The top three teams in the Eastern Conference came up against Western Conference opponents this week, and all three fell short. Yet, despite a rare earthquake on the east coast last week, there was no seismic shift in the balance of power in Major League Soccer. The West still rules.
Of course, the Virginia quake - a 5.9 magnitude trembler that shook buildings from the Carolinas to Maine - wasn’t the only significant natural event of the past seven days. There was also Hurricane Irene, which forced the postponement of three MLS games before swirling up the Eastern seaboard and leaving devastation in its wake.
So it was a reduced slate this week - but it punched above its weight by delivering plenty of goals, thrills and late plot twists, along with a piece of MLS history.
Let’s track its path.
Columbus Crew travelled to Seattle as the Eastern Conference leaders, riding a two-game winning streak, and looking to test themselves against the Number Two team in the West.
Seattle Sounders FC were fresh off a pair of CONCACAF Champions League victories and a big MLS win over fellow West contenders FC Dallas. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, the home team looked every bit the part of MLS Cup contenders, trouncing the Crew 6-2 behind a hat-trick from local product Lamar Neagle.
Sounders FC set several club records during the shellacking, including most goals in a half (four), most goals in a game (six), and first hat-trick in front of a home crowd (Neagle’s trifecta, which he sealed with a spectacular 22-yard drive off the underside of the bar in the 70th minute).
But as impressive as the performance and all of the club landmarks were, the most historic record in the game came from a member of the opposing side. Columbus striker Jeff Cunningham became Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorer when he converted a 59th-minute penalty for the 134th goal of his career, surpassing former D.C. United legend Jaime Moreno, and providing the lone bright spot for the Crew on the day.
As Cunningham’s teammate Josh Gardner - who set an MLS record of his own: shortest time between scoring a goal and scoring an own goal - told MLSSoccer.com, the new goal king will have his teammates sign the historic match ball, but “hopefully he won’t put the score of the game on it.”
After Columbus were obliterated in Seattle on Saturday afternoon, the Eastern Conference’s second- and third-place teams, Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo, respectively, had reason to believe they could make up some ground on Saturday night.
Houston were riding a five-game unbeaten streak and they faced Vancouver Whitecaps FC, cellar-dwellers in the West. The Dynamo also had yet to win an away game this season. What better time to capture their first road victory?
But with the opportunity teed up in front of them, Houston shanked it into the deep rough, Charles Barkley–style. They missed multiple chances and failed to sustain their first-half dominance before surrendering an 86th-minute goal to Whitecaps FC winger Shea Salinas and losing 1-0.
While the Columbus and Houston defeats were gut-wrenching, Sporting KC’s loss to visiting FC Dallas later that night struck a little lower.
Peter Vermes’ men had lost just once in their previous 17 games, and boasted a 6W-1L-4D record at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, where they welcomed a road-weary FC Dallas team playing on two days' rest. (The Hoops had won a CCL game in Toronto on Thursday morning after weather had washed out the match the night before.)
Another golden opportunity, it seemed. And Sporting were well on their way to exploiting it, riding goals by Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo to a 2-0 lead after 68 minutes.
But then two KC bugaboos reared their heads - red cards (they are second in the league with eight), and failure to close out games (they gave up late leads to Vancouver and Seattle earlier this season).
Six minutes after Daniel Hernandez made it 2-1 on a free kick in the 70th minute, SKC striker Teal Bunbury was shown a second yellow card, reducing the home side to 10 men and setting the stage for a Hoops comeback.
Cue Brek Shea. The rising United States international midfielder is FCD’s leading scorer with 10 goals. But he turned provider on this night, sending in a picture-perfect cross to Maicon Santos to head home for the equalizer in the 89th minute - and then, to the utter deflation of the sell-out LIVESTRONG Sporting Park crowd, creating an almost exact replica in the second minute of time added on, when his cross found rookie Bobby Warshaw for an incredible game-winner.
Fire Still Burning
While the East’s top teams fell flat, the seventh-place Chicago Fire won their second game in a row and kept their faint playoff hopes alive with a 2-0 victory over visiting Colorado Rapids.
Dominic Oduro and Cory Gibbs scored first-half goals and the Fire held on, moving to five points behind New York Red Bulls for the 10th and final playoff berth. The Red Bulls had their marquee match-up with LA Galaxy postponed because of Hurricane Irene.
(The match between fourth-place Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution was also rescheduled, as was a pivotal battle between playoff hopefuls D.C. United and Portlan Timbers)
Toronto FC also came away with something against a Western Conference foe, but not as much as they’d have liked. The Reds gave up an 86th-minute equalizer to Chris Wondolowski and settled for a 1-1 tie against visiting San Jose Earthquakes. Both teams remained stuck in eighth place in their respective conferences.
On the Bubble
Another team chasing New York for the final playoff berth is Chivas USA, who entered Week 24 on a three-game unbeaten streak.
But the Goats’ postseason hopes suffered setbacks after a pair of 1-0 losses left them stuck on 31 points and battling three teams (Portland, D.C., and New York) that have games in hand on them.
Chivas fell to Portland 1-0 in midweek Wednesday, then dropped an identical decision to Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
The second defeat was especially discouraging because a) the Goats gifted RSL their goal with a defensive error, b) Real Salt Lake played with 10 men for 67 minutes after Nat Borchers was red-carded, and c) Chivas USA's defensive anchor Heath Pearce left the game in the 59th minute with what he described as a “freak” hamstring injury.
It was a gritty, impressive win for Real Salt Lake, but for Chivas, it was the final missed opportunity in a week full of them.