Not too much has changed in the volatile Eastern Conference race after Houston and New York went toe-to-toe on two straight Fridays.
The most influential result on the current table – Sporting Kansas City's 2-1 home victory over D.C. United on Saturday – came elsewhere. After New York atoned for a poor performance at BBVA Compass Stadium by matching the Dynamo's home dominance with a 2-0 victory at Red Bull Arena on Friday night, there wasn't too much room for fluctuation between the two sides.
Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the outcome of those two matches paled in importance to the personnel used to obtain them. On that particular score, Houston and New York can both point to the emergence of one potentially influential figure to buttress claims that they will only grow stronger as the season enters its most critical stage.
It should come as little surprise that New York looks like a more formidable outfit with Tim Cahill in the starting XI. Cahill's display on Friday night justified the hype surrounding his arrival in the league and showed how he can influence matches even when he isn't particularly sharp.
Most of the Red Bulls' success on the evening stemmed from Cahill's partnership with Dax McCarty in central midfield. The duo struck the right balance from the start – a pleasant change from the disastrous display offered in the engine room in Texas when McCarty's one-match ban placed Teemu Tainio in an impossible position – and took control of the match from a Dynamo midfield three that bossed the affair in Texas a week earlier.
Cahill's performance, in particular, provides plenty of reasons for optimism. He displayed the sharpness of a player still working through his preseason routine (only he can tell you how he missed that open header eight minutes before halftime), but he found his way into the right spots more often not. His ample contribution on the first goal (a cushioned header into the perfect area for Markus Holgersson to bundle home after 61 minutes) provided a tangible measure of his contribution on the evening and his potential potency in forthcoming outings.
If Backe can resist the urge to tinker with his central midfield duo (and he might not be able to do so with Rafa Márquez back in the mix), then the Red Bulls now boast the right pairing to fuel their MLS Cup ambitions. There are always questions to answer from game to game (central defense tops the list, it seems) and Cahill still needs to work on his fitness, but New York appears well placed to dictate matches in the middle of the park for the foreseeable future.
Houston can now hold similar expectations about its high-profile midfield signing if the brief evidence offered by Ricardo Clark in his return to the club supplies a reliable indicator. Clark replaced Adam Moffat for the final quarter of an hour in a switch that soon could become permanent once the former U.S. international returns to works his way back into the fold.
Although Moffat has played well in the lone holding role in the Dynamo's 4-3-3 setup, Clark's range supplies the type of flexibility required to cover over the cracks often left exposed with players floating into different spaces. It is no stretch to suggest that Clark is capable of covering from sideline to sideline if he so chooses to help link the play. Few players in MLS possess his athleticism or his tenacity. He won't have to do much work on the ball aside from shuttling it to Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia, but he can make the simple passes required to keep the Dynamo's recent strength in possession (54.5 percent of the ball against New York) humming right along.
Perhaps Clark's most integral contribution will come in his defensive duties. His ability to fill acres of space provides the currently resolute back four with even more protection than Moffat's diligent work usually offers. Houston may have its defensive work sorted out at the moment, but the extra dose of solidity provided by Clark's running in midfield may just prove particularly useful as the end of the campaign approaches.
While the picture may shift as the Eastern Conference sorts itself out with Chicago, D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City all jostling for places in the pecking order, both Houston and New York will feel confident that their groups are now well positioned to emerge from the pack in the final accounting.
Five Points – Week 21
1. Sometimes, it helps to have a reliable option on hand: Vancouver coach Martin Rennie turned to seasoned center back Andy O'Brien to fill the ample void left when Jay DeMerit departed with concussion-like symptoms in the first half of the Whitecaps' 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake. The former Ireland international defender stepped into the breach and barely put a foot wrong against one of the league's most formidable strike partnerships. His calming presence and polished positioning represented a significant step up from Rennie's previous alternatives (Carlyle Mitchell and an out-of-position Alain Rochat) in that spot. Once the former Leeds United and Newcastle defender reaches full fitness, he may just find a way to push Martin Bonjour out of the starting XI, too.
2. Other times, it helps to adjust to the match in front of you: Real Salt Lake did a nice job of setting the line in the right spot to prevent Darren Mattocks from using his speed behind the rearguard. Mattocks spent most of the first half flailing around before he adjusted to the problem in the second stanza and started to work in front of the line a bit more adequately. His role in the second goal (admittedly from a run deep into the left corner) constituted a deserved reward for his improvement. Mattocks must continue to make strides in his toil in front of the line in order to keep Kenny Miller out of the team in the coming weeks.
3. Sporting Kansas City makes its statement: The midweek exultation could have paved the way for a letdown. It didn't. Teal Bunbury scored after 12 minutes to grab a foothold in a frenetic affair against a D.C. United side without Dwayne De Rosario (shoulder) for the first time this season. Not even Nick DeLeon's equalizer – courtesy of a sumptuous cross from Andy Najar – threw Sporting off its game. Graham Zusi's winner after 63 minutes fell into the category of inevitability. It is usually a precarious exercise to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of four-day periods, but this Sporting group took a nice couple of steps in the progression toward the mature and potent outfit required to challenge for MLS Cup over the past week or so.
(Note: One particular aid to Sporting in Saturday's particular quest, aside from the confusion caused by De Rosario's absence: United simply doesn't know how to shut down a game at the moment. Ben Olsen's side isn't equipped to follow the template – sit back, soak up pressure and hit on the counter – that other teams have used to frustrate Sporting at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park over the past couple of months. It isn't worth fixing what isn't broken, but D.C.'s occasionally shaky defensive foundation may prove costly once the postseason arrives.)
4. Do weekends come much better for the Earthquakes?: Steven Lenhart rescued yet another late victory with his stoppage-time header in the 2-1 home victory over Seattle on Saturday night. Steven Beitashour earned his first call-up to a U.S. national team squad and joined Chris Wondolowski in the delegation headed to Mexico City for the midweek tilt against Mexico. To cap it all off, Alan Gordon received a late nod to join Jürgen Klinsmann's group on Sunday night.
5. Let Sanna Nyassi explain what he thought as he fired Montréal to its second away win: Nyassi decided an otherwise drab (and somewhat controversial, given a few of the post-match talking points) affair with New England by embarking upon a lengthy solo run and smashing home the winner after 61 minutes in the Impact's 1-0 victory at New England.
“It was [about us] being in good shape,” Nyassi said after the game. “The whole team was in a good shape. I knew I had cover behind me, so I decided to go at them because they were trying to counterattack. I just wanted to run at the defense. … There was a lot of room. When I saw that there was a lot of room, I was like, I'm going to go at them. I decided to go. I didn't pass, I took the defender one-versus-one. Marco [Di Vaio] made a very good run that made the other defender go with him, so I could have that one-versus-one. I beat him and took a shot.”
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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