Monday MLS Breakdown: Context remains important as clubs slog through the summer months

Chris Wondolowski provides meaningful lessons about the domestic league even when he leaves San Jose to spend a few weeks with the U.S. national team.
DENVER – Wondolowski's current run of six goals in three matches ended his rather protracted drought at the international level and sparked a renewed debate about his place in the pecking order with the World Cup less than a year away.

It is as if the Earthquakes striker went from afterthought to prominent topic of discussion in the space of a week. His qualities – ample technical ability and fantastic movement and positioning inside the penalty area – have not changed during that time frame. His production in a particular situation has redefined a previously settled debate and has wedged him into a debate he exited some time ago.

Although Wondolowski deserves all of the plaudits he receives for his past three displays (after all, he has scored more goals in two Gold Cup games than any other American player in any other Gold Cup), he now features in a situation where his goals overwhelm the rather particular circumstances surrounding his success.

Few parallels exist between the challenges presented by facing Guatemala (with a primarily domestic-based and generally poor side), Belize (game, but not very good) and Cuba (ditto) and the hurdles posed by the other five teams in the Hexagonal and any potential World Cup opponents. Wondolowski's utility in those sorts of matches remains decidedly uncertain, particularly in light of his previous track record. His recent success may earn him a long look to receive a chance or two to impress during more important matches (both in this Gold Cup and perhaps later in the year), but it does not necessarily reveal whether he will succeed or fail if those opportunities do arrive.

Similar sentiments apply to most MLS teams at this stage of the campaign. Every match, every result and every streak requires a deep dive into the complicating factors surrounding it. The constant shuffling of players due to injuries and international commitments leaves teams weakened. The schedule provides some teams with an advantage in some fixtures and other teams with a decided hindrance in others. And those concerns crop up before the prospect of supplementing the squad during the summer transfer window hits the table.

At this point, each team focuses on two fundamental objectives: churning out points by any means necessary and finding a way to make the playoffs by the end of the season. As Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer astutely pointed out on Thursday, the qualities required to lift MLS Cup do not always align with the more rote requirements of grinding out results on a weekly basis.

The current focus on the latter point somewhat obscures the primary objective here. As with Wondolowski and his pursuit of a place on the World Cup team, the 19 teams harbor loftier dreams than racking up points during the regular season. They must proceed through the gauntlet in order to prove their worthiness for the challenge that lays ahead, but the qualities required to reach that starting point may or may not aid them in that postseason quest.

And those stark realities create a scenario where a dash of prudence is require every time some upstart side procures an unexpected victory or Wondolowski slots home another Gold Cup goal. Those accomplishments deserve their due appreciation, but they may not translate to a different assignment that lays ahead. 

Five Points – Week 20

1. Jorge Gonzalez got it terribly, terribly wrong on Friday night: Gonzalez's decision to call a back pass on in the waning stages of Philadelphia's 3-1 victory over Chivas USA on Friday night appeared to apply the law incorrectly, lacked common sense and sent the Red-and-White spiraling toward a road defeat.

The applicable rule in this set of circumstances is found in Law 12: “An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area, commits any of the following four offences: … touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate.”

U.S. Soccer provides further context in a position paper by establishing a so-called “iron triangle” to determine whether a potential back pass warrants punishment: (1) the ball is kicked with the foot; (2) it is passed deliberately, not conveyed by a deflection or an accidental misdirection; and (3) the goalkeeper handles the ball directly from the kick by his teammate.

Edgar Mejia's alleged back pass – depending on the angle – may have fulfilled the first and third criteria, but it did not satisfy the second requirement. The sequence involved Mejia sliding into a challenge with Conor Casey. Mejia won the ball initially, but it deflected off of Casey and then apparently off of Mejia again – it is not clear exactly on the replay posted to whether it deflected off his foot or not, but it likely should not matter – on its way to Kennedy.

Even if Gonzalez thought the letter of the law applied (and he clearly did), he erred by failing to take into account the conditions (rain all night) and the situation (a deliberate pass inside 10 yards with 10 minutes to play in a 1-1 match?) before awarding the indirect free kick. In this context, the decision stood out as suspect. Gonzalez – to his credit – usually possesses a much better feel for the game than he showed in this instance.

The decision harmed Chivas USA in two direct ways: Josue Soto procured his second bookable offense in the wake of the call and Michael Farfan roofed the ensuing indirect kick to stake the Union to a lead it would not relinquish.

2. Montréal continues its surprising slide: New York scored four times at Red Bull Arena to sweep aside the Impact. The once-resolute side has shipped 12 goals in its past four matches. That haul simply won't do for an outfit that can't afford to chase games on a regular basis.

3. Toronto FC dumps Darren O'Dea, sidesteps any semblance of responsibility for current plight: TFC boss Ryan Nelsen once again unloaded on the previous regime after the club announced O'Dea planned to move to the Ukraine. Nelsen may have a point about O'Dea's killer max-plus deal (a particularly toxic sort of contract that requires teams to spend allocation money to buy down the number every year), but his contentions sound a bit discordant in the wake of yet another heavy defeat (3-0 at Sporting Kansas City).

4. Real Salt Lake finally breaks its duck in Texas: It took the Claret-and-Cobalt 23 attempts to procure a victory in Texas. The initial win carried all of the hallmarks of a peculiar slumpbuster – a tense opening half, a cheeky goal from Javier Morales and a goalkeeping swap when backup Josh Saunders picked up a knee injury – as RSL extended its unbeaten run to 11 matches in all competitions.

5. Andrew Jean-Baptiste provides the perfect ending to a compelling game at JELD-WEN Field: The hulking center back headed home the winner and then ripped off his shirt to celebrate Portland's 2-1 victory over Los Angeles. It marked a fitting end to a compelling affair – particularly in the first half – and sparked a short confrontation between Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and Timbers manager Caleb Porter at the final whistle.