Chicago Stumbles Before Saturday Showdown with New York (on NBC)

It had all the markings (trappings?) of a trap game: At home, against eighth-place Philadelphia—an 8-15-6 team already eliminated from playoff contention—and just three days before a big game on national television against New York, the team tied with the Fire in second place in the East.

The only pushback against all that was the fact Chicago were celebrating their 15h anniversary as a franchise, and club luminaries such as Chris ArmasCuauhtemoc Blanco, and Peter Nowak (yes, the ex-Philadelphia coach who’s currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the visiting club) would participate in a halftime ceremony.

They couldn’t screw the pooch on that occasion could they?

Yes, they could:

Sweet finishes by Jack McInerney and Gabriel Gomez, and a nifty one by Princeton alum Antoine Hoppenot on the third goal.

The loss leaves Chicago tied with New York on 53 points (with the same number of games played), but behind the Red Bulls in the goals-scored tiebreaker.

Sure, they were missing head coach Frank Klopas and left back Gonzalo Segares, both red-carded in the Fire’s last outing (a 2-0 loss to KC at Livestrong Sporting Park), but, as center back Arne Friedrich told the league website, “We forgot to defend.”

That’ll get you every time.

The Chicago–New York tilt kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC.

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.)

Let’s Watch the Timbers Army Open Up JELD-WEN Field for 2012

The ESPN guy said this gave him “chicken skin:”

It also inspired the Portland Timbers players who, like their great fans, ignored the crummy weather conditions and went out and beat the revamped Philadelphia Union in their home opener last night, rallying from a goal down to win 3-1.

Scottish newcomer Kris Boyd scored a skillful glancing header in his debut, Kalif Alhassan had a goal and an assist, and Andrew JeanBaptiste also scored, atoning for a defensive gaffe minutes earlier that helped Philly go up 1-0. (Jean-Baptiste’s deflection of a Gabriel Gomez free kick was initially ruled an own goal.)

Apart from the weather, it was an ideal debut for Portland.

As for Philadelphia, Gomez had his moments, and Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy could be a good pickup, but Freddy Adu failed to put his mark on the game, the backline looked shaky, and 20-year-old keeper Zac MacMath did his best Chris Seitz impression, nearly tipping an early shot into his own goal, and bungling Jean-Baptiste’s header that went in for the equalizer. They’ve got some work to do.

Sans Henry, New York Gets the Job Done, Blanks Philly 1-0 to Clinch Playoffs

Needing a win or a tie to qualify for the postseason, and missing their leading scorer Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls delivered one of their best performances of the year, edging Philadelphia 1-0 in a testy, nervy game that booked their spot in the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs.

Dane Richards got the game’s only goal, in the 8th minute, heading Jan Gunnar Solli’s cross against the left post and in off the back of Union keeper Faryd Mondragon. The official ruling was an own goal, but if MLS had a Dubious Goals Panel (as the EPL amusingly dubs its committee on these things), we believe they’d give the tally to Richards. (They still could. UPDATE: And … they did. )

In any event, New York made the goal stand up, and nearly added to their lead on several occasions against a Philadelphia team gunning for first place in the Eastern Conference.

Highlights:

A number of Red Bulls produced gut-check performances, from Solli, who was Man of the Match, to holding midfielder Teemu Tainio (runner-up, in our view), Dax McCarty (bulldogging all over the place), Stephen Keel, Tim Ream, and yes…wait for it…Rafa Marquez. The Mexico captain had a few unforced errors, but mostly he was a calming presence in midfield who possessed the ball well and occasionally pulled strings to spring New York attacks.

If the real season starts with the playoffs, then New York heads into theirs on a positive note. They won’t know their wild-card opponent, or overall seeding, until this weekend’s schedule plays out. They could finish ninth or 10th depending on the remaining Week 32 results.

The wild-card round kicks off next Wednesday, Oct 26.

Philadelphia 4, New England 4: Revs Collapse Like Cartoon Soufflé

New England took a 3-0 lead on Philadelphia after 25 minutes last night at PPL Park—and a 4-1 lead into the halftime break. But as they demonstrated in coughing up a two-goal second-half advantage over New York last month, no lead is safe with the 2011 Revolution.

After the Union’s Freddy Adu scored his first MLS goal since 2007 to make it 4-2 in the 54th minute, you started to get a certain feeling….

Sure enough, Sebastien Le Toux buried a penalty in the 80th minute and then, two minutes into stoppage time, struck a fantastic equalizer to make it 4-4.

This game was a crazy-quilt of highlights and errors.

In addition to his goal, Adu completed 93% of his passes (according to Opta Sports), new Revs signing and potential Name Hall of Famer Moncef Zerka opened his MLS account with a skillful header, Benny Feilhaber and Roger Torres scored sweet goals from just outside the box, and the Revs’ defense, as ESPN commentator Adrian Healey tweeted, was bagel soft.

Beyond all that—and unfortunately not included in the highlights below—both teams created golden chances to win it deep into stoppage time, after Le Toux’s equalizer, but neither could finish.

Here’s the clip:

It was an incredible fight-back by Philly, but they are still winless in seven games, with a big one coming up on Saturday against playoff contenders Portland. New England, whose playoff hopes are all but gone, return home to host FC Dallas on Saturday night.

Hurricane Irene Forces MLS Schedule Changes

The DC United–Portland game scheduled for tomorrow evening was moved up from a 7:30 p.m. start to a 2:00 afternoon kickoff, and both of Sunday’s MLS matches, including the sold-out New York–Los Angeles match, were postponed to later dates as the league anticipated the arrival of Hurricane Irene along the Eastern seaboard.

Citing “general public safety concerns,” MLS made the following schedule changes (courtesy of MLSSoccer.com):

D.C. United vs. Portland Timbers (at RFK Stadium)
NOW: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 2:00 p.m. ET*
WAS: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m. ET

*Major League Soccer, in collaboration with D.C. United and Portland Timbers, will continue to monitor the path of Hurricane Irene before making a final determination as to the status of the game between both clubs, originally scheduled for Saturday at 7:30pm ET at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

A further update on the status of this game will be provided by 12:00 p.m. ET tomorrow (Friday).

UPDATE: This game has now been postponed. Reschedule date is TBD.

Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution (at PPL Park)
NOW: Wednesday, Sept. 7 at 8:00 p.m. ET (Galavisión)
WAS: Sunday, Aug. 28 at 7:00 p.m. ET (Galavisión)

New York Red Bulls vs. LA Galaxy (at Red Bull Arena)
NOW: Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)
WAS: Sunday, Aug. 28 at 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)

Union Man: Freddy Adu to Sign with Philadelphia

Following days of reports suggesting that U.S. midfielder Freddy Adu would return to Major League Soccer as a member of Chivas USA, several sources reported yesterday that the 22-year-old is indeed coming back to the league that launched his career in 2004—but not to Chivas. The new reports say Adu has worked  out a deal with the Philadelphia Union.

An announcement from the club is expected today. Adu had been on track to join Robin Fraser’s Chivas side, but apparently the club’s owner Jorge Vergara squashed the deal at the 11th hour.

The Union recently lost striker Carlos Ruiz and are looking to add firepower as they battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference down the stretch.

The deal may raise some eyebrows among those who remember Adu’s spell under Philly coach Peter Nowak when Nowak was boss at DC United at the start of Adu’s career. It was anything but smooth. But the pair have reportedly mended the fences and worked together on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

No word yet on the length of the deal or on whether Adu has been signed as a Designated Player.

MLS Roundup: Pavel Pardo, New Argentine DP, and Saborio’s Historic Suspension

While we wait for Jurgen Klinsmann to announce his first selection of players as coach of the U.S.—which is scheduled to happen tomorrow—let’s catch up on MLS news, of the off-field variety (for our wrap-up of the most recent on-field action, see here).

The biggest development of the past week was Chicago’s signing of Mexican international Pavel Pardo, a long-rumored acquisition that finally came to pass on July 26.

The deal is only for the remainder of the 2011 season, and Pardo was not signed as a Designated Player. Those two elements suggest that the Fire wants to see how much the 35-year-old midfielder has left in the tank; it could be a three-month audition for DP satus next season.

Pardo, who retired from international play in 2009, suited up for the Mexican national team 148 times, and appeared in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups.

•••

In New England, the Revolution announced the signing of the first Designated Player in club history, a 22-year-old Argentine striker named Milton Caraglio.

Caraglio comes to Foxborough from Argentine club Rosario Central, where he scored 11 goals in 49 appearances in Argentina’s top flight. He sat out most of the 2009-10 season with a knee injury.

Caraglio has been called to the Argentina national team once, in 2009, but could not participate because of the knee injury.

•••

This past Friday, the MLS Disciplinary Committee made league history by not only fining Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio $1,000 for his apparent dive against San Jose last week but also suspending the Costa Rican for one game. It’s the first such suspension in 16 years of MLS action.

Here’s the play:

The punishment comes roughly one month after D.C. United forward Charlie Davies was fined, but not suspended, for an even more egregious dive against … Real Salt Lake, of all teams.

RSL fans may gripe that Davies wasn’t suspended, but we like this move, and would wager that it proves effective in stopping future cases of simulation. Saborio sat out RSL’s game this past weekend against Columbus. His absence, along with that of Jamison Olave, who was hurt in the All-Star Game, no doubt contributed to the Crew’s 2-0 victory, a rare home loss for RSL.

•••

From Philadelphia comes word that striker Carlos Ruiz, the Union’s leading scorer with six goals, is set to leave the team and join Veracruz of the Mexican second division.

The reason he’s leaving is as strange as the move is sudden: According to coach Peter Nowak, it’s because of the Union’s fans’ attitude toward Ruiz. Really.

Here’s what the coach said when the transfer was announced:

“There were a lot of fans, even in the stands here, that have a pre-bias towards Carlos, and made some bad comments about him being a diver, or this, or that, not working hard enough, and all these little things. It was getting tiring to all of us.”

Of course, Ruiz is a diver, and a bit of a dirty player as well, but he’s also the team’s leading scorer and probably a guy you’d want on your side for the homestretch of the season.

So what we have here, apparently, is another chapter in the long, sad legacy of Philadelphia fans misbehaving, losing sight of their own self-interests, alienating players, and ruining things for their fellow fans.

On the bright side, if the Union’s fans are acting like their Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers brethren, maybe it’s a sign that Philadelphia has truly embraced MLS.

MLS Roundup: El Pescadito Returns; Playoffs Revamped

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Union announced the signing of well-traveled 31-year-old Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who had been training with the club in presesason.

Ruiz comes to Philly on loan from Greek club Aris, and if he can recapture even 50% of his 2002 form with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he’ll be great value for the Union.

That season, El Pescadito scored a blazing 24 goals in 26 regular-season games, then added an MLS playoff-record eight goals and two assists in the postseason to lead the Galaxy to the final against New England. LA won the title game 1-0 with Ruiz scoring the goal in overtime.

His MLS Cup–winner is not on the InterWebs for some reason (the Backpost intern couldn’t find it anyway), but here’s Ruiz scoring a hat-trick for the Galaxy in a 2008 exhibition against Shanghai, with the first one coming off an effortless, inch-perfect chip from David Beckham:

That was from Ruiz’s second stint with Los Angeles; his first one ended in 2005, after which he went to FC Dallas for three years.

His return to Los Angeles was hampered by a knee injury, and the Galaxy traded him to Toronto FC in August of 2008. The Reds released him at the end of that season, and he’s since had stints with Olimpia Asuncion of Paraguay, Mexican side Puebla, and Aris.

On Wednesday, MLS unveiled its expanded playoff format, which looks like this:

The top three teams in each conference will get automatic bids to the postseason, and then the next four best teams—regardless of conference affiliation—will play one-game, wild-card play-in matches (seven-seed vs ten; eight vs nine). The wild cards will then get re-seeded, if necessary, so that the lowest surviving seed meets the Supporters’ Shield winner (top overall seed) in the conference semifinals.

Got that?

As before, the conference semifinals will be home-and-away aggregate series, and the conference finals and MLS Cup will be one-game battles.

Many, many people have a huge problem with the new format and with the MLS playoffs in general. We don’t. Until MLS gets promotion-relegation (and perhaps another extra-league competition beyond the CONCACAF Champions League), playoffs are the way to go. Otherwise you risk loads of meaningless games late in the season.

Soccer America‘s Paul Gardner makes a nice case for what’s right and what’s wrong about the MLS playoffs right here.

We don’t often agree with Gardner—whose columns sometimes read like a series of “harrumph, harrumph harrumphs” to us—but we think he nailed it on this one, especially regarding the arbitrary geographic designations of the conferences.

Worried that an Eastern team might win the Western Conference title due to the quirky nature of the MLS playoffs? Rename the conferences, sans geography, and … problem solved.

In other MLS news, the league is reviewing the incident that got New England players Shalrie Joseph and Kevin Alston sent home from training camp last weekend. Apparently, Joseph was arrested for trespassing at the team hotel. Details remain scarce, but the plot thickens slightly.