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American Soccer Column: Dominic Kinnear’s farewell, new USL Pro teams and more

A brand new feature on this website is the introduction of weekly & fortnightly columns focusing on various leagues, countries and regions across the World. James Bufton analyses and gives his opinion here on the talking points in American soccer.

Kinnear Brown

Kinnear’s home farewell tarnished by Lee Nguyen

Dominic Kinnear announced his decision to leave the Dynamo on the eve of Houston’s meeting with the Revolution, accepting the opportunity to return to San Jose and replace the outgoing Mark Watson for the 2015 campaign. Orange Crush qualified for the postseason in seven of the nine years Kinnear spent at the helm, building a dynasty under the guidance of the former USMNT defender wherein the team claimed successive MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007. While the relationship has run its course, the legacy of the unprecedented success yielded by the 47-year-old will be felt in Houston for decades to come.

There was no poetic goodbye to be had however, as the Revs returned to Foxborough with maximum points and a secured top-three finish, in large part thanks to the performance of Lee Nguyen. His second half brace capped a magnificent display in which the American-Vietnamese midfielder proved his MVP credentials to the rest of the league. While the likes of Robbie Keane, Bradley Wright Phillips, Obafemi Martins and the departing Landon Donavon have consumed most of this discussion for some time, perhaps none can rival the 28-year-old in terms of overall influence down the stretch.

Nguyen, who was waived by the Vancouver Whitecaps after three preseason appearances back in 2012, has produced the best form of his career this year, supplementing his seventeen goals with an additional five assists. He leads the league in game winners with eight in thirty one appearances and has hit the back of the net nine times in his last ten matches, representing an integral competent to New England’s late surge up the standings. For context, Jay Heaps’ side lost eight of the ten games prior to #24’s burst of momentum, claiming victory only once. Even if he is ultimately overlooked for MVP honours, there’s no denying the extraordinary manner to his season, an x-factor opponents will no doubt have to be very wary of in the playoffs.

EJ fires D.C. to record turnaround

D.C. United finished last season in the basement of the Eastern Conference, owning the worst regular season record [3-24-7] in the entire league with a cataclysmic goal difference of -37. This past Saturday, twelve months on from the business end of that abysmal campaign, DCU secured first place in the east along with a place in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. Ben Olsen has masterminded the biggest one-year turnaround in MLS history, improving by an extraordinary 42 points, and, deservedly, is the number one candidate for the Coach of the Year award.

Olsen has done an unbelievable job resurrecting United and much of the reason behind that is how he’s integrated the three main offseason additions – Fabian Espindola, Davy Arnaud and Bobby Boswell – into the existing contingent of promising youth. It was Eddie Johnson however, a new addition himself reliant on the 37-year-old’s man management skills while on the periphery looking in, who delivered the goods in the 2-1 win over Chicago with the assist for the opener and eventual winner in the 53rd minute. Heroes can come in the unlikeliest of forms during this wild part of the campaign, as the late reemergence of EJ testifies.

Johnson’s talent is undeniable, but attached with that is the tendency to generate unwelcome distraction within the locker room and D.C. have experienced both the pros and the cons since signing the 30-year-old in December 2013. He encountered numerous difficulties to start the year, struggling to discover his scoring touch and consequently missed out on Jürgen Klinsmann’s World Cup squad, a rough patch not helped by some questionable behaviour on social media, however he has bounced back to find form at the ideal time. He’s capitalised on the injury to Luis Silva, impressing on an individual basis, yet more importantly has maintained a healthy relationship with Espindola, instigator-in-chief alongside Silva. This combination will hope to grow in force as the playoffs progress, and will give a selection headache to coach Olsen when Silva returns from injury.

Whitecaps maintain control of final playoff spot up for grabs

Portland, the sole contender to the Whitecaps for the fifth and final place at the postseason table in the west could not defeat a determined Nick Rimando at Providence Park on Friday night, falling to a 0-0 stalemate despite applying relentless pressure on the Real Salt Lake goal. This presented a convenient opportunity to their Cascadia neighbours, who they themselves headed into the final Earthquakes home game at Buck Shaw Stadium with impressive momentum having beaten conference rivals RSL, FC Dallas and Seattle in consecutive weeks.

San Jose went into the game under the leadership of long time assistant Ian Russell, who occupies the hot seat on an interim basis for the remainder of the year, after Mark Watson was relieved of duties in the week. Vancouver, who had never taken three points away from Santa Clara before, failed to do so again as the emotionally charged Quakes stayed resilient, halting all progress by any means necessary. The organisation will move into their brand new, 18,000-capacity arena in the offseason, costing a figure in the region of $70,000,000. It will be interesting to see how the team perform without the poorly maintained enclosed surface that served as a home-field advantage of sorts at Buck Shaw, a significant factor in nullifying its final away side on Saturday.

The Caps did not succumb to a loss however, and in doing so stay above the red line, a single point ahead of the trailing Timbers. It’s been a fascinating race for some time and looks to carry on in that respect next week as Caleb Porter takes his side to face Dallas, while Carl Robinson’s men host the Rapids. RSL’s result against Chivas could have a considerable effect on proceedings in Frisco, TX as a win for the reigning Western Conference champions would mean that only victory would secure third place for FCD. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the picture will look in seven days time.

Galaxy and Sounders battle to a tie in Supporters’ Shield showdown

The first leg of the home and home series between LA and Seattle to decide the Supporters’ Shield promised drama and sure enough delivered it on Sunday night, in what was Landon Donovan’s final regular season home match at the StubHub Center. Much of the talk surrounding the clash in the days leading up to the contest regarded Bruce Arena’s tactical duel with long time adversary Sigi Schmid, two of the most decorated coaches in the history of Major League Soccer. Arena has come out on top on the most occasions, boasting an 11-7-5 record in all competitions, and fans were treated to yet another classic between the two visionaries whose first meeting took place way back in 1988 with the Galaxy boss guiding the University of Virginia to a 3-0 victory over Sigi’s UCLA.

In a surprisingly open first half, both outfits creating their fair share of opportunities, the hosts broke the deadlock after a costly lapse of concentration from Brad Evans presented Baggio Husidić with his fifth goal this term. Husidić was involved on the goalscoring front yet again early into the second forty five, setting up a wonderful effort from Marcelo Sarvas to double the advantage. It would be fair to say that the Sounders didn’t deserve to trail by such a margin having adopted an effectively fluent approach, and the visitors reaped the rewards for their commitment to that positivity, halving the deficit through Clint Dempsey. Lamar Neagle levelled the scoreline soon thereafter to claw a draw from LA’s clutches and carry the impetus into next Saturday’s rematch at CenturyLink field.

Neagle has waited a long time to reach this standing in the Emerald City, spending two spells with the Sounders – in between stints with Charleston Battery, IFK Mariehamn and Montreal Impact – before signing for a third time in 2013. This season he has become somewhat of a secret weapon in Schmid’s game plan, adding an extra dimension going forward as an unknown quantity in comparison to the more heavily prepared against Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. He’s accumulated nine goals and nine assists, a career high, repaying the faith placed in him throughout this term. Heading into the playoffs it will be tantamount for opposition to keep an eye out for the effervescent 27-year-old, and learn a lesson from his equaliser in Los Angeles.

Sounders and Timbers announce USL Pro teams

In other news, Seattle and Portland have announced that USL Pro will be heading to Cascadia for the 2015 campaign. Sounders 2 will operate from the Starfire Sports facility in Tukwila, while Timbers 2 will play at the 5,000-capacity Merlo Field. This has garnered a positive response from fans and media alike, excited by the long-term prospects and widespread opportunity attached to this investment. This is testament to the league-wide devotion to the future of US soccer, the newfound emphasis may take time to produce the projected results but should prove very much worthwhile with the right backing.

Much of the attention afforded to the S2 project has resulted from the exciting initiative with regards to ownership, though the club itself will hold a majority stake, the supporter-operated Sounders Community Trust will assume 20%. SCT Chairman Paul Cox told this to the club website about the news: “From day one, Sounders FC has embraced the storied history of soccer culture in Seattle and has been progressive about involving supporters with the club. The formation of the Sounders Community Trust is the next step in that process, and represents a deeper connection to the sport in our community.”

Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson acknowledged the success of the Galaxy II outfit and the benefits he and the team hope to replicate with their affiliated side going forward: “They moved players back and forth on a regular basis, all of their players got plenty of playing time, and it gave the coaching staff of the first team the opportunity to see how the players were performing and bring in players that were performing well, but for the young guys that were not quite ready, still get valuable games in.”

Talent Radar MLS Player of the Week: Brian Brown

This week’s Talent Radar MLS Player of the Week is Philadelphia Union’s 21-year-old attacker Brian Brown, who scored his second goal of the campaign and his second goal against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. Brown, handed his first start by interim head coach Jim Curtin, slotted the ball out wide to an in form Cristian Maidana before darting through the space vacated between Aurélien Collin and Seth Sinovic to meet the Argentine’s return delivery and convert with aplomb. Brown headed to the City of Brotherly Love in July, penning a loan deal from Jamaican side Harbour View FC until the end of the season, and is determined to offer more in 2015 if he’s offered the chance to do so at PPL Park: “MLS is a pretty good league, guys here are physically strong. For my first season, I would say it’s ok, but if I’m here next season it’s going to be way better for me.”

Written by James Bufton

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