MLS Week 33 Recap: The Playoff Picture Grows Clearer

IMAGE, WHITECAPSFC.COM

by RYAN BRISTER
Staff Writer

With the playoffs looming, this past weekend featured several important games in Major League Soccer. Some teams rose to the occasion, and solidified their playoff positions. Others couldn’t deal with the pressure.  The big results of the weekend served to clarify, not clutter, the playoff picture. With two games remaining, only a few spots out west are still in doubt.

Eastern Conference

On a Wednesday night, when a win would have vaulted them into a playoff spot, Toronto FC couldn’t muster a goal in a 1-0 home loss to Houston. Giles Barnes scored the lone goal for Houston late in the first half. TFC seemed to have a lifeline when AJ Cochran committed a penalty and was sent off in the 55th minute. After five full minutes of confusion and argument, Jermain Defoe had his penalty saved by Tyler Deric. The Dynamo keeper made six saves on the night, but most of Toronto’s 26 shots didn’t require one.

A bad week got worse for TFC when they traveled to Red Bull Arena on Saturday night. New York led 3-0 at the half, and a second half goal for Toronto did not spark a comeback. Bradley Wright-Phillips might have been offside when he opened the scoring with his 25th goal of the season, but the flag stayed down. BWP, who also had an assist on the night, needs two goals in the final two games to tie the MLS record held by Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski.

More importantly for the Red Bulls, the win, with help from other results, clinched a playoff spot.

Toronto wasn’t the only Eastern Conference team to disappoint their fans. In a hugely important home game against fifth-place Columbus, Philadelpia took a two-goal lead when Andrew Wenger scored in the 75th minute.

It didn’t last long. The Crew bounced back with three goals in a four-minute span, eliminating the Union from their playoffs with a 3-2 win. While fans in Philly booed their team at the final whistle, Crew fans have reason to celebrate. The club unveiled a new crest on Wednesday, and Saturday’s result leaves them on the verge of clinching a playoff spot.

Dom Dwyer missed a penalty Friday night, but it didn’t end up costing Sporting Kansas City in a 2-0 win over Chicago. Graham Zusi’s beautiful curling goal broke the deadlock in the 80th minute, and Dwyer added a late header to seal the win and a playoff spot for SKC. Zusi deserves credit for his goal and assist, but Andy Gruenebaum made a number of big saves to keep Kansas City in the match. The win was just the second for SKC since August 16th, and they’ll be hoping it stabilizes their play as they go into the playoffs.

New England only managed a 2-2 draw at Montreal, but the lone point was enough for the Revolution to clinch a playoff spot. Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen had the goals for the Revs, each leveling the game after Montreal took the lead through Marco Di Vaio. It’s New England’s second straight year in the playoffs, and they currently sit second in the east. Upper management has often been criticized, but they’ve put together a team that was very good even before the high-profile signing of Jermaine Jones.

DC United went into Houston and struck down the Dynamo’s playoff hopes in a game interrupted by lightning. Taylor Kemp, Fabian Espindola, and Eddie Johnson scored for United in a 3-1 victory that almost assures DC of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. It’s the first time the Dynamo have missed the playoffs since 2010.

The Eastern Conference playoff picture was chaotic just 5 days ago, but now the dust has settled. The remaining battles will be for seeding and nothing more. Perhaps the biggest of those battles is between New York and Columbus for fourth place and the right to host the play-in game. Those two teams meet on Saturday.

Western Conference

In front of 55,765 fans in Seattle on Friday night, the Vancouver Whitecaps came away with a vital three points in their playoff push. 19-year-old Kekuta Manneh went off the field to receive treatment late in the first half, and when he returned to the field he was in tons of space to receive a Pedro Morales pass, charge at Chad Marshall, and score the game’s only goal. Manneh then limped in his celebration and was subbed off at halftime. Since losing 3-0 at Portland, the Whitecaps have won three straight and they cling to a one-point edge over the Timbers (who won against San Jose on Wednesday) for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Whitecaps’ defense, which often cost them earlier in the year, stood tall Friday night. Not only did they put up a clean sheet against one of the league’s best attacks, but they prevented Seattle from creating any serious threats to David Ousted’s goal. Kendall Waston seemed to be everywhere for Vancouver, breaking up attack after attack. It’s the first time the Sounders have been held scoreless since they were trounced by the Galaxy in late July.

Seattle slipped up, but LA couldn’t capitalize as they fell 2-1 in Dallas on Sunday night. Stefan Ishizaki gave the Galaxy a lead heading into halftime, but Dallas came back in a rainy second half to get their eighth-straight home win. Fabian Castillo headed the winner for Dallas into an empty net after a poor punch from Jaime Penedo in the 89th minute. In doing so he headed Dallas into the playoffs for the first time since 2011. For the Galaxy, the loss means that they head into two games with Seattle behind on wins, the first tiebreaker.

Real Salt Lake clinched a playoff spot with a 2-0 home win over the San Jose Earthquakes. Ned Grabavoy scored first for RSL, and Sebastian Velazquez’s goal effectively sealed the result against visitors who mustered just a single shot on target. Some expected RSL to slip up this year, following the departure of Jason Kreis, but Jeff Cassar has proven to be a more-than-adequate replacement.

The West has more unanswered questions remaining than the East. Effectively there are three spots still up for grabs: the Supporters’ Shield, third place, and the final playoff spot. Seattle and LA will settle the Shield against each other. RSL and Vancouver, with an extra point and easier schedules, hold the inside tracks on the other two races.