Eastern Conference

In MLS, West is best… at least for a weekend

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For all the talk about a power swing toward the Eastern Conference, the West sure made a stand over the opening weekend of Major League Soccer.

Yes, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Toronto FC have yet to make their impact on the season, and of course it’s only been one week of matches — with the West mostly at home — but consider:

— “Lowly” Chivas USA builds a 2-0 lead on the visiting Chicago Fire before overcoming the adversity of blowing said lead to win 3-2.

— Vancouver rudely welcomes the reigning Supporters Shield winners to BC Place with a 4-1 thumping, as manager Carl Robinson makes his debut with a brace from Kenny Miller.

— FC Dallas missed the playoffs by seven points last season, but placed Montreal’s opening night in the loss column with a 3-2 win in Texas.

Seattle sent a message to the champions that home field is a big deal with a stoppage time winner against loaded-for-repeat Sporting KC.

There was production in Philadelphia, where the Union stood firm against MLS Cup favorites Portland, getting a Maurice Edu-Jack McInerney link-up en route to a 1-1 draw, but overall it was a week for the Western Conference.

The Eastern Conference’s only wins on the weekend came from intra-conference beatdowns, as Houston smoked New England 4-0 and Columbus put the hammer down on DC United 3-0.

It likely means very little, but it’s a narrative we’ll be watching all year… and the first salvo belongs to the Western Conference.

Next week, we’ll see even more inter-conference match-ups, as New York and Colorado, Seattle and Toronto, KC and Dallas, and Portland and Chicago on the boil. Who’ll come out with points?

MLS Preview: Houston Dynamo vs. New York Red Bulls

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  • The New York Red Bulls, currently tied for first place in the Eastern Conference, have never won away at Houston in league play.
  • The Houston Dynamo are even on points with the New England Revolution, but with the Revs having scored more goals, Houston have now slipped down to sixth place and out of the playoff positions.
  • Houston will have to fare without Boniek García (Honduras) and Jermaine Taylor (Jamaica), both whom are likely pleased with their teams’ performances in the Hex on Friday evening. New York, meanwhile, miss Tim Cahill, injured in last week’s match, and Ibrahim Sekagya, who is suspended.

The Houston Dynamo are probably just happy to be coming home, hosting the New York Red Bulls on Sunday at 5 p.m. Houston haven’t had much fun on their three game road trip, starting off with a humiliating 5-0 loss to leaders Montreal Impact. After that beating, the Dynamo must’ve felt rather good about their 1-1 tie with the Chicago Fire, but Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew likely sunk their spirits even further. That’s just one point (and one goal) from three games, pulling the Dynamo down to sixth place in the East and out of the playoff spots.

New York, too, have faded a bit. The Red Bulls picked up just one point from their last three matches prior to beating D.C. United 2-1 last weekend. Now NYRB are in a three way tie for the top of the Eastern Conference. Like New York, Sporting Kansas City has 42 points from 27 games, but Montreal has an advantage, also with 42 points but with two less games played.

However, the Red Bulls pulled out an impressive performance last Saturday. New York took an early lead through an 8th minute goal by Lloyd Sam, handed his first start since late June. United then equalized in the 36th minute, but the home side gave them little time to celebrate, with Tim Cahill putting his side back on top two minutes later. Then, in the 72nd minute, Ibrahim Sekagya was shown the red card for obstruction, but Luis Robles managed to save the penalty. Despite being down a man, New York hung on for the next twenty minutes and came away with all three points.

What they’re saying

Red Bulls coach Mike Petke on the win over D.C. United:  “It was a gritty, gutsy performance and we had some quality mixed in there for a lot of the game. When we went down a man, it was difficult on these guys but a gutsy performance. They really put everything they had out there.”

Prediction

A point for each. New York have yet to win on the road this season, but Houston seem to be slipping further and further into a slump. Still, if you’re demanding to know which side has a slight edge, tip your hat to the Dynamo. But put no money on it — that’s a gut feeling only, nothing more. Maybe it’s the gut acknowledging that Houston have never lost at home to the Red Bulls?

MLS Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Montréal Impact

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  • Montréal’s regained first place in the Eastern Conference
  • Philadelphia coming off a 5-1 loss; Impact coming off 5-0 win
  • Amobi Okugo suspended; Sheanon Williams to play in the middle

Sporting Kansas City. New York Red Bulls. Philadelphia Union. They’ve all had their chance to take control of the East, and to this point, they’ve all fail. After Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Houston, Montréal’s regained the conference’s top spot.

Throughout the summer, as the Impact struggled to keep up their torrid spring pace, the East was there for the taking, yet over the last two weeks — with the conference’s other contenders failing to impress — Marco Schällibaum’s team has regained control. Back-to-back league not only have Montréal two points clear in the East but back on pace for the Supporters’ Shield, the team holding the highest points-per-game mark in MLS.

It’s no coincidence this minor surge has coincided with Argentine midfielder Hernán Bernardello settling into Montréal’s starting XI. As Schällibaum tried a two-striker system through much of the summer, it was unclear why his team had moved away from their effective three-man midfield. Davy Arnaud’s fitness was an excuse, but even after the captain came back, the Impact seemed intent on getting Daniele Paponi to work up top with Marco Di Vaio. In the meantime, the rest of the East caught up and passed Montréal.

Bernardello’s acquisition has moved Montréal back to three in the middle, and although the Impact lost their first match with their new Designated Player in the starting XI (2-1 at Chicago on Aug. 10), they’ve won their last two, with last weekend’s thrashing of the Dynamo portending a possible return to form. Replicating their spring formula, Montréal has lost the possession battle in each of their last two games, relying on a strong defensive shape and opportunistic attacking to reclaim their spot atop the East.

This Jekyll and Hyde, good versus bad Montréal makes the teams’ early meeting that much more instructive. In late May, the Impact scored five times at Stade Saputo, never trailing during their 5-3 win over the Union. That game, however, saw Montréal use their less-effective two-front, starting Andrew Wenger up top with Di Vaio. The Impact handled the Union while using their less effective setup, one they’re unlikely to employ Saturday at PPL Park.

It won’t help the Union that they’re set to be without starting central defender Amobi Okugo, suspended for Saturday’s match. An injured Ray Gaddis may also miss the game, while John Hackworth’s midfield could be without Keon Daniel. Coming off a 5-1 thrashing last week in New England, the Union are destined to have momentum, fitness, and suspensions working against them against Montréal.

With Conor Casey up top and the sometime susceptibility of the Impact’s central defense, Philadelphia have a route to victory. But they are underdogs. Given the state of the conference, the Union should be happy to get a stalemate in lieu of the three points they need to bridge the gap between themselves and Montréal.

What they are saying

Montréal forward Marco Di Vaio: “The next two games won’t be easy, but we have to do more if we want to make the playoffs. We have to pick up points away like we did early this season. It’s very important: it might be the difference between fifth place leading to the wild card game and the top of the table sending us directly into the playoffs.” [source]

Philadelphia head coach John Hackworth, on last week’s result: “It’s tough to move on from that, but we do our video and then our process is that we do move on. So I think from a coaching standpoint and from our staff and from our players, what we’ve all said is that we have to move on, we have to move on.” [source]

Philadelphia right back Sheanon Williams, on playing center back: “I’m comfortable doing it. I’ve done it before and it’s not something that doesn’t come natural. Regardless of where you are on the back four, you should be ready to play all of the positions.”

Prediction

Based on the teams’ first meeting, form, the injury and suspension status of both teams, everything points in Montréal’s favor. Hackworth may have to significantly change things up to protect an already suspect defense from the East’s most prolific attack, potentially slowing the game down to make set pieces decisive. But the pick: Montréal, 3-2.