Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones make case for MLS designated players


Designated players demonstrate their value

A few seasons ago we could still talk of the jury being out on designated players and what they did to MLS squad construction. Indeed, when David Beckham combined with Robbie Keane to set up Landon Donovan’s winning goal for the in the 2011 MLS Cup, it was the first time a team with designated players had won the trophy.

The argument ran that even with the allowance of a limited cap hit for such players, teams who employed the full permitted three were always left exposed by their subsequent top-heavy squads, especially as they looked to build teams around such players over a number of years. Even their introductions tended to be problematic: the likes of Thierry Henry and latterly Clint Dempsey were slow to settle and arguably disrupted their teams more than they immediately assisted them.

Dempsey of course settled in emphatic fashion in his second season, but the wave of US national-team players who have followed him back to home have opened up another discussion on the value they provide, particularly with tangible results on the field being, as yet, mixed.

This weekend was a good weekend for designated players, though, as players stepped up with the playoffs looming. Michael Bradley’s late winner for Toronto might have been the standout goal in completing a vital comeback win against Portland, were it not for Jermaine Jones first goal for New England that gave the Revs a vital win over Sporting KC. The 85th-minute Jones goal capped his own instant contribution to the Revs’ impressive playoff charge and gave Sporting a lot to think about as they continue to look thin in midfield, never having truly replaced Ori Rosell.

Jermaine Jones scores against Sporting Kansas City.

Over in Seattle, Obafemi Martins was scoring twice and Dempsey once against Chivas, while Vancouver’s Pedro Morales was able to miss a penalty and still grab a winning brace (including a converted penalty) against RSL. In Columbus the Crew saw Federico Higuain score, while Houston were helped to a 2-0 victory over Chicago with a goal by Oscar Boniek Garcia … and that’s before we get back to LA and Keane (two), Donovan (one) chipping in on a very successful designated-player weekend.

One weekend does not vindicate any one team’s spending habits, and when I spoke to NYCFC boss Jason Kreis last week he stated that the recent rash of big deals has “definitely” skewed the market (though his own side will of course boast high-profile designated players in the shape of David Villa and Frank Lampard) – but the sight of key players arriving in form at the right time could be an important sign for the next couple of months. Certainly, the teams paying the big wages hope so. GP

The Galaxy continue to feast on the East

Pity the Eastern Conference pretenders who show up at the StubHub Center this season:

LA Galaxy 4-1 Philadelphia Union

LA Galaxy 5-1

LA Galaxy 4-1 DC United

And on Sunday night:

LA Galaxy 4-0 New York Red Bulls

Oddly, when Keane lofted the most delicate of chips over Luis Robles after eight minutes it was the first LA goal against the Red Bulls for three seasons, with the Red Bulls having eked out 1-0 wins in the last couple of encounters. After that, though, the result was never much in doubt, as a deep-lying Red Bulls side were punished by the rapid pressing of the Galaxy (the second came from some typical opportunistic hustle from Donovan to strip Red Bulls rookie full-back Chris Duvall, who was eventually substituted after a rough evening’s work).

And while Keane’s two goals and Donovan’s goal and tying of the MLS assist record were obvious talking points, of equal note was the continued potency in front of goal of Gyassi Zardes. Zardes got on the scoresheet but was also the kind of consistently dangerous outlet that along with Donovan’s vision and Keane’s movement means that LA’s attack carries the kind of triple threat they haven’t consistently had since winning back-to-back MLS Cups – when Mike Magee was frequently the straw that broke opposition’s back. And that’s all without mentioning their current ability to bring Alan Gordon off the bench against weary defences.

The Galaxy are dead level with Seattle in the run-in for the Supporters Shield, and as it stands the home-and-home series between the two that finishes the regular season is looking like a two-legged final for that prize. Should the Galaxy ensure home advantage throughout the playoffs, though, and navigate them to the final, this year’s evidence does not suggest much about Eastern teams’ ability to trouble them much at home.

LA’s next game is at home as well. They face Toronto … GP

Seattle sound alarm over defensive frailties

Clint Dempsey shoots on goal as Chivas USA’s Jhon Kennedy Hurtado defends. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

Up until the 37th minute, what should have a been a routine dispatching of dead-last Chivas USA by the Shield-chasing at CenturyLink Field looked set to become a gloriously weird, MLS-style classic. Chivas, a team who had scored only three goals in 11 matches, found themselves 2-1 up over the Sounders away from home courtesy of a refreshed Erick Torres and a Jalil Anibaba own-goal. Chivas – who had scored more than one goal in a match only four times all season, lost 10 of their last 11 and conceded at least three in each of their last five.

Normal service resumed when Lamar Neagle picked up a lucky bounce off Chivas defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, allowing him to go solo on Dan Kennedy eight minutes before halftime and net Seattle’s equaliser. Martins and Dempsey conspired to finish off the Goats with a wonderful give-and-go in the final seconds of the first half. Though the Sounders were in command for the second period, with Martins adding a second to put the fixture beyond doubt at 4-2, there was perhaps cause for concern among nervous supporters.

Seattle have now conceded 13 goals in five games, losing two and winning three. Four of those have come against Chivas, whom Sigi Schmid’s side defeated by an identical scoreline on 3 September. An injury to veteran defender Zach Scott, a sore hamstring for left-back Leo Gonzalez and a poor showing against FC Dallas by Djimi Traore forced Schmid to tinker with the back line, with Brad Evans moving to full-back from midfield. It didn’t work well, and in truth Chivas’ goals came more from defensive mistakes than any renewed sharpness up front. Felix Borja was inexplicably allowed to move past two closing defenders, and wrong-sided Anibaba to force a Stefan Frei to parry, allowing Torres to score Chivas’ first. For their second, Leandro Barrera blew past Chad Marshall on the counter for a long-range shot which came off the bar, letting Torres feed Borja whom the entire back line failed to deal with, ending with the Anibaba OG.

While a makeshift defence won’t account for much in the regular season should Martins and Dempsey continue their double-digit goal-scoring form, these kind of errors could come back to haunt the Sounders in the playoffs, when bad bounces at the wrong time can easily end a season. It’s hard to see what Schmid can do to fix things in a pinch with injury problems aplenty, but so long as the best defence is a good offence, scoring a ton of goals will have to do. RW

A day Hagglund and Toronto fans won’t soon forget

Nick Hagglund is congratulated by Michael Bradley and forward Luke Moore. Photograph: Nick Turchiaro/USA Today Sports

We won’t know until the regular season unfolds, but should Toronto FC pull of an October Miracle and make the postseason for the first time in club history, thoughts will linger on theirstunning, set piece-driven 3-2 comeback win against the on that sunny Saturday in late September. And whether he stays to become a club starter or moves on as countless other TFC players have before him, fans will also remember the role the 22-year-old MLS rookie defender Nick Hagglund played, both in courting disaster and averting it.

Hagglund found himself active early, though not for reasons he would have liked. As both teams settled after Timbers midfielder and Canadian national team captain Will Johnson suffered a broken leg in a fifty-fifty challenge with Mark Bloom in the first seconds, a clumsy Hagglund mistake helped Portland get on the board in the 13th minute. As the central defender looked to send a routine pass forward, his ball bounced off Diego Chara, charging in to press. Fanendo Adi picked it up right away and easily scored past Joe Bendik for the opener.

It got worse for TFC only minutes later when a low Diego Valeri shot/cross from the edge of the 18 shinned off Steven Caldwell for an own-goal; Caldwell would soon after raise false hopes after a set-piece header was deemed to be offside. Toronto repeatedly tried and failed to work some magic down left via Daniel Lovitz and Justin Morrow but were repelled by what seemed at the time to be a solid Timbers defence manned by Pa Modou Kah. A golden chance to keep playoff hopes alive seemed to be DOA.

Then came the Hagglund Show, beginning in the 62nd minute when Lovitz crossed shortly after his corner to find the rising head of the young centre-half, who put TFC on the board. And, incredibly, eight minutes later a Bradley free-kick on the right flank bounced underneath the Portland back line and was headed in again by Hagglund. An uncontested Bradley free-kick in the penultimate minute completed the turnaround, and Toronto were suddenly on 40 points with a fighting chance just outside the red line.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers will once again rue their defensive frailties in a costly loss which saw Vancouver move into postseason contention. Toronto have their work cut out for them, particularly with Columbus continuing their incredible home form with a 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Saturday night. For now, however, Hagglund and Toronto have kept once slim hopes for an historic playoff berth alive. GP

Morales do-over penalty saves Whitecaps

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Jeff Attinella saves a penalty from Pedro Morales. Photograph: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA Today Sports

Toronto were not the only Canadian team to provide some drama in the playoff battle royale. Though the Western postseason is far more stable, the Timbers and the Whitecaps are locked in a tight contest for the final playoff spot. 

After the Timbers crushed the Caps 3-0 last weekend, most reasonable observers might have thought coach Porter’s Portland had the decisive advantage. After all, had already battled Vancouver to a pair of draws, and Carl Robinson’s Whitecaps had only scored three goals in seven games. With RSL needing only a draw to confirm their spot in the playoffs, the best Vancouver could hope for was stalemate. They, and Pedro Morales, had other ideas.

TFC teed everything up nicely after defeating their Cascadian rivals, and the Caps appeared determined to take advantage in the opening stages, though the profligacy of Nick Hurtado put a damper on the good work of ex-Chivas midfielder Mauro Rosales. RSL looked dangerous too, with Joao Plata moving well down the left and Javier Morales finding space to shoot. Yet things started to go awry at the end of the first half. After Vancouver were awarded a soft penalty, when the ref called a foul on Alvaro Saborio, Pedro Morales saw his tame, low left-sided penalty shot saved by Jeff Attinella in the third minute of injury time.

Things got worse for Vancouver when Nat Borchers headed home a corner kick via Javi Morales in the 57th minute, but Pedro Morales got another chance to redeem himself after a stonewall penalty call five minutes later against Carlos Salcedo for jack-knifing Erik Hurtado to the floor. This time the Chilean finished beautifully for his 10th goal of the season.

There was no real sense a winner was on its way when Kekuta Manneh came on for the mostly ineffectual Sebastian Fernandez in the 77th minute, but the 19-year-old Gambian was a revelation for Carl Robinson’s Whitecaps in the final quarter-hour. Vancouver, at that point pressing for a winner, had been vulnerable; only moments before, David Ousted was forced to come out of net to help stop a deadly one-on-one with Sebastian Jaime. Yet as soon as Manneh came on, he helped move in on the left side of the RSL goal, running at the full-back and cutting a pass back which found Steven Beitashour, whose shot was tipped in by Morales for the winner. Manneh nearly scored Vancouver’s third when he danced through the Real Salt Lake defense on the counter moments later, only to see his shot saved by Attinella.

Vancouver have a crushing schedule ahead with games against FC Dallas and Seattle. This win was vital, but Vancouver will have to keep finding a way to score to keep the Timbers at bay … Morales and Manneh will no doubt play a decisive role in that department. GP