LOS ANGELES – As I sat in the all-too-cramped and hopelessly outdated waiting area at LAX in preparation for my redeye flight back to Hartford (via Cleveland) on Sunday night/Monday morning, I wondered whether there would be enough space in the often interminably long Monday column to hit all of the high points from the weekend that was.
Fortunately, it was a long flight and I was hopped up on caffeine, so I had time and sugar-enhanced energy on my side. The travel plans pushed the column posting back a little further than usual (apologies, but the wireless in Cleveland is a bit spotty), but I hope you'll indulge me this once.
From a long-awaited clash of conference leaders to a soporific Sunday matinee in Carson, Week 26 offered a little bit of everything. Although the playoff-influencing games and the pre-roster-freeze frenzy of personnel moves (the freeze date is tomorrow) merit significant attention, the best place to start is with a 33-year-old forward on a team lingering on the distant outskirts of the playoff race.
Cunningham explodes as FCD stuns L.A.
Just a little over a year ago as FC Dallas striker Jeff Cunningham was going through a miserable and ineffective spell at Toronto FC, former TFC manager John Carver rhetorically asked the media how Cunningham had scored so many goals in MLS.
As Los Angeles central defenders Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez would probably attest after Cunningham torched them for two goals and two assists in FCD's surprising 6-3 victory over the normally stout Galaxy on Saturday night, Cunningham's blazing pace had a lot to do with it.
What Carver never seemed to get was that Cunningham needs the confidence of his manager and a regular starting berth to make his impact. For better or for worse, Cunningham is a streaky player both with his pace and his finishing. With Kenny Cooper now at 1860 Munich, FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman didn't have an alternative to showing confidence in Cunningham and handing him the responsibility of scoring goals. Cunningham has responded in a big, big way.
“The guy's brilliant,” FCD midfielder Atiba Harris said. “He does his job. He scores goals.”
Right now, there is no one hotter than the now second-leading goalscorer in MLS history (116 goals). Cunningham has scored in seven of the Hoops' past 10 games, racking up 11 of his 12 goals on the season since July 4. With able and mobile sidekick David Ferreira operating in the hole just behind him and Harris, Dax McCarty and Dave van den Bergh keeping the supply lines open from the midfield, Cunningham is tearing defenses apart like it's 2002 or 2006 (a career-high 16 goals in each year) all over again. Cunningham may still need four or five chances to get a pair of goals, but he's converting more than his fair share and silencing those doubters who thought his best days were well past.
“You wouldn't think Jeff is thirty-however old he is,” McCarty said. “You'd think he's in his mid-20s. He's in fantastic shape. He takes great care of himself and he still has some of the best speed in the league. Omar Gonzalez and Berhalter, their better traits are their positioning and their height. I think they're a little bit susceptible to the speed guys and we (wanted) to exploit that. Jeff did a fantastic job of finding space and he ran at people.”
As for Carver's frustration-borne comment regarding Cunningham's goal-scoring prowess, it's worth noting that Cunningham's 17 goals in 33 appearances since joining FCD on Aug. 8, 2008 bests Danny Dichio's TFC club record of 14 goals amassed over 59 games.
Hernandez finally returns home to Dallas
Newly acquired FC Dallas midfielder Daniel Hernandez sat at his locker in the Home Depot Center and just smiled. After a long and circuitous journey, he had found his way back to Dallas.
“The day I got drafted, I was trying to get back to Dallas,” the former Galaxy, Metrostars and Revolution midfielder said. “Seriously. It didn't work out for whatever reason, but better late than never. I'm glad to be there with family and be reunited with Schellas (Hyndman, FCD coach). Things are good. I can't complain.”
Hernandez, 33, recently spent a couple of years in Mexico playing for Puebla and Jaguares after New England waived him in 2007. When his contract expired with Jaguares, Hernandez couldn't find the right fit south of the Rio Grande, so he opted to return to his family and friends – a priority for Hernandez – in Texas (Hernandez is from Tyler, which is just under a two-hour drive to the east of Dallas) and link up with former SMU coach Hyndman.
“That was a big part of my decision,” Hernandez said. “If he hadn't have been there, it probably wouldn't have happened.”
Though Hernandez isn't anywhere near full fitness after playing sparingly since the Mexican season ended in May, Hyndman threw him in for fellow recent signing Marvin Chavez at halftime to help tighten up a game that didn't seem to want to tighten. Hyndman said he expects Hernandez to aid in his quest to develop the mentality FCD needs to create a winning side.
“We're trying to work a lot on our team spirit,” Hyndman said. “What Daniel brings to us is that he supports me and he's got my back. He's very positive. Even though he's not as fit as he wants to be or as we want him to be, I thought (on Saturday) he was disciplined to hold his spot. He's holding people accountable and that's what we need. We're looking for better and better from Daniel.”
Pearce's arrival creates left-sided glut in Frisco
Heath Pearce | American international defender will add to FCD's riches on the left side
FCD used the number one overall allocation to acquire United States international left back Heath Pearce on a free transfer last week. Pearce recently saw a two-year deal with Bursaspor (Turkey) fall through and immediately turned his attentions to MLS in order to seal regular first-team action ahead of next summer's World Cup.
Pearce is already in Dallas and will link up with the Hoops on Monday. Hyndman said he was tempted to fly Pearce into Los Angeles for Saturday night's game, but resisted the urge to do so.
Once Pearce finds his match fitness, the question then becomes where exactly Hyndman will slot him into a side that already has Jair Benitez entrenched at left back. Pearce really only projects as a left back, so perhaps Hyndman could slide Benitez up to left midfield and move van den Bergh inside or, in a move Hyndman has tried occasionally this season, over to the right side. Though the move appears curious at first glance given FCD's depth on the left side, it's hard to argue against adding a defender of any flavor to a side in desperate need of some defensive competency.
Conway resurfaces in southern California
It may have taken a short layoff after being released by New York, a two-week trial and a stint coaching soccer back in New Jersey, but Jon Conway is back in MLS. Chivas USA swapped a fourth-round SuperDraft pick in 2011 to New York in order to acquire Conway's rights on Friday.
After spending most of the year in the cellar and a portion of the year watching on television, the former Red Bulls goalkeeper is happy to leap into the playoff chase.
“Obviously, things weren't going so well there,” Conway said. “It definitely gives you a second life. You were down in the dumps each week with the results and how things were going. This gives you a little breath of fresh air right now. I can't wait to take advantage of the situation.”
Conway will have to bide his time with Zach Thornton's calf now healthy enough to permit him to return to the lineup, but he'll provide some much-needed veteran insurance should Thornton fall prey to injury again. Given Lance Parker's shakiness when pressed into the action, the move looks like a shrewd one for a Chivas USA side fighting for a playoff place.
“Zach's having a great year, so whatever I can do to help him continue that run he's having, I'm willing to do it,” Conway said. “If an opportunity presents itself to get in there, I'll do what we need to do to get some Ws.”
In order to free up the roster spot required to bring Conway into the fold, the Goats sent Bobby Burling to San Jose in exchange for a third-round pick in 2010. Chivas USA head coach Preki said the addition of Colombian youth international Yamith Cuesta gave him the defensive depth he needed in order to deal Burling.
“We had to make a move to get the goalkeeper,” Preki said. “Bobby's a good guy. He did well when he was here. We wish him luck.”
Number 22 gets his chance for the U-20s
When United States Under-20 head coach Thomas Rongen named his 21-man roster for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt later this month, Chivas USA defender Gerson Mayen ranked number 22 on the list.
As the first alternate, Mayen needed someone to drop out to seal a spot on the plane, but didn't want to see one of his prospective teammates get hurt to create the vacancy.
When FC Dallas defender Anthony Wallace had to withdraw due to a left knee injury last week, Mayen received a call on Thursday from his agent asking him if he still wanted to go. Rongen followed up and Mayen said he couldn't wait to accept his belated place in the squad.
“It's a dream come true,” Mayen said. “I've been trying to work for it and now I've finally got the chance. I'm going to try to take advantage of it.”
de Guzman signs, but is it the right move for TFC?
Toronto FC finally completed its protracted move for Julian de Guzman on Friday, making him the first Designated Player in TFC's short history. I wrote at length on this topic on Wednesday, so a brief note will suffice here.
De Guzman is one of the best players in CONCACAF and will almost certainly succeed in MLS, but TFC should have gone in another direction. After not playing for most of the summer aside from Canada's brief Gold Cup stint, de Guzman's fitness may not allow him to make the short-term impact TFC needs to push them towards the playoffs. In the long term, TFC would have benefited more from acquiring a top-class striker or centerback and instead spent far too much money (a reported three-year guaranteed deal in excess of $6 million) to buy Canadian at a position that was already well covered by Sam Cronin, Dwayne De Rosario, Amado Guevara, Carl Robinson and Amadou Sanyang.
Hip surgery likely writes sad ending to Huckerby's stint in San Jose
Darren Huckerby | Former Norwich winger's time in San Jose may be over after hip surgery
San Jose midfielder Darren Huckerby finally gave into the inevitable on Friday and underwent season-ending surgery on a torn labrum in his right hip. The problem had plagued the veteran Englishman for the majority of the season and clearly impacted his explosiveness when on the field.
After a pulsating debut season that led everyone in the San Jose area to ask what exactly is a Huckerby, the former Norwich City star looks headed out the door at the end of the season as the Earthquakes continue to retool their side heading into 2010. Huckerby's two-year deal ends after the 2009 campaign and San Jose coach Frank Yallop said recently that Huckerby “could go” at the end of the season, perhaps even back to his beloved Canaries.
If this injury ends Huckerby's MLS career, it will be a sad farewell for a player who made the Earthquakes worth watching every time he stepped on the field in 2008.
Fortuitously timed back spasms add to United's defensive depth
D.C. United defender Greg Janicki sure has a good sense of timing off the field after displaying a lack of it on the field over the past month or two.
Mere days before the roster freeze date, Janicki missed practice on Thursday and Friday last week and ended up on the Disabled List with back spasms. Given the fact that Janicki is so far down the depth chart that Clyde Simms is now playing some centerback for United, the move appears curiously timed at best, even if the intentions are pure as the driven snow for the defensively challenged side. Whether this move ranks as an actual health concern is somewhat irrelevant considering teams have the liberty to move players on and off the DL as they see fit, though one can only hope it is legitimate for propriety's sake.
Janicki's DL stint paved the way for D.C. to acquire Lawson Vaughn, a versatile defender United coach Tom Soehn may actually want to throw into a match at some point if he has finally overcome the injury troubles that ended his stint with Chivas USA earlier this season. In that sense, the move's clearly a win for United as it seeks any eligible and competent defender to help its playoff push.
Week 26 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers
Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Jeff Cunningham, forward, FC Dallas
Cunningham tore the Galaxy backline apart for 90 minutes on Saturday night with ample help from Ferreira and McCarty. Two goals and two assists may actually underestimate the carnage Cunningham wrought on the Galaxy back line.
“He was a constant threat,” Hyndman said. “The guy's  33, but he's as fit as I've ever seen him. He's just a very, very healthy and strong man. He looks like he's probably 25 or 26. He's been huge for us.”
1. Landon Donovan, Los Angeles midfielder – That little kick on Ferreira as the whistle blew to end that embarrassing 6-3 home loss to FC Dallas wasn't MVP-worthy, Mr. Donovan.
2. Shalrie Joseph, New England midfielder – Look at the tape of New England's dreadful performance in Sunday afternoon's 2-0 loss to Chivas USA to show just how important Joseph is to the Revolution offense. The Revs are 0-2-1 with zero goals scored when Joseph doesn't play this season.
3. Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto FC midfielder – The Canadian international may keep the Reds in the playoff chase by himself.
Next in Line: Omar Cummings, Colorado forward; Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus midfielder; Chad Marshall, Columbus defender; Conor Casey, Colorado forward; Fredy Montero, Seattle forward.
The Starting XI
Marvell Wynne | The speedy TFC wide player hit the cross to set up Dwayne De Rosario's opener in Saturday's 3-2 home win over Colorado
1. Marvell Wynne's crosses often leave much to be desired, but one of his typically mishit services from the right wing actually handed De Rosario the opportunity to score the opener in TFC's 3-2 win over Colorado on Saturday afternoon. Most players would have tried to serve the ball ahead of De Rosario as he made a run towards goal into a crowded sea of powder blue defenders. Instead, Wynne's cross ended up well behind the play, allowing De Rosario to use his awareness to adjust to the cross first, create separation from his marker and thump home at the near post.
2. What is it with Colorado central midfielders and playacting? Pablo Mastroeni feigned injury a couple of weeks ago to draw a yellow card when he should have been sent to the showers for an elbow on Andrew Hainault. In Toronto, Nick LaBrocca picked up where Mastroeni left off and fell theatrically to the ground in front of the fourth official when Nana Attakora made the slightest of contact with him shortly after De Rosario's opener. Attakora picked up a yellow card, though justice would have been served if LaBrocca (an able fill-in for Mastroeni in the middle, by the way) saw plastic as well.
3. One notable thing came out of Kansas City's rather meaningless 1-0 win in New York on Saturday night: the Red Bulls are now (finally!) mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Thank goodness.
4. Another rather limp performance from D.C. United on Saturday night in a game that required far more. Fredy Montero's late, near-post strike handed Seattle its second consecutive 2-1 at R.F.K. Stadium. On the balance of play, Seattle more than deserved it. United can't afford to replicate the two performances it had at home against Kansas City and Seattle in its next three home games and needs considerably more from Fred and Christian Gomez to spark its attack.
5. What a well-taken opener from Chris Rolfe in Chicago's 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake on Saturday night. Marco Pappa played in a decent ball from the left side, but Rolfe did the rest with a deft touch off the chest between two RSL defenders and a magical flick with the outside of his right peg inside the far post. Chicago will miss him desperately when he leaves for Denmark in January.
Brian McBride | Veteran forward's return from a shoulder injury increase Chicago's attacking options
6. Fire forward Brian McBride started alongside Rolfe for the first time since undergoing shoulder surgery in July, returning to the lineup months ahead of schedule. McBride's return should boost the Fire's playoff chances considerably because he gives the Fire an aerial target and allows them to bring Patrick Nyarko off the bench as a change of pace guy late in games against tired defenses. As Cunningham, Omar Cummings and others have shown time and again this season, speed kills in this league, especially late in games.
7. “David Ferreira and Jeff Cunningham are two guys that are really in sync right now and creating havoc,” McCarty said after FCD's second-half explosion blew the doors off the Galaxy. “I thought in the second half that we were really finding the space really well. It's a matter of finishing our chances. We create plenty of chances every game. I think anyone that watches us will admit that. We're not always the best defensive team, but we'll create plenty of chances. It's just a matter of putting them away and tonight, what can you say? We put away every chance we had, pretty much.”
8. How exactly was Berhalter not sent off after scything Cunningham to the ground just six minutes into Saturday night's goal fest? Cunningham had turned Berhalter and was on the way to goal before Berhalter felled him from behind. The ferocity of the tackle could have elicited a red card. The location and Berhalter's status as the last man would have warranted it as well. Instead, referee Hilario Grajeda showed Berhalter a yellow card. Next time, Grajeda should just save Berhalter the misery of the ensuing 84 minutes as Cunningham or another speedy forward bursts through the center of the Galaxy defense time and again.
9. Count New England coach Steve Nicol among those who doesn't like noon kickoffs out in Los Angeles. “When you have a performance from both teams like that when there are so many players that aren't on it, there has to be another reason other than the fact that they just haven't prepared properly,” Nicol said. “There's got to be other reasons. If there are 22 players on the field, you'd struggle to figure out who you thought did well today. That tells you all you need to know about when we were playing.”
10. “He looked me right in the eye and told me he dove,” Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis said after Eduardo Lillingston flopped in stoppage time and somehow conned referee Ricardo Salazar into pointing to the penalty spot. “If that's a penalty, there should be about five penalties in every game.”
Alejandro Moreno | Veteran Crew forward drew a controversial late penalty to give Columbus a 2-1 win over Houston on Sunday afternoon
11. That's a pretty naïve tug by Houston defender Geoff Cameron to concede Eddie Gaven's game-winning penalty kick in Columbus' 2-1 win on Sunday. Alejandro Moreno is absolutely going to ground in the 90th minute if he feels even the slightest bit of contact. Was the type of penalty one wants to see decide a game? Absolutely not, but Cameron put himself in the position by grabbing Moreno and setting the stage for the Venezuelan veteran to make the most of it.
The Playoff Picture
1. Columbus (11-4-9, 42 pts.)
2. Chicago (10-6-9, 39 pts.)
1. Houston (11-8-7, 40 pts.)
2. Los Angeles (9-5-11, 38 pts.)
1. Seattle (9-6-10, 37 pts.)
T2. Colorado (10-8-6, 36 pts.)
T2. Chivas USA (11-9-3, 36 pts.)
T2. D.C. United (8-6-12, 36 pts.)
Toronto FC (9-9-7, 34 pts.)
Real Salt Lake (9-9-7, 34 pts.)
New England (9-8-6, 33 pts.)
FC Dallas (7-11-6, 27 pts.)
Kansas City (7-11-6, 27 pts.)
San Jose (5-12-5, 20 pts.)
New York (4-17-4, 16 pts.)
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes
opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New
England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him
with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page.