MLS Week 33 Recap, Highlights: Portland stuns LA, Red Bulls inch towards shield

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by RYAN BRISTER

There was no room for the faint-of-heart in the penultimate week of the Major League Soccer season. This was a week in which teams either brought their A-game or were swiftly pushed aside. While the final playoff places grew less hazy, the Supporters’ Shield race is narrowing to a very fine point. It all sets up for a very interesting final Sunday.

New York Red Bulls 4-1 Philadelphia Union

Hot knife, meet butter. Butter, hot knife. The Red Bulls went through the Union like they weren’t even there on Sunday.

Philadelphia kicked off the game. Seven seconds later, Mike Grella scored in their net. An errant backpass and a deflection past Andre Blake contributed to the fastest goal in MLS history.

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The Union probably should have seen the above as an harbinger of things to come. Bradley Wright-Phillips gave the Red Bulls a 2-0 lead in just the fourth minute, tapping in a flicked-on corner kick. Grella showed off his dribbling ability in scoring his second goal in the 17th minute. After a poor midweek performance, the Red Bulls came out with something to prove in this one.

New York toyed with their guests as the first half went on, and perhaps could have scored more than they actually did. BWP had a bicycle kick go over the bar and a close-range chance go wide later in the half. The fourth goal would eventually come from Kemar Lawrence sneaking in on the left wing to finish off a flowing attacking move.

After nearly giving up a fifth goal early in the second half, Philly caught New York on the counter. Sebastian Le Toux finished a quick break for the Union, getting them on the scoreboard at least.

New York is level on points with Dallas in the Supporters’ Shield race, but this result provides them with a very healthy advantage in goal difference. Matching Dallas’ result will be enough for the Red Bulls to win their second Supporters’ Shield in three years.

FC Dallas 2-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

Dallas was able to make this Supporters’ Shield race so close because of what they did in midweek. Namely, they handled their business with calm against Vancouver.

The game was played at a higher pace than the scoreless draw they had a week prior, and each team hit the post in the opening half hour. David Teixeira hit the woodwork for Dallas in the 11th minute, and Gershon Koffie did the same eight minutes later. That would be a rare threatening chance for the Whitecaps.

So the game was scoreless until the 32nd minute, when Dallas took the lead. Mauro Diaz showed both strength and skill in dribbling the ball into Vancouver’s box, and eventually he found Michael Barrios with a pass. Barrios took a touch to set up his right foot, and beat David Ousted with his next. The hosts had a chance to increase their lead before halftime, but a soft penalty was justly saved by Ousted.

Diaz’s penalty miss wouldn’t really matter. Partly, that’s because Vancouver couldn’t muster much danger at the other end. And partly it’s because Diaz made up for his miss in open play. In the 52nd minute, he stole the ball off of Jordan Harvey, nutmegged Pa Modou-Kah, and slid his shot underneath Ousted to double Dallas’ lead.

The Whitecaps have secured a spot in the playoffs, but without wins in their last five games it’s fair to say that they are backing in. They managed just one shot on target against Dallas.

LA Galaxy 2-5 Portland Timbers

I’ll be honest: I had just assumed that LA would coast to an easy victory here, especially after they grabbed the opening goal. But don’t bet on MLS. The Timbers dropped a five-spot on Bruce Arena’s lawn in an insurgent second half.

The Galaxy came out strong, and hit the post twice in the opening 20 minutes. Both cases were on set pieces: Gerrard struck the post with a free kick and Leonardo headed a corner kick off the bar. They spent a lot of time working intricate passes just outside Portland’s box. But they failed to find the area between the posts in the opening half hour, and often the Timbers looked threatening on the counter.

In the 36th minute, LA took a more simple tact and found better luck. Juninho put a ball over the top for a well-timed run by Robbie Keane, who smashed it on the volley into the far side of the net.

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Portland produced a couple good chances in the early moments after halftime; both fell to Liam Ridgewell. He volleyed one over the bar, and headed another off of it. This would be a sign of things to come. The Galaxy seemed to take their foot off the gas, and that would eventually reward the guests.

Fanendo Adi with a quick turn and finish leveled the match in the 64th minute. It was a counter attack fueled by a good combination between Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe that gave the Argentinian space to create. Just a few minutes later he was brought down in the box on another counterattack. Dan Gargan had to pull him down to keep him from getting on the end of a cross, but he couldn’t keep him from scoring on the penalty. Adi has that knack for scoring twice.

The Timbers were not done. Adi would use his hold-up play in the build-up to the third goal, but it ended with Diego Chara flying through the air to power a header past Donovan Ricketts. Three goals in 12 minutes had the Timbers in dreamland.

Something about sleeping giants, though: they tend to wake up. The Galaxy grabbed a goal to make it 3-2. Robbie Keane headed in a cross from Jose Villarreal, but there was a question about whether Edson Buddle’s offside run caused Adam Kwararsey to hesitate in goal. The goal stood, and Portland said that they didn’t particularly care.

Because 18 seconds later, they had their two-goal lead back. Darlington Nagbe got free on another counter, dribbled past Ricketts, and beat the Galaxy back down. A stunned Galaxy would give up another goal courtesy of Maxi Urruti in the 90th minute.

I don’t know how to explain this. One of the most anemic attacks in MLS scored five goals in a half on the road against what had been the league’s most dominant home side. As a result of two road wins in a week, the Timbers have a rather comfortable playoff spot and the possibility to avoid the knockout round altogether.

Toronto FC 2-1 New York Red Bulls

At long last, Toronto claimed their spot in the playoffs, thanks in part to a heroic performance from Sebastian Giovinco.

After a lifeless first half, the game came alive on a mistake early in the second. Ronald Zubar whiffed on what should have been a simple clearance, and Herculez Gomez was there to pounce on the opportunity. He did well to control the bouncing ball and put it past Luis Robles. It’s his first goal for Toronto since joining in the summer.

Giovinco began his Wednesday in Rome, having played for the Italian national team the night before. But by night he was in Toronto, and came off the bench to play half an hour for the Reds. In the crowning moment of what has been an MVP season, Giovinco beat three New York defenders on the dribble and unleashed a shot with his left foot into the far side of the net. It is a goal of the season candidate and a goal worthy of ending Toronto’s drought.

Giovinco’s goal would stand up as the game winner because the Red Bulls would get one back. Shaun Wright-Phillips scored his first MLS goal in impressive fashion with a powerful shot on the half-volley in the 86th minute. But that would be the end of New York’s comeback attempt; Toronto claimed all three points.

Wednesday night put an end to a nine-year wait in Toronto, and it coincided with a wild victory for the Blue Jays in the playoffs. It’s a good time to be a Toronto fan.

Real Salt Lake 0-1 FC Dallas 

Dallas secured the Western Conference’s best record with a hard-fought win in rainy Salt Lake.

The first half belonged to the hosts, who had more than 70% possession. Dallas was under regular pressure, and RSL created numerous chances to score the opening goal. But young Jesse Gonzalez made four saves in the half to stymie Salt Lake, and halftime arrived with the match still scoreless.

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The second half alongside nasty weather, but the rain seemed to suit the team from Texas. The changes made by Oscar Pareja limited the danger RSL could create, and in the 56th minute Dallas took the lead.  Diaz played Teixeira through on goal, and Teixeira smashed a shot past Jeff Attinella. Diaz now has 10 assists on the season.

RSL needed to win in order to stay alive for the playoffs, but they couldn’t even get an equalizer despite intense late pressure. Gonzalez needed to make just a single save after halftime in keeping his third-straight clean sheet. In a week that started with a lot of potential, Salt Lake was scoreless over 180 minutes, and they will be watching the playoffs from home for the first time since 2007.

Dallas is level on points with the Red Bulls, but behind on goal difference heading into the final week of the season. They host San Jose, while the Red Bulls head to Chicago.

San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

The Earthquakes kept pace in the playoff race with a big win over SKC, but results elsewhere didn’t particularly help them.

Tim Melia was the man of the match for Kansas City, and was a big reason for the first half being scoreless. He made four saves before the break, including two in quick succession in the 8th minute. But he wasn’t in position to stop Anibal Godoy in the 47th minute. The Earthquakes spread the ball wide, and Chris Wondolowski’s low cross slid past Melia to Godoy at the far post.

With the best part of a half remaining to mount a comeback, SKC just didn’t.

San Jose did all they could here, but Portland’s strong week put a dent in their dreams. The Quakes enter the final week a point behind Seattle and Kansas City. A trip to Dallas looms for them. SKC holds a game in hand; they play Colorado in midweek before hosting LA.

Toronto FC 0-2 Columbus Crew SC

Lest Toronto get too confident, Columbus handed them a defeat over the weekend. The Crew clinched their spot in the playoffs with the win.

TFC looked at times like a team that celebrated their midweek victory just a bit too much. Despite a slow start, however, Columbus didn’t take the lead until 40 minutes in. Ethan Finlay was an opportunist, waiting on the far post when a corner kick  was flicked on his way. Finlay has 10 goals now to go with his 13 assists.

Frederico Higuain hit the woodwork twice in the second half, but would not be denied in the end. He sealed the win for the Crew in stoppage time, muscling off Josh Williams for the ball and chipping it up over Joe Bendik.

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If there was a bright spot for Toronto, Kei Kamara earned a suspension with the yellow card he picked up. That means that Sebastian Giovinco will win the golden boot on the basis of having more assists, even if he doesn’t score in their final game against Montreal next week.

The Crew currently sit third in the East, but could finish anywhere from second to sixth. That’s how tight things remain.

Real Salt Lake 0-1 Portland Timbers

Before their big weekend upset, Portland got a vital result on the road in midweek.

The game hinged on referee Juan Guzman’s decision early in the second half. Lucas Melano got behind the RSL back line on a ball over the top, and was brought down from behind by Jamison Olave. Replays showed that the foul was just slightly outside of the box, but a penalty was awarded in addition to the red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Fanendo took the penalty and Nick Rimando dived the wrong way.

Down a man and a goal, RSL didn’t truly threaten a comeback. They held a majority of possession, but were outshot 15-7, and only forced two saves from Adam Kwararsey all game. They can now put their focus on the CONCACAF Champions League; they play their final group stage match on Tuesday needing only a draw at home. It’s not exactly how they envisioned the final week of October, though.

New England Revolution 0-1 Montreal Impact

A record Revolution crowd went home cold and disappointed as Montreal defeated New England. The Impact clinched their spot in the playoffs in the process.

42,947 fans showed up to see the Revs’ final home game of the regular season, and most of them cheered prematurely when Jermaine Jones volleyed the ball into the net in the 10th minute. The assistant’s flag was up; Jones was clearly a yard or two offside when Lee Nguyen took the free kick. That would be the major action of a tense, scoreless first half.

The deadlock was broken 10 minutes after halftime by Ignacio Piatti. He showed strength in keeping possession in midfield, then pressed R1 and Circle on a thirty-yard shot into the top corner.

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If a wonderstrike proved to be the difference, a win was a deserved result for the Impact on the road. They had less possession but produced more shots, and Evan Bush had a quiet night in goal.

New England is not guaranteed a spot in the playoffs just yet, but a healthy advantage in goal difference should see them through over Orlando regardless of next week’s results.

DC United 4-0 Chicago Fire

DC turned it on in the second half of what became a lopsided victory over Chicago.

A tight first half gave way to a DC goal in the 39th minute. Chris Rolfe tried dribbling through the Chicago defense, but lost possession. The ball deflected into space, and Chris Pontius was quickest to react. He split the defenders, dribbled past Jon Busch, and finished from a tight angle to put DC in front.

As Chicago tried to find an equalizer, DC became more potent in attack. Bobby Boswell scored on a corner kick in the 67th minute to increase the scoreline to 2-0. Fabian Espindola had a cross get deflected in from a tight angle five minutes later, effectively putting the game out of reach. For good measure, Alvaro Saborio came off the bench and scored a goal in the 80th minute.

United will go to Columbus in the final week; the winner of that match will claim second place in the East and avoid the knockout round.

Houston Dynamo 1-1 Seattle Sounders

The match got off to a languid start. The Sounders looked disjointed, and the best chances of the half belonged to Houston. Stefan Frei did well to keep them off the board, but he might have been Seattle’s best player in the half. The referee didn’t allow any stoppage time after 45 minutes.

The second half was played at an improved pace, mostly to Houston’s benefit. This was a game they needed to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, and that urgency showed for parts of the game at least. Luis Garrido displayed it when he intercepted a lazy pass from Tyrone Mears and sparked a move that ended with Ricardo Clark scoring the opening goal.

Seattle would find an equalizer on a set piece in the 82nd minute. A corner kick from Andreas Ivanschitz bounced in front of the near post and somehow got through to Obafemi Martins, who just had to body it over the line. Martins did not go into his usual backflip celebration, perhaps reflecting the Sounders’ larger frustration with their performance.

Orlando City SC 2-1 New York City FC

Orlando kept their slim playoff hopes alive with a controversial comeback victory over NYCFC.

With NYCFC out of the playoff race entirely, the game had much more significance for Orlando. They played like that in the opening half, but Josh Saunders kept them from finding a breakthrough. Instead, just before halftime, New York scored the first goal. Kwame Watson-Siriboe hammered home a ball that was bouncing around in the box after a corner kick.

In the second half, Cyle Larin went to work. In the 62nd minute, his header on a cross from Corey Ashe brought Orlando level.

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The go-ahead goal was scored under interesting circumstances. Javier Calle was seated in his own box with a cramp, but his teammates didn’t play the ball out. Orlando played on after it was turned over, and after a save by Saunders on Adrian Winter, Larin scored his second of the match. NYCFC were upset that the ball wasn’t played out, but Orlando was under no obligation to do so.

Larin’s 17 goals this season are by far the record for an MLS rookie and a new record for Canadian players. He would have had another on the night, and his third hat trick of the year, if not for a wrongful offside call.

Montreal’s win did a number for Orlando’s chances of making the playoffs. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to overcome goal difference with New England, and so OCSC will probably fail to make the playoffs in their inaugural season. They can take pride in having made it a race at all with five wins in a row. They also set an attendance record for MLS expansion teams.