By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Sep 21, 2018) US Soccer Players – Midweek games in the thick of the MLS playoff chase wouldn’t seem to be the type to deliver wild, end-to-end action. That’s exactly what two Wednesday night games did. A third provided a bit of a surprise, ending one of the league’s most remarkable winning streaks.
The MLS schedule pitted three Eastern Conference teams traveling across the country to take on Western Conference opponents in a congested part of the calendar. It was a significant challenge, especially for the Philadelphia Union. Philly was smarting from a disastrous showing at home against Montreal on the weekend, a game that threw their postseason hopes into just a touch more jeopardy.
Jim Curtin’s team missed out on three points and helped the Impact’s own playoff hopes with the Saturday loss ahead of a trip to Seattle. No one needs reminding that the Sounders have again executed a remarkable turnaround to their season, winning nine straight games and charging up the table in the West.
On paper, Seattle should’ve handled Philadelphia with relative ease. Instead, the home team missed several good chances. They gave up a late Union winner to Fafa Picault after a miscommunication at the back saw goalkeeper Stefan Frei miss a pass and gift the ball to Philadelphia. It was the high pressure of Jay Simpson, a player relegated to a reserve role who hadn’t seen the field since April, that led to Frei’s error and the winning goal.
It’s an ignominious end to the Seattle winning streak and three big points for the Union. With the win, Philadelphia is now eight points up on 7th-place DC United, though United has played one fewer game than the Union. Curtin’s team essentially swapped the “easier” points at home against Montreal for the more difficult points on the road in Seattle.
The Sounders pulled themselves out of a hole with the winning streak, but aren’t assured of anything yet. Brian Schmetzer’s team sits above the playoff line in 6th-place, with the Whitecaps lurking just four points behind.
While the Sounders couldn’t hold serve at home, the Timbers made their advantage count with a 3-2 win over the Crew at Providence Park.
The game pitted two teams rotating their lineups with the weekend looming. Gyasi Zardes and Justin Meram were on the bench for Columbus, and Federico Higuain did not travel with the team to Oregon. Giovanni Savarese played a stronger team, sitting only one or two players who might have started under different circumstances.
Despite missing their top three attacking weapons, it was the Crew who struck first. Second-year forward Niko Hansen connected with a cross at the penalty spot and gave the visitors a lead in the seventh minute. The goal and the eleven-minute lead it provided was the high water mark for Columbus on the night.
The Timbers leveled the game in the 18th minute when an unmarked David Guzman rose up and headed home an Andy Polo cross. Polo scored eight minutes before halftime that gave the Timbers a lead they would not relinquish.
Polo picked the ball up on the right flank and rushed into the Crew end of the field looking for a teammate. An early cross found Sebastian Blanco. He played a looping return pass to Polo, who still streaking towards the back post. After Polo’s centering pass hit off Crew defender Milton Valenzuela’s foot and popped into the air, Polo using a flying kick to knock into the Columbus net.
Quite a way to score a first-ever MLS goal. Portland added another on an own goal by Lalas Abubakar before conceding late to tighten up the scoreline.
The win puts Portland into 4th-place in the West, three points up on the sixth-place Sounders. Real Salt Lake sits between the two Cascadia teams, two points back of Portland.
The Crew might not have expected to win on the road in Portland ahead of a trip, but a point would have helped the playoff cause. The Crew holds 4th-place in the Eastern Conference. While it seems unlikely three teams will pass them before the end of the regular season, there’s significant risk Gregg Berhalter’s team could miss out on a home game in the postseason.
The wildest match of the night came last. On paper, Atlanta’s trip to San Jose looked like the kind of game that the Supporters’ Shield leaders should dominate. The Quakes are out of playoff contention and just fired head coach Mikael Stahre. Steve Ralston’s turn as the interim head coach is something of an audition. Every player on the San Jose roster is playing for a job in 2019. The disparity in the fortunes of the two clubs is too great not to presume an Atlanta win.
Atlanta did win, but it was far from easy. The new look Earthquakes, using a lineup that included several young players looking for playing time under Stahre, tore open Atlanta’s defense and charged out to a 3-1 lead. It looked like the home team was going to put the game away perhaps get legendary forward Chris Wondolowski one goal closer to setting the all-time career MLS record when the match took a dramatic turn.
Following a sequence in which the Quakes used a well-run counter to set up Wondolowski for what looked to be the team’s fourth goal of the day, center referee Fotis Bazakos stopped play at the behest of the Video Assistant Referee. A protracted delay ensued while Bazakos watched a replay unavailable to anyone in the stadium. That caused confusion as it wasn’t obvious what about the goal might be under review.
It turns out that Bazakos was checking on a handball in the San Jose box that occurred well before the Quakes recovered the ball and started their counterattack. After waving off the Wondolowski goal, Bazakos then awarded Atlanta a penalty that Josef Martinez converted. Instead of 4-1 San Jose, the score shifted to 3-2.
All told, the process from San Jose goal to Atlanta penalty took four minutes. VAR did get the call right. Magnus Eriksson committed a handball infraction in the penalty area. Still, it’s worth asking about wiping out an entire sequence. San Jose did not get the ball back directly from Eriksson’s handball and that Atlanta had another chance to cycle possession and attempt an attack before the Quakes countered.
United tied the game through Miguel Almiron, then found a late winner deep into added time when Almiron picked out Josef Martinez with a cross to the far post. The goal was Martinez’s 30th of the season, making him the first player in MLS history to score 30 goals in a single year.
Atlanta maintained a four-point gap over the Red Bulls for the Supporters Shield thanks to the win. Twenty minutes before the final whistle, New York might have been dreaming about a chance to overtake Atlanta when Toronto visits Red Bull Arena this weekend. Instead, Tata Martino and his full strength squad got a bit of luck and did what good teams do. Find a way to win.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.
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Photo by John Todd – ISIPhotos.com