The most entertaining matches of the season offer a variety of talking points to satiate even the most skeptical of observers. Saturday's thriller in Seattle certainly sufficed.
Fortunately for fans and neutrals around the country, they could simply absorb the spectacle for what it offered instead of what it did not. This match – unlike far too many other encounters in the league this season – captivated with its mix of compelling attacking fare and peculiar happenings during the course of the 90 minutes.
FCD contributed mightily to the entertainment value by struggling to apply the necessary pressure in midfield (a must given the dearth of experience in central defense with George John sidelined) or position its rearguard properly (the line was far too high given the iffy pressure and Seattle's pace up top) for much of the night. Seattle's high tempo – and the evident reluctance from both midfields to put a foot on the ball (FCD really missed David Ferreira and Andrew Jacobson) – continually placed FCD in positions it simply could not manage.
Eddie Johnson sounded the warning when he latched onto Osvaldo Alonso's header, powered through the middle of the static rearguard and stroked home with the outside of his foot to open the scoring after 16 minutes. Brad Evans reinforced the point when he took advantage of some poor midfield pressure to play Lamar Neagle through for the second on the half hour. And the lead could have hit three or four with better finishing before halftime.
Instead of packing up and ruing the shocking end to a nine-match unbeaten run, FCD responded early in the second half by taking advantage of Seattle's apparent weakness on set pieces. Not a soul attempted to mark Kenny Cooper when he dragged a goal back after 54 minutes. Michael Gspurning then conceded his second Olimpico in 13 months when Michel – the converted left back turned central midfielder and dead ball specialist – curled home the equalizer seven minutes later.
Johnson responded within a minute by exploiting the ragged FCD defense with a well-taken goal before the referee took center stage. Mark Geiger dismissed Blas Pérez for an incidental elbow on Leo González. The decision drew sharp rebukes from FCD after the match, though Perez violated one of the fundamental tenets of playing in MLS (do not give the referee an opportunity to show a red card). Geiger's decision to wave play onward from 10 yards away and then issue the red card after the sequence concluded upon consulting with the assistant referee hardly helped matters.
Obafemi Martins then provided the perfect cap to the night by climbing off the bench and securing the points seven minutes from time. Johnson watched Raúl Fernández deny him his hat trick yet again before Evans funneled the rebound into a position where Martins could sweep home from close range. His trademark celebration offered Sounders FC play-by-play man Ross Fletcher the ideal chance to sum up the proceedings succinctly.
“Spectacular somersault, spectacular game,” Fletcher said.
Five Points – Week 12
1. Is it time to worry in Toronto?: TFC boss Ryan Nelsen brushed aside those concerns and focused on the positives after a 1-0 home defeat to Columbus on Saturday. The beleaguered supporters might want a bit more competency and fire from the troops, though, after the Reds extended their winless drought to nine matches and prolonged their extended rut to one win from 25 league attempts over the past two seasons.
Nelsen harps on the narrow margins this season, but it also says plenty when this group cannot overcome them every so often. The first-year boss needs better players – and the club is attempting to import them – to help the cause. But the aid must arrive soon to end this protracted nightmare before TFC finds itself prematurely condemned to another irrelevant denouement to the season.
2. Houston now finds itself mired in a home losing streak: New England continued its perplexing success in Houston (5-2-1 all-time) with a 2-0 victory at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday. The visitors deserved the points after improving markedly in the second half and snatching a pair of goals against a surprisingly disjointed Dynamo outfit.
These sorts of setbacks afflict every team at one point or another. Houston will ride through this temporary blip as veteran teams usually do (a bit of positive news on Jermaine Taylor's apparent shoulder injury would help), but Dominic Kinnear will still expect the proper response next weekend after failing to receive it for some reason in the wake of the defeat to Sporting Kansas City.
3. Veteran goalkeepers always know how to deflect the blame: Carlo Cudicini tried his best to shunt some of the responsibility onto his defenders by ranting and raving in the wake of Tim Cahill's decisive header in New York's 1-0 victory over Los Angeles on Sunday. He should have looked to himself first after failing to cope with Juninho Pernambucano's service inside his goal area, though.
The former Lyon schemer hit his free kick with his usual swerve and vigor, but Cudicini needed to take control of the situation by rushing out earnestly to clear the danger with a fairly straightforward punch. His failure to do so cost the Galaxy a reasonably earned point in an otherwise drab game. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena correctly apportioned the blame for the defeat after the match.
“That’s not good,” Arena told reporters. “That play tonight shouldn’t happen. That’s 90 percent goalkeeper ball there.”
4. The assistant referee likely cost Sporting Kansas City two points: Ike Opara saw his apparent 29th-minute opener in Sporting's 1-1 draw at D.C. United on Sunday chalked off due to an erroneous offside call. PRO executive director Peter Walton criticized the decision in an email to MLSsoccer.com (“It was clearly a wrong call and one that cannot be justified. At this early stage, it appears that the assistant loses focus and concentration on a crucial play.”). The assistant referee in question, Matthew Nelson, held his hand up after the match after the evident mistake (“I misjudged the play,” he told the Washington Post).
One benefit to the controversy for the impacted side: the imbroglio rather distracted from the fact that Sporting somehow coughed up a one-goal lead to a team that hadn't recorded a point in its previous seven matches.
5. Sánchez Solá must shoulder his share of the blame, too: Chivas USA has done well to accumulate 11 points from 11 matches with the weakest squad in the league by quite some distance. Flamboyant manager José Luis Sánchez Solá has played a large part in that modest success. His swashbuckling tactics may lead to engaging matches, but they have also allowed the opposition to continually exploit how the Red-and-White prefer to operate defensively.
Chelís likes his three-man rearguard to keep a dangerously high line, sometimes mere yards inside the defensive half. It is not a particularly advisable gambit given the lack of pace usually mustered between the three chosen players. It is even less prudent when the midfield fails to apply instant pressure in midfield to prevent through balls into the yawning space behind the line. Those tactics place his defenders in a position where they are essentially unable to succeed over the course of a 90-minute match.
Instead of rectifying the situation against Real Salt Lake on Sunday, Sánchez Solá let one of the league's best passing teams punish that ridiculous defensive posture time and time again. RSL scored four and could have mustered a couple of more with tidier work in front of goal. On this evidence, it is little wonder why Chivas USA has conceded 11 times in its past three matches and a league-worst 22 times on the season.