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American Soccer Column: Wright-Phillips’ records, Di Vaio’s last show & 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.


Marco Pappa impresses with Seattle Sounders

Seattle clinched their first ever Supporters’ Shield in a fiercely contested 2-0 win over the Galaxy at Century Link Field on Saturday, thanks to a dramatic second half brace from Marco Pappa. LA travelled to the Emerald City needing maximum points to secure the number one seed in the Western Conference and had the odds stacked against them before proceedings had even begun, without Omar Gonzalez through suspension and Robbie Keane due to a “nagging injury”. Landon Donovan completed the full ninety minutes in his final regular season appearance and, though the match culminated with defeat, will have added motivation to step up in his last postseason before retirement. Perhaps when Donovan and head coach Bruce Arena reflect on the playoffs in a few months time they will have a newfound determination to thank for even more success together in Los Angeles.

Last week it was Lamar Neagle who made the difference for the Sounders and on this occasion it was Marco Pappa, equaling his last goals and assists tally in MLS when he suited up for the Chicago Fire in 2012. He has hit the back of the net six times, setting up a further five, in twenty nine appearances this year, and while Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins continue to generate the headlines, the recent game changers are testament to the belief that the dynamic is far more complex than just two men. Chad Barrett and Kenny Cooper bring a wealth of experience in the attacking department also, and are strong alternatives for this stage having featured in so many key matches over the best part of the last decade. Sigi Schmid is blessed with an abundance of options at his disposal, and if he’s as smart as he has been throughout his time in MLS, he will get the best out of those on the periphery as well as those at the forefront of matters every weekend.

Back to Pappa, who merits particular attention for his performance, his goals came to be because of the same thing – initiative – catching goalkeeper Jaime Penedo off guard with both of his efforts. His first strike, opening the score in the 84th minute, resulted from quick thinking urgency, Martins and Dempsey linking up before the former threaded a delightfully weighted pass across to Pappa on the left wing. From there, the one-on-one battle depended on estimation, Penedo expected to face a shot to his left, towards the far post, however the 26-year-old Guatemalan had other ideas, instead directing the ball to the near post. This would have been enough, the former Heerenveen midfielder had gotten the better of LA’s number one, however the clash ignited in added time, Pappa pressing the nonchalant Penedo, missing his initial challenge before attaining possession, and then strolling into the eighteen-yard box to dink the ball over a hapless A.J. DeLaGarza to seal glory. Acclaim for Seattle’s heroic #10 followed soon thereafter from across the nation’s soccer observers.

Marco Di Vaio heads out on a high

Montreal striker Marco Di Vaio hung up his boots this past weekend, scoring in the Impact’s 1-1 draw with D.C. United in front of his family, friends and adoring supporters at Saputo Stadium. Di Vaio arrived in Quebec as the newly formed MLS club’s first designated player, having spent the majority of his career beating keepers in his native Italy with the likes of Lazio, Parma, Juventus and Bologna. He was held in very high regard on the peninsula, earning fourteen caps with the Azzurri at the start of the decade while challenging for Capocannoniere honours in Serie A on a regular basis. The 38-year-old built a reputation as a clinical, goal-poaching number nine with the natural instincts every especially talented forward needs to have in their locker in order to thrive. From his days as a youth player with Lazio to his twilight years in Canada, Di Vaio maintained the abilities that garnered so much praise throughout his two decades in the game.

The very intangibles which have taken Marco to such unprecedented heights delivered again for one final time to dispatch his 259th goal in all club competitions, as he beat the DCU offside trap, maintained composure and slotted past goalkeeper of the year candidate Bill Hamid to break the deadlock. It was the perfect way to see off his career and time in Montreal, and poetic in that he forecast his ideal exit in the days leading up to the game, telling that “Winning with a goal of mine,” would be the perfect scenario for him to bid adieu to the sport. “For the last one, that’s the best possible thing.” Although he could only fulfil half of his prophecy, the night proved one worth remembering and will stick in the minds of his admirers for a long time to come. Di Vaio will now return to live in the Emilia-Romagna region, where he played between 2008 and 2012 at Bologna, to be closer to his two daughters who returned to Italy with their mother last year. His unmistakable talent shall be missed.

Contrasting emotions for Whitecaps and Timbers

Portland posted the best record in the Western Conference last year and were ultimately one win away from appearing in the MLS Cup final, defying all expectations in Caleb Porter’s rookie year at the helm. Porter received the Coach of the Year award for his achievement and the future in the Rose City appeared extremely bright, it wasn’t as if the renowned passionate faithful at Providence Park needed more reason to cheer. Twelve months on however, and the Timbers will be watching the league’s best and brightest go head to head from home, ravaged by injuries and plagued with widespread uncertainty from the boardroom right through to the stands, as their Cascadia rivals in Vancouver march on to the postseason in flying colours. This outrage has not been helped by the Oregonians’ failure to qualify from their CONCACAF Champions League group, falling 3-1 to Honduran champions CD Olimpia when they needed only a one-goal loss to make the knockout round in 2015.

This disappointment seemed inevitable from the off as Portland started the campaign without victory until May the 5th, the winless streak lasting an extraordinary ten games, while the Caps suffered defeat only twice in the same period, making waves and turning many sceptics into believers after a significantly less comfortable offseason. Although both have experienced mixed fortunes this season there has always been a sense of renewable optimism in British Columbia, whereas in Portland it’s been apparent for some time that something far more toxic has been brewing. Reports have surfaced suggesting that Porter has alienated some of his staff and players, and that hostile atmosphere has been resonated by owner and CEO Merritt Paulson, who after telling the team’s main supporters group to “STFU” on twitter recently has himself raised questions about the catastrophic start to the season. It’s an environment in stark contrast to the current situation in Vancouver.

Carl Robinson has taken a young outfit to new heights in his first year as Whitecaps boss, retaining the Cascadia Cup, securing Champions League qualification and, most importantly some would argue, taking the side back into the playoffs for only the second time in the organisation’s MLS history. It was by no stretch of the imagination a formality, even on the final day, as the Timbers’ 2-0 win vs FC Dallas meant that only three points would ensure participation beyond the weekend. Kendall Waston’s second half header on a Pedro Morales corner proved enough for the result pretty much everyone in the stadium had collectively hoped for and now the Caps travel to Frisco to face Oscar Pareja’s no doubt dejected men on Wednesday night. Vancouver beat the Hoops at BC Place at the beginning of the month and despite not winning at Toyota Stadium before have good reason to feel encouraged about their chances midweek. With tempers running high at the final whistle of their last meeting and the stakes only greater, it promises to be an enthralling spectacle.

Bradley Wright-Phillips setting records

Reigning MLS Cup winners Sporting Kansas City will defend their title from the #5 seed in the Eastern Conference, losing against the resurgent Red Bulls 2-0 at Sporting Park on a night Bradley Wright Phillips tied the single-season scoring record with a goal before and after the interval. Clouds of uncertainty loom as SKC have backed their way into the postseason, winning only one of their last six fixtures, and when momentum is so often the most influential factor, the concern is certainly vindicated. Now, New York, who were so uninspiring at home to Columbus Crew last week, will host Peter Vermes’ team on Thursday in Harrison, NJ with the wind in their sales and some surprisingly impressive impetus. Although both head into the playoffs in a situation less stellar than was the case back in 2013 – RBNY winning the Supporters’ Shield, Sporting close behind in second place – the midweek meeting looks set to deliver much in the way of excitement.

The promised drama could depend on how the record-setting Bradley Wright-Phillips fares alongside Thierry Henry, who seems set to leave New York and potentially the professional game altogether at the commencement of the postseason. BWP’s twenty seven goals have amazed everyone following the league and if the Red Bulls are to enjoy any success past October a lot of the responsibility will lie with his goal-scoring form, a burden attached with substantial pressure. It’s because of that why Henry’s performances will be tantamount, a man who guided Arsenal to trophy after trophy on his way to becoming, arguably, the club’s greatest ever player. It’s safe to say that “Va Va Voom” will leave a similar legacy when he departs MLS, attracting numerous commercial benefits and new supporters since joining from Barcelona in 2010. Even at 37, Thierry is a nightmare for opposing defenders and, though he’s currently dealing with Achilles problems you can bet that Vermes is planning meticulously to nullify #14.

Individuals will also play a part for the wounded Sporting much in the same way as they will for their opposition, for Dom Dwyer’s twenty two goals have, in many respects, carried the team through the duration of the campaign. Dwyer, who broke through this year having spent most of his time on the bench and on loan at Orlando City in the USL Pro since he was drafted in 2012, was unable to beat Luis Robles on the night, but gave Red Bulls manager Mike Petke a lot to worry about, coming close on many occasions. It’s going to be vitally important that he remains patient and keeps his head, representing a focal point for his team-mates to find in possession and a constant headache for Jamison Olave and co at the back. Someone else who needs to raise their game this week, and over coming weeks if SKC are to progress beyond this knockout tie, is USMNT regular and Designated Player Graham Zusi. Zusi has netted five goals in 2014 and clinched a place in the playoffs for his side in the recent 2-0 win over Chicago, rocketing a left-footed effort past Sean Johnson from distance with little over ten minutes to go. Another moment of magic would surely be much appreciated in Kansas and serve as further justification for the 28-year-old’s $600,000 base salary.

Chivas USA go out on a high amid conference reconstruction

Chivas USA are finally no more. After ten years of existence, Major League Soccer has now put an end to its eleventh franchise, which was brought to life by Chivas Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara in an attempt to yield success from the supposedly untapped Latin America market in Southern California. Initially the club delivered on its expectations, finishing top of the Western Conference in 2007, however what has followed since, with the novelty worn off, has represented nothing but abject failure with regards to its results commercially and as a soccer team.

Fans have been left without a team to follow, though the attendance figures at the StubHub Center have plummeted drastically since the Goats’ inception, and the players have been left without any real certainty about their immediate and long-term futures. In the press release announcing the news, MLS confirmed that the roster will be entered into a dispersal draft, a closing down sale if you will, taking place on the first of December. Chivas did go out on a high though, beating the San Jose Earthquakes in their final game thanks to a goal from Félix Borja. This slow, painful death has been lamentable but now it’s over we can look forward to a new LA club under new investors, starting fresh in 2017.

As a result of both this and the forthcoming arrivals of New York City FC and Orlando City SC, there will be conference realignment effective for the 2015 campaign onwards. NYCFC and OCSC will join the Eastern Conference, while Sporting KC and Houston – who competed in last year’s conference final – will head to the Western Conference, creating two divisions containing ten teams each. There has been an element of controversy surrounding the decision, with many citing a sharp difference in quality now SKC and the Dynamo will join an already competitive West, and the facts back that up with all ten of the MLS Cup finalists from 2009 to 2013 plying their trade in the West next season, per Daniel Robertson (FC Dallas digital content coordinator).

According to Frank MacDonald (Sounders’ supporter & writer), the conference will now feature seven of the top eight attendance draws with Seattle, LA, Portland, Vancouver, RSL, Houston, SKC and seven of the top ten goal scorers for this year [Robbie Keane, Obafemi Martins, Gyasi Zardes, Clint Dempsey, Erick Torres, Chris Wondolowski, Joao Plata]. I personally believe that this news benefits three teams in particular – D.C. United, New England Revolution and Columbus Crew – occupants of the top-three in the East for 2014. Ben Olsen, Jay Heaps and Gregg Berhalter are among the most promising and talented tacticians in the league and have been gifted with the opportunity to build some dominance over coming seasons. The future look as interesting as it does unpredictable, which can only be a good thing with respect to attaining new supporters.

Talent Radar MLS Player of the Week

Last week’s Talent Radar MLS Player of the Week award went to Union attacker Brian Brown and this week the honour stays in Philly, this time going to 19-year-old Zach Pfeffer, who scored his first MLS goal in the U’s 1-1 draw with Columbus on Sunday. Philadelphia have gradually turned to youth as their playoff hopes have disappeared, with interim manager Jim Curtin handing opportunities to the fringe players in his squad, and after Brown’s strike against Sporting, Pffefen’s effort continues to show a mutually beneficial relationship between coach and prospect. It’s imperative that these players make the most of the chances presented their way as a phase of widespread change appears to be on the horizon at PPL park and Pffefen, who has only featured on a sporadic basis since becoming the fourth youngest player to sign an MLS contract behind Freddy Adu, Fuad Ibrahim and Diego Fagúndez, certainly did that on the weekend. Amobi Okugu raced through the final third before completing a deflected pass across the box to the onrushing Pffefer, who duly converted between the legs of Crew ‘keeper Steve Clark. Although the hosts stole all three points in the dying embers of the game, his performance will bear in the minds of Union personnel as they prepare for the offseason.

Written by James Bufton.


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