Here are the 10 things we learned from gameweek 12 of the Major League Soccer season.
1. Congratulations to Chris Wondolowski
The wait for Wondo’s 100th MLS goal wasn’t a long one. Eight days after heading in 99 at Avaya Stadium, the San Jose Earthquakes striker hit the century mark at Levi’s Stadium by converting a penalty with a mix of aplomb and ferocity that can only be described as admirable.
It’s time to move on from Belgium. Wondolowski is a true American original. Wondo’s grit and determination are the heartbeat of MLS – this is a player who played his college soccer at Chico State, slipped into the league at the back end of the Supplemental Draft, scored four goals in his first four years with the Houston Dynamo, was traded, and then, without warning, exploded.
Wondolowski is only the ninth player in MLS history to score 100 goals, and he did it faster than anyone before him bar Taylor Twellman. How Wondolowski has scored most of those goals – an uncanny knack for finding seams between center-backs and through defenses – and how he’s celebrated – with a passion virtually unrivaled in MLS – give Wondo a style all his own.
This is more than a “nobody believed in him” story. This is one of the best stories in MLS history – the league helping a young American soccer player’s dreams come true, and that soccer player helping in turn to take the league to new heights.
2. Don’t forget about Frank Lampard
Much has rightly been made of Steven Gerrard’s farewell tour at Liverpool this season, fanfare that culminated in the last two weeks with his final appearance at Anfield and final Premier League appearance at Stoke City, and much has been made of the impact that Gerrard will have on the LA Galaxy when arrives Stateside in July.
Frank Lampard’s Premier League sendoff hasn’t carried with it the same weight for a few reasons, namely that he finished this season with Manchester City, not Chelsea, and that Lampard was mostly a bit-part player at City, while Gerrard was still very much at the heart of Liverpool.
But in MLS, Lampard’s arrival should be garnering more attention. He’s been out of the spotlight for the last few years, but Lampard is still a top, top player with lethal goal-scoring instincts almost unmatched by any midfielder in the modern era.
Lampard will be able to pick his spots in Jason Kreis’ midfield, a similar system to the one that Lampard flourished in under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009-10, statistically his best Premier League season with Chelsea, and when New York City adds DP3 – a when, not an if – there will be plenty of talent around Yankee Stadium.
The entire side looked morose in Saturday’s defeat to Real Salt Lake, and from that standpoint, NYCFC is also sure to benefit from Lampard’s class and professionalism.
Both Gerrard and Lampard captained their respective sides and scored on Sunday. Both are healthy. Gerrard will absolutely help the Galaxy. But Lampard shouldn’t be overlooked. The two sides square off at the end of the summer in LA, and it’s only fitting that the two players who have been pitted against each other their entire careers take their final step side by side.
3. Young guns struggle
FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew have plenty in common. They’re both young teams stacked with developing talent, have coaches renowned for developing that young talent, a dynamic No. 10, a quality No. 9, and far, far too many lapses in concentration and mentally fragile performances to win MLS Cup.
In both Dallas’ Saturday loss to Montreal and Columbus’ Friday night collapse from 2-0 up to draw the Chicago Fire, both teams showed why they can’t be trusted long-term this season – very average defense, and a total lack of consistency.
Both Dallas and Columbus are fun teams that should be commended for turning bad situations in 2013 – an aging, mercurial side in Dallas, and pretty hopeless setup in Ohio – into playoff teams just two years down the road.
But both Oscar Pareja in Dallas, and especially Gregg Berhalter and owner Anthony Precourt in Columbus, want more than playoff appearances and big transfer fees. That’s going to take some growing up from each team.
4. The Alan Gordon legend grows
Gordon popped up with his fourth goal of the season and sixth stoppage time goal in the last four years to hand LA a much, much-needed, last-gasp win against the Houston Dynamo Friday night at the StubHub Center.
Gordon has made a career out of scoring big goals. His strikes have been responsible for eight of the Galaxy’s seventeen points this year – in other words, without Gordon, LA is a last-place team right now.
How Gordon scored the winner on Friday night – off of a twisting cross from Robbie Keane, making his first appearance in almost two months – made the moment even sweeter. All around, a good night for the Galaxy, who still aren’t very good, but, because of games like this one, are absolutely going to be around when it matters.
5. Rooting for Jim Curtin
It’s almost impossible not to root for Jim Curtin, the constantly beleaguered manager of the Philadelphia Union. He’s a hometown kid, in his first managerial job, battling with a severely undermanned team, amidst fan acrimony, trying to work his way out of a bad situation that he didn’t create.
It wasn’t Curtin made the Union a punch line. Wasn’t Curtin who wanted Rais M’Bholi, or Curtin who made the call to spend a number one draft pick on Andre Blake two years ago. On a shoestring budget, he’s doing his level best.
Curtin isn’t incompetent either – he’s already proven himself to be a far better manager than the man he replaced last year, John Hackworth – and his team and his game-plan worked very nicely in a 2-0 road upset of the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.
Don’t look now, but that’s two wins in a row for the Union against two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, and while some of that is Philly finally getting some of the bounces that were going against them earlier in the spring, they’ve also been playing better – especially on defense.
Curtin is honest, and what he’s trying to do is admirable. He certainly deserves the full support of the fans, even if his boss doesn’t.
6. Sporting Kansas City gets well
It was a banner week for Peter Vermes’ team, who, with the help of an increasingly flamboyant Allen Chapman, pasted New England at home on Wednesday night and then ground out a draw at Seattle on Saturday.
Kansas City hasn’t really been healthy since the World Cup break last year, and they continue to struggle with injuries – Ike Opara, Graham Zusi, and now Dom Dwyer – but they’re enduring.
Matt Besler finally looks close to his best again, while Benny Feilhaber has been one of the league’s best players and Krisztian Nemeth has delivered the goals that Sporting signed him for.
Vermes teams are either on or they’re not. At the back end of last year and early this year, Sporting was decidedly off. But at this point, Kansas City looked to have found their swing a little bit – just in time to stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase.
7. Even When They’re Good…
TFC can’t keep it together, and TFC is good this year. Giovinco dazzled in Toronto’s first home win of the year, scoring a fifth minute winner in a 1-0 victory over Portland that was nowhere near as close as the score-line indicated.
In a soft Eastern Conference, Toronto will be in the playoffs. It’s as close to a sure thing as you can get with the Reds. Almost as fulfilling for Toronto is how the designated players – Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley – are all living up to their respective contracts and expectations.
Even still, there was much trouble around BMO Field on Sunday, starting with a supporters’ protest of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts moving into BMO starting in 2016, to a fan accosting MLSE CEO Tim Lieweke in the stands, telling him to “go home” to the United States.
The entire club needs to get its act together. BMO wasn’t even close to sold-out on Saturday – there were about 8,000 empty seats – and while the fans will come as the team racks up wins, those fans that do come need to behave themselves and create an atmosphere of positivity and trust that has been sorely lacking for years.
8. Timbers freefalling
Good lord are the Timbers bad. Anemic wouldn’t quite do their performance against Toronto justice, and while they should have had a late penalty that could have tied the match, it was only thanks to superb goalkeeping from Adam Kwarasey that the game was within reach at all.
Since thumping FC Dallas 3-1 at home on April 4th, Portland has lost four times, drawn once, and only beat two of the worst teams in the league in Montreal and NYCFC.
Diego Valeri’s return didn’t solve much, and now Valeri is out again for at least a week with a sprained ankle. Darlington Nagbe has disappeared, Fanendo Adi is all over the place, and Caleb Porter appears out of answers and options.
Though Will Johnson’s return on Wednesday night against DC United should help with Portland’s increasingly languid play, a still-recovering Johnson isn’t going to save anything either. The Timbers are usually good with their backs against the wall, and they absolutely have to be this week – or things will get ugly in the Rose City.
9. Rapids on the Boars
A lightning-delayed 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps was the Colorado Rapids’ first home win in the league since last July.
It was a good performance from Colorado, especially defensively, against a decent team. The goal was set-up with a classy touch from DP forward Gabriel Torres, who appears to be rounding into form, and Republic of Ireland striker Kevin Doyle also got a debut on a very satisfying day at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Although Pablo Mastroeni appears to be betting that the Rapids won’t be able to fire him simply because of how awesome he looks, his team have been a little tougher to handle in recent weeks. The All-Star game in July will be a touchstone for the Rapids, as they host Tottenham in Commerce City.
Hopefully for Mastroeni’s sake, this momentum is sustained.
With the Champions League Final in Berlin now less than two weeks away, Andrea Pirlo’s future has been the subject of increasingly fervent speculation over the weekend.
Weeks ago, ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman pegged Pirlo as the next major star most likely to come to MLS, and after missing out on Xavi to Qatar last summer, Pirlo is a player MLS – and it looks like NYCFC – should do everything in its power to land.
Pirlo isn’t just a player. He’s a showman. He’ll be worth the price of admission on whatever field he plays on, when increasingly NYCFC, rumored to be his preferred destination, has not been.
Didier Drogba, who had an emotional farewell from English soccer, is a possibility too, as he leaves Chelsea and most likely Europe after a second successful spell and fourth Premier League title at the Bridge. We’re coming up on a good time for MLS – it has just baseball to compete against, it’s some of the only soccer around, the weather is nice, the crowds get bigger, and the transfer window is open. Summer can’t start soon enough.