MLS Goal of the Week Nominees: Kicking off the Season In Style

The first week of the 2013 MLS season is in the books, and it was a lively round indeed.

There was a shocker in Seattle, a wild one in Portland, and a slow-motion trainwreck the emerging saga of Chivas USA in Southern California.

The nine games yielded 24 goals, many of which were terrific, including the following five:

The week was filthy rich with great goals; there were also fine strikes from Mike Magee and Sebastien Le Toux. But of the five nominees, we have to go with Davy Arnaud’s excellent finish, teed up by Felipe’s superb scoop over the top. Finishing a close second for us was Diego Valeri‘s slick slalom and finish against New York, followed, again, very closely, by Vancouver’s beautiful team goal.

Keep an eye on Whitecaps midfielder Daigo Kobayashi, the man who laid that ball off for Gershon Khoffie to finish. Kobayashi’s teammate Jun Marques Davidson said the Japanese import (who’s only 30) would be the most technical player in the league when he joined in preseason. After seeing him for one game, we see what Davidson means: Kobayashi is superclean on the ball. He—and Vancouver—are going to be fun to watch.

U.S. 1, Jamaica 0: Klinsmann Pulls a Joe Namath

He didn’t try to kiss the sideline reporter during his halftime interview, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann did that other thing Joe Namath is famous for: he guaranteed a victory for his team in a huge game, and his team went out and got that victory.

They did it pretty comfortably, too, for the first hour anyway. In the first half, the U.S. controlled 80% of possession, completed 91% of their passes, and outshot the visitors 8-0. Yet they had nothing to show for it at the break.

The Americans continued to dictate play in the second session, and in the 55th minute, they finally broke through on a mistake by Jamaican keeper Dwayne Miller—an ironic turn, since he had been sensational to that point. After making several terrific saves to keep the score level, Miller failed to deal properly with Herculez Gomez’s 30-yard free kick, pushing the curling shot into the side netting for a 1-0 U.S. lead.

Jamaica came out of their defensive shell after the goal and gave the U.S. some nervy moments down the stretch, but the Yanks held on for the three points that put them back on top of the group on goal difference with two games to play in this round.

Highlights:

Three thoughts on the 9/11 win in the heartland:

The Frankie Hejduk-led Columbus Crew Stadium crowd was the 12th man.

Former U.S. national teamer and two-time MLS Cup champ Hejduk, now a member of the Crew’s front office, donned his old USMNT jersey and led a rabid section of U.S. supporters. Here he is, courtesy of soccer scribe Brian Straus:

Midfielders Graham Zusi and Danny Williams helped their USMNT causes the most last night.

Zusi clanged a shot off the crossbar in the opening moments, showing he was there to play right out of the gate, and Williams later nearly knocked down the upright with a thundering 30-yarder that somehow stayed out of the goal. Both excelled otherwise, too, with Zusi complementing Steve Cherundolo perfectly on the right flank, and Williams dominating the middle on both sides of the ball. Now, here’s hoping Williams stays in that spot. He’d be a better option behind Michael Bradley than Jermaine Jones.

Both Brek Shea and Maurice Edu are in a funk.

They came on as late-game subs, surely with instructions to keep the ball and help kill the game for the U.S., but both nearly did the opposite, squandering possession and looking unsure of themselves. Edu needs to settle in and get games at Stoke City, where he recently signed alongside Geoff Cameron (who showed last night that he now owns one of the U.S. center back slots, after only eight appearances). Shea needs to get his head sorted out.

Federico Higuain Singlehandedly Tightening Up Eastern Conference Standings

He’s only appeared in four games for the Columbus Crew, but Argentine attacker Federico Higuain has already racked up three goals and four assists, sparking the Crew to a five-game unbeaten run that has pushed them to within two points of the fifth and final playoff spot.

There are now just eight points separating the top seven teams in the East.

On Wednesday night at Philadelphia’s PPL Park, Higuain assisted on the Crew’s first goal with a deadly free kick, then made a crucial play to help set up Eddie Gaven‘s unlikely stoppage-time gamewinner in the Crew’s 2-1 victory.

The visitors played the final 22 minutes with 10 men after Josh Williams, who scored Columbus’s first goal, was sent off for scuffling with Antoine Hoppenot in the 68th minute.

To the highlights:

On Saturday, Columbus hosts the Montreal Impact, with whom they are tied on 39 points in the East standings. (Though Columbus has three games in hand.)

Columbus Getting Positive Early Returns from Higuain

He may not be as good as his younger brother, Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain, but 27-year-old Argentine attacker Federico Higuain is off to a fine start as the third Designated Player in Columbus Crew history.

He had an assist in his debut this past Sunday against Houston, and last night, in his first start for the Crew, Higuain set up a goal in the fourth minute and scored one in the 58th, leading Columbus to a 2-1 win over Toronto FC.

Columbus looked dangerous through the first hour, with U.S. midfielder Eddie Gaven, Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta and Venezuelan attacker Emilio Renteria all joining Higuain in a fluid attack. Though of course it’s hard to say whether their dominance could be chalked up to the Crew’s skill, or a lack of the same from Toronto, who are now 5-15-5 on the season.

Highlights:

Designated Players can be a crapshoot, as the Crew have found out in the past, breaking even with their previous two—Guillermo Barros Schelotto (thumbs up) and Andres Mendoza (meh, and he had penalty-kick-etiquette issues).

If Higuain keeps this up, he’ll make the franchise 2-for-3 on DPs and could push Columbus into the crowded field of contenders in the East, where the top five teams are just six points apart.

The Crew are seven points out of a playoff spot, but have games in hand on every team ahead of them in the standings.

Andy Gruenebaum Was Unconscious vs San Jose On Saturday

The San Jose Earthquakes struggled for 90 minutes to solve Columbus keeper Andy Gruenebaum—much like the San Jose announcers struggled with the pronunciation of the Crew backup’s name all game long.

After seven saves from the 29-year-old University of Kentucky graduate, the Quakes finally got it right, thanks to a superhero sequence from substitute forward Alan Gordon in the 90th minute:

With the result, San Jose (7-2-3) held on to sole possession of second place in the West, while Columbus (3-4-3) moved ahead of Montreal on goal difference and into seventh in the East.

MLS Invades SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day

With four games on the schedule, last night was the busiest Wednesday of the year in Major League Soccer, and the action did not disappoint.

There was a five-goal flood in New York, a record-tying tally in Vancouver, and some great goalkeeping all over the map.

It was so good, in fact, that four spots on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day were occupied by MLS highlights.

Here they are, in the order they were ranked by ESPN:

10. Jeff Cunningham’s record-tying 133rd career goal

It also happened to be a 90th-minute winner for visiting Columbus versus Vancouver:

Final score Columbus 1, Vancouver 0

9. Matt Pickens’s astounding reaction save off a deflection against Sporting Kansas City

This one should have been higher; it’s a truly terrific save and it came in stoppage time, preserving a 1-1 tie for the visitors. Full (and worthwhile) highlights below, but scroll to 5:15 mark for Pickens’ heroics:

Final score: SKC 1, Colorado 1

7. Ben Zemanski’s swerving, 35-yard golazo against San Jose

This high-speed knuckleball broke open a game that seemed destined to become a dreaded 0-0 draw (and be sure to note Busch’s expression afterward. Priceless.):

Final score: Chivas USA 2, San Jose 0

3. This was a twofer: Luke Rodgers’ tremendous volley, and Juan Agudelo’s lethal header for New York against Toronto

Rodgers’ goal signaled the rout:

And Agudelo’s sealed it (and then he added one more):

Final score: New York 5, Toronto 0

ESPN also had a soccer highlight—a goal by Brazil in the Women’s World Cup—as its No. 1 play of the day. Not bad for footy on the WWL today: five out of 10.

Columbus 2, Real Salt Lake 1: Cunningham Denied Alltime Scoring Mark by Post, Mendoza

In a meeting of injury- and international-absence–riddled teams at Crew Stadium last night, Columbus rallied to beat Real Salt Lake 2-1 on goals by Andres Mendoza and Josh Gardner.

Gardner’s strike came in the 82nd minute, deflecting off RSL defender Chris Schuler and flying past a wrong-footed Nick Rimando to supply the Crew with a dramatic game-winner.

But it was Mendoza’s goal that provided the game’s main talking point. After Columbus rookie Justin Meram—who set up the Crew’s stoppage-time equalizer against New York last week—drew a penalty in the 75th minute, Mendoza fetched a ball from a nearby ballboy and went to the spot, where fellow striker Jeff Cunningham was waiting.

Scroll to the 3:30 mark of the clip below to see what happened:

Mendoza—who was just made a designated player in the offseason and has been struggling mightily since getting the big bucks—insisted on taking the potentially game-tying PK even though Cunningham was a) the team’s designated penalty-taker for the game, and b) one goal behind Jaime Moreno for the alltime MLS career scoring lead.

(Cunningham has 132 career goals; Moreno, the former D.C. United legend, retired with 133.)

Both Sebastian Miranda and Columbus captain Chad Marshall came over to Mendoza in apparent attempts to try to explain the situation/dissuade him, but Mendoza would not budge.

All we can say is, good thing he made it.

Cunningham, who hit the post with a powerful header in the second half, was extremely gracious in his postgame comments about the controversy, telling the league website:

“I’m happy for Mendoza. The boy deserves it. He’s definitely putting in the work tonight. Usually I’m one and Mendoza is two [to take the kick]. He felt very confident that he would score. Sometimes you have to lead by example and be a servant.

“It’s good for him. We need him to be at his best. That goal was probably more important for the club than me at this point. As a forward he’s been under a lot of pressure. It’s important for us to be supportive of him. I’m happy he stepped up and he’s confident enough to score. Life goes on and we got three points.”

Mendoza missed two very make-able chances against the Red Bulls last week, and had flubbed an excellent cross from Cunningham earlier in this match (though he was also ruled offside). He struggled to make the starting lineup earlier in the season.

Afterward, Mendoza claimed through a translator that he didn’t know Cunningham was on the cusp of the record or that the Crew veteran had been designated to take any PKs in the game.

Hmmm. Then what was Miranda, a fellow Spanish speaker, saying to him as they huddled over the ball in the clip above?

We’d be willing to bet it went something like this: “Hey Andres, Jeff is one goal away from tying the alltime league scoring record—maybe let him take this? Oh, also, coach Warzycha said Cunningham should take any PKs tonight, okay? So how bout stepping aside? … No? Okay, well, enjoy life back in Peru if you don’t effin make it.”

Note that Cunningham was the first player to congratulate Mendoza after the spot kick. That gesture, and his postgame comments (not to mention the win), should help smooth things over in the Columbus locker room.

Real Salt Lake were without regulars Alvaro Saborio (Gold Cup), Arturo Alvarez (Gold Cup),  Will Johnson (Gold Cup), Paulo Jr (hip flexor) and Javier Morales (ankle), while Columbus was missing Robbie Rogers (Gold Cup), Dilly Duka (ankle), Emilio Renteria (quadriceps), and Tommy Heinemann (hamstring).