He’s Baaaack

Carlos Ruiz

Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who qualifies as one of the Top 5 villains in MLS history for his dive-y, cheap-shotting, continuously complaining style of play, is back in the league again for the first time since 2011.

DC United acquired the scrappy forward through the league’s allocation process—an acquisition mechanism for former MLSers who left for a transfer fee or U.S. internationals.

Apparently—and somewhat surprisingly given Ruiz’s MLS strike rate—multiple teams ahead of DC in the allocation order passed on the player.

Sure, Ruiz sometimes provokes opponents into rages in which they are prone to doing things like this*:

But he is a proven goalscorer who, at 33, probably has a good season or two left. It’s surprising that a bunch of teams would pass on him. In 2002, Ruiz scored 24 goals for LA and won the regular-season and MLS Cup MVP awards, leading the Galaxy to their first MLS championship. He is ninth all time on the MLS goalscoring list and during his last spell in the league, in 2011 with Philadelphia, he bagged six goals in 14 appearances before jumping to Mexican side Veracruz.

He also has an impressive 54 goals in 104 international appearances for Guatemala.

Should be interesting to see how he and his sometimes devious ways fit in with DC and their straight-shooting coach, Ben Olsen.

*We in no way condone Clark’s outrageous behavior in the above clip, but two thoughts on the incident: One, it’s the only time Clark has ever done something even remotely like that in his career, and we’d be willing to wager Ruiz did something fairly objectionable to provoke it. Two, notice how Ruiz grabs his head and starts rolling around in apparent agony—after the blow clearly struck him in the shoulder. El Pescadito, he’s a slippery one.

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Houston, Los Angeles Advance, Set Up Rematch of 2011 MLS Cup Final

We’ve been buried with day-job stuff this week but we’re back now with a few words and pictures on this past Sunday’s eventful MLS Conference Final second legs, which set up a rematch of last year’s championship game between the Galaxy and the Dynamo.

In Sunday’s opener, Houston took a 3-1 first-leg lead into D.C., and got a pivotal goal just before halftime from Oscar Boniek Garcia* to all but kill off the series. Brad Davis set up Garcia with an incisive solo run down the right channel before stabbing it back to the Honduran with his favored left foot.

D.C. pulled one back late to make it 4-2 on aggregate, but this was Houston’s game, and series. They looked wholly professional, and will be a formidable opponent in the final.

Highlights:

In the nightcap, the Galaxy took a 3-0 first-leg lead into Seattle’s jam-packed CenturyLink Field, where the hosts would look to get off to a fast start against an LA team resting Landon Donovan (hamstring) and Juninho (Achilles).

The Sounders did just that, threatening early and often through Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero. Johnson had a goal called back (incorrectly, replays showed) in the 11th minute, and then scored the opener in the 12th.

When Zach Scott powered in a near-post header in the 57th minute to make it 3-2 on aggregate, it was game on.

And then, well … click here for the highlights of what came next. (We’d embed the video, but it was an ESPN game and the WWL is a little stingy when it comes to posting stuff to the WWW.)

Click here to see the piece we wrote on the handball controversy for the MLS site.

Seattle’s 2-1 win was not enough to overturn their aggregate deficit, and LA advanced with a 4-2 total-goals victory. They’ll meet Houston on Saturday, Dec 1, at the Home Depot Center (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET) to try to win their second straight MLS Cup title and send David Beckham out in style (more on that shortly).

*Garcia’s parents gave him the middle name Boniek in honor of legendary Polish player Zbigniew Boniek (check his Juventus highlights here). We will never tire of how cool that is. The back of Garcia’s Dynamo jersey reads “Boniek.”

D.C. 1, Red Bulls 0: Hardest ‘Gut-Punch Loss’ in New York’s History?

Game 1 of this two-game aggregate playoff series featured two own goals, a red card, and a missed penalty.

What could Game 2 do to top that in terms of strangeness? Well, after being pushed back a day by a November Nor’easter that dumped five inches of snow on the field, how about two red cards, a mass encroachment infraction that led to a retaken penalty that was then saved, and an 88th-minute winner against the run of play?

Welcome to another bitter, but—incredibly—not atypical, New York loss:

The Red Bulls were poised for a potential game-winning goal when Kenny Cooper was taken down in the box and D.C. keeper Bill Hamid was sent off in the 69th minute. Cooper tucked away the spot kick and New York looked to play out the final 20 minutes with a man advantage. Game over, right?

Not so fast: Referee Mark Geiger ordered the penalty retaken because several Red Bulls (and at least one D.C. player) poured into the box before Cooper took his shot.

United’s backup keeper, Joe Willis, saved the re-take and the teams stayed level at 0-0 (1-1 aggregate). For Red Bulls fans, that was bad, but hey, they still had a man advantage, they were controlling the game, and they 20 minutes to find a game-winner. They were still poised to win the game and advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Enter Rafa Marquez, the same Rafa Marquez who threw a ball at Landon Donovan in last year’s playoffs, the same Rafa Marquez who committed assault and battery on Cobi Jones at the 2002 World Cup, the same guy who criticized teammates in the press, slacked off in games, and the same Rafa Marquez who earns $4.6 million a year from Red Bull.

That guy.

A scant five minutes after New York got the man advantage, Marquez gave it back, recklessly slide-tackling D.C.’s Chris Pontius to pick up his second yellow.

With the teams back on even numbers at 10 v 10, United got a late goal from Nick DeLeon and then watched as Thierry Henry let Roy Miller —Roy Miller, who hadn’t taken a free kick all season—take a last-minute free kick from just outside the box. The Costa Rican defender skied it to the 20th row and New York’s season ended in a 1-0 loss.

The franchise made several front-office changes in the wake of the crushing loss, hiring a new GM and announcing that head coach Hans Backe would not return next season. More on those later.

MLS Playoffs: Rimando, Gspurning Out of Their Heads, Najar Loses His

Seattle and Real Salt Lake have played each other four times this season, and only one goal separates them.

That’s because only one goal has been scored in those four games (in RSL’s 1-0 win in May). Goalkeepers Nick Rimando and Michael Gspurning ensured that on Friday night in Seattle, making nine saves between them, including several of the outstanding variety, in a 0-0 draw.

The game was in keeping with the season series, as attempts on goal finished even at 11-11, shots on target were 5-4 in Seattle’s favor, and possession was an indistinguishable 50.2% to 49.8% for Seattle.

Incredible goalkeeping highlights here:

The decisive second leg of this Western Conference semifinal kicks off on Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium.

On Saturday night in the nation’s capital, D.C. United played New York to a 1-1 draw in an Eastern Conference semifinal first-leg game that featured an unprecedented (in MLS playoffs) two own goals, a saved penalty, and a moment of madness from United’s 19-year-old wingback Andy Najar.

The rising Honduran star turned a yellow card into a red one by throwing the ball (and hitting) referee Jair Marrufo after being whistled for a professional foul in the 71st minute. He’ll miss the return leg on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.

See it all here:

The forecast for Wednesday’s game in Harrison, N.J., is calling for high winds and rain. Not exactly what the area needs right now.

Wilman Conde Bails Out Bill Gaudette, Silences RFK Stadium with Late Golazo

Red Bulls defender Wilman Conde stung a half volley from 28 yards in the 88th minute against D.C. United last night, lifting his team to a critical 2-2 draw on the road and bailing out his goalkeeper, Bill Gaudette, who let in two soft goals earlier in the game.

Check out Conde’s laser here:

That strike papered over two howlers by Gaudette that allowed D.C. to take a 2-1 lead into the final moments. In the 21st minute, the journeyman keeper let Nick DeLeon’s soft flick-on slip through his hands to tie the score at 1-1, and midway through the second half, he made an ill-advised charge to the top of the box in an attempt to claim a D.C. long ball, leaving his goal wide open when Dwayne De Rosario beat him to the pass.

Gaudette made an almost identical mistake against Sporting Kansas City last week, allowing Kei Kamara to nod in KC’s goal in that 1-1 draw.

Complete highlights from RFK here:

In Gaudette’s defense, he’s been, for the most part, very good since coming over from LA in mid-July, and his defense has let him down on many occasions. (Markus Holgersson was also to blame on D.C.’s first goal—arguably on their second too). On August 19, Gaudette bailed out his teammates with three spectacular saves against Portland, enabling RBNY to complete a 3-2, come-from-behind victory. So they owed him one.

But the Red Bulls need to sort out their goalkeeping—a bugaboo for the team since Red Bull took over in 2006—and their defense in general to have any shot at the MLS Cup this season.

D.C. United 4, Chicago 2: Andy Najar Finds New Position, Sean Johnson Might Want to Do the Same

Okay, that’s a little harsh, we admit. And we like Johnson: He’s a great shot-stopper, and he’s got a voice like James Earl Jones to boot. But man, has he shown a scary tendency for killer mental errors.

He made two in Chicago’s 4-2 loss to D.C. United last night, in a game that also featured United youngster Andy Najar’s debut at right back, which went as well as Johnson’s night went poorly.

Take a look:

Let’s review: In the 19th minute, Johnson—and his defenders—got lazy on a shot to the far post from Chris Pontius, letting it roll through the six-yard box untouched—until Dwayne De Rosario popped up to punch it in for the game’s first goal.

Then in the waning moments—in a play reminiscent of his mistake against El Salvador in Olympic qualifying last March (more on that shortly)—Johnson flailed at a weak shot from Long Tan, allowing it to dribble through his grasp and in for the game-killing fourth goal.

Unfortunately for Johnson, and the U.S. goalkeeping depth chart, these lapses are not isolated incidents. The agile, 6-4 ’keeper has battled mental bugaboos since (at least) the spring of 2011, when a crisis of confidence and a series of elementary mistakes got him benched for several weeks.

A year later he made that disastrous error against El Salvador in Olympic qualifying, aka the Nightmare in Nashville, aka the 3-3 Tie that Sunk U.S. Olympic Hopes and So Much More. See it here.

That Robert Green-esque blunder brought the bridge to London falling down on the U.S. team’s head, and with it a massive opportunity to boost the profile of the game, and Major League Soccer, through the league’s broadcast partnership with NBC, which also televised the Games.

Johnson did bounce back from that gaffe during the 2012 MLS season, putting together a string of solid performances and even one spectacular, 10-save thriller against San Jose in late July. And it was almost enough to erase the memory of Nashville. Until last night.

On the bright side of last night’s young-player ledger, D.C.’s 19-year-old Home Grown player Najar was a revelation in his new role, getting forward dangerously, creating chances, and defending pretty well, too.

United’s win pulled them to within a point of Chicago and Houston in the crowded East standings, where six points separate fifth from first.

New York v DC United: Extended Highlights

Do yourself a favor and carve out some time for this clip: you’ll see Red Bull New York take one on the chin early, only to rebound and thoroughly dominate DC for the first hour of the game.

You’ll see Mehdi Ballouchy produce his best game ever in a New York shirt, and Dax McCarty outplay Dwayne De Rosario, the man he was traded for last season, when De Ro went on to win the league MVP award. And most importantly you’ll see—holy crap, Brandon Barklage! Where did that come from? Take a look:

New York coach Hans Backe called that first hour the best soccer the team has played during his tenure (and they pulled it off without Thierry Henry, who is returning from a calf injury and only played the final 20 minutes).

What changed the game was the insertion of Montenegrin (and Yugoslav-born) midfielder Branko Boskovic in the 61st minute. He turned the midfield battle DC’s way with his composure on the ball and ability to pick out teammates (see him find Maicon Santos at 12:10), making the last half hour dicey for New York.

But they held on for a 3-2 win that pulled them level with United atop the Eastern Conference standings (DC maintains first place on goal difference, but New York has a game in hand).

And our money’s on Barklage for Goal of the Week with that outrageous second strike.