivas USA (6-15-8)
Chivas continues to thrive in the role of spoiler, holding the Timbers to a 1-1 draw and making Portland's playoff venture all the more tenuous. Despite having little chance at finishing the season out of the basement and no first-round pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, Chivas has at the very least turned back into a squad willing to battle hard.
18 18 Toronto FC (4-14-11)
TFC saw its winless streak run to seven games after a draw with Chicago and loss to New York, and the road to snapping that skid could become more treacherous. Young sparkplug Jonathan Osorio could be in for some discipline after kicking a ball into the head of Red Bulls defender Kosuke Kimura after a foul was committed in the 2-0 defeat.
19 19 D.C. United (3-19-6)
D.C. battled back from two one-goal deficits to stun the LA Galaxy and salvage some pride with a 2-2 draw Saturday afternoon. With Chris Pontius being so instrumental and looking like the player who has been on the U.S. national team cusp for the last couple of years, it had to have made D.C. fans wonder what could have been had he not been battling injuries for the duration of the season.

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