Forgettable night: D.C. United manager Ben Olsen faces an important match against the Portland Timbers on Wednesday. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
It was a chance for heroes to step up and playoff dreams to be given major boosts, but the past weekend in Major League Soccer action quickly turned ugly and forgettable for the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United.
Two teams battling for the final remaining MLS playoff spot had about as ugly a set of moments as you could expect from teams with so much on the line. The Red Bulls watched as star forward Thierry Henry was sent off just 29 minutes into New York's game against Sporting Kansas City, a crushing blow in an eventual 2-0 loss. Later that night, D.C. United watched a 1-0 lead in the 88th minute transform into a 2-1 loss in stoppage time against the Chicago Fire.
Just like that, the two teams that entered the weekend with so much promise had to pull themselves off the floor and try to recover in time to salvage their seasons in the final week.
In Henry's case, it was tough to have much sympathy for the French star after he appeared to intentionally run into Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza, driving his knee into Espinoza's back as he lay on the ground. The incident came immediately after Espinoza won a hard challenge on Henry, making the incident look very much like a retaliatory response.
Henry's departure made the script for the Red Bulls/Sporting KC match easy enough to predict. Sporting eventually took control of the match and cruised to victory, leaving the Red Bulls to cope with the fact that they would have to play the most important game of their season without their best player.
D.C. United's demise on Saturday was far more sudden, and even more stunning than New York's. A late Dwayne DeRosario penalty kick gave D.C. a 1-0 lead in the 88th minute over a Chicago side that would see its playoff dreams disappear with anything but a win. Rather than fold, the Fire responded with a late surge and produced a pair of stoppage time goals against a sleep-walking D.C. side for a shocking 2-1 victory.
It is the kind of loss that may prove impossible to recover from, and D.C. doesn't exactly have much time to recover. A must-win game against Portland looms on Wednesday and Ben Olsen must motivate a young team to keep on pushing and try to win its remaining two matches.
Missing the playoffs seems more likely for this D.C. United team, with key injuries hurting the team down the stretch and the growing pains of fielding such a young squad setting in. As tough as the end of this season has been for D.C., it could wind up being the type of learning experience that shapes and matures a squad that has an impressive collection of young talents in the league.
As much as there is still a bright future for D.C., the 2011 Red Bulls look much more like a team staring at an abyss this off-season. Having traded away much of their depth, and having locked into the steep salaries of Henry, Rafael Marquez and Frank Rost, these Red Bulls were built to win now. The only problem is the team has been a thorough disappointment that could wind up missing the playoffs despite boasting the league's highest payroll. Even if New York does manage to squeeze into the post-season, the likely path to an improbable MLS Cup Final appearance would take the Red Bulls through FC Dallas, Los Angeles and either Seattle or Real Salt Lake.
Even getting the chance to run through that murderer's row isn't a sure thing. The Red Bulls can clinch a playoff berth with a win against Philadelphia on Thursday, with a tie also being enough if D.C. can beat or tie the Timbers on Wednesday. New York will turn to U.S. national team striker Juan Agudelo to fill in for Henry. As much as head coach Hans Backe has tried to keep the pressure off Agudelo this season, there is little denying that the Red Bulls need Agudelo to step up.
Only one of these teams will be alive come Sunday, and we could see both eliminated if Portland wins its final two matches and New York can't beat Philadelphia. If the Red Bulls and D.C. do miss the playoffs, they will each have a laundry list of reasons why their seasons ended in disappointment, but both teams will also be able to look at this past weekend and the wasted opportunities, and know that those fateful moments were the beginning of the end.
Keller's Special Day
The attendance for Seattle's 2-1 win against San Jose on Saturday wasn't the largest in MLS history, not even the largest among standalone games. What Kasey Keller's farewell will go down as is arguably the single biggest display of respect for an American soccer player in the sport's history in this country.
Showing some love: 64,000 fans at CenturyLink Field cheered Kasey Keller on for his final regular season home match. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The 64,000 fans in attendance at CenturyLink Field on Saturday were there to say goodbye to Keller, who was playing his final regular season home match. Yes, he will play at home in the playoffs, but Saturday has long offered the perfect opportunity to stage a dream farewell for one of the best players in US national team history.
Seattle responded in force, producing a crowd that was the fourth largest soccer attendance in the world this past weekend, behind only FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
Keller and the Sounders responded with a dramatic performance that saw Keller keep his team in the match with a plethora of top-class saves before the Sounders rallied with two late goals to post a 2-1 victory.
MLS Playoff Scenarios
With nine of the ten MLS playoff spots now filled, it will come down to four teams vying for one spot as this week's action gets underway.
The New York Red Bulls are still in control of their own playoff future, and can clinch a post-season berth with a win against Philadelphia on Thursday. If Portland ties or loses to D.C. United on Wednesday, then the Red Bulls could qualify for the playoffs with a draw on Thursday. New York could even qualify for the playoffs with a loss if Portland can't generate more than three points from its two remaining matches and if D.C. doesn't win both its matches.
Portland stands the best chance of catching New York, with two games still to play. A pair of Timbers victories, coupled with a Red Bulls loss would see the Timbers qualify for the playoffs.
In position: The Portland Timbers have the best chance of securing the last MLS playoff spot this season. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
D.C. United can advance with wins in their final two matches, but will need New York to lose to Philadelphia.
As for the Chicago Fire, they need to win and have New York lose, while erasing a seven goal differential edge currently held by New York. This is all assuming that Portland doesn't win one of its two remaining games and D.C. United doesn't win its two remaining games.
And what will the winner of this race for the final playoff spot receive? A likely wild-card round trip to FC Dallas or Real Salt Lake, though New York could conceivably move up to the ninth overall playoff spot with a win and Houston loss to Los Angeles.
MLS Player of the Week
Kasey Keller. The 42-year-old legend gave the record crowd in Seattle the type of performance so many have grown accustomed to seeing from him as he made seven saves in Seattle's 2-1 victory over San Jose. His four-save flurry in the 65th minute reminded us just how good he can still be, and it also inspired his team to another victory in a standout season. Keller's performance beat out Columbus striker Andres Mendoza for this week's honors.
Future star: C.J. Sapong is a clear-cut favorite to win the 'Rookie of the Year' award. (Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
MLS Rookie of the Week
C.J. Sapong. The Sporting Kansas City striker came off the bench and scored less than a minute after entering the match in KC's 2-1 victory against the New York Red Bulls. The goal was Sapong's fifth of the season (tied with Houston's Will Bruin's for the league lead among rookies) to go with his MLS rookie-leading five assists. A clear-cut favorite to win MLS Rookie of the Year, Sapong should figure prominently in Sporting KC's post-season plans.
MLS Team of the Week
FC Dallas halted an eight-match losing streak in all competitions with two victories this past week that not only helped halt the skid, but also earned the club top honors this week.
Dallas first went to Chicago and defeated the red-hot Fire, then proceeded to dispose of a Vancouver side that had won two straight. With Brek Shea and Marvin Chavez back in the fold, Dallas is looking every bit like a team that could make a run back to the MLS Cup Final.