During the first two weeks of the season many Portland Timbers fans lost sleep over how dominant the Western Conference teams appeared to be over the East, and how important it was going to be to win those games against Eastern opponents. After Portland lost to New England, many fans wrote off the Timbers' chances at the playoffs altogether.
Well, this week's results obviously didn't get the memo. We thought we knew everything about the Western Conference in the context of the unbalanced schedule, and the effect it would have on the Timbers this season. Turns out, we didn't know [bleep].
Week four in the Western Conference was a reminder of the fact that we really don't know anything until the match is played. Out of seven Western Conference matches, three results were completely unexpected. The Dallas defense we thought was so strong gave up four goals against a team that had only scored one in the first three weeks, while Seattle and Los Angeles both lost at home against teams few would have considered stronger. Only the Whitecaps' draw against Philadelphia and Chivas' fourth 1-0 result of the season were predictable results based on past performances.
Exhibit A: D.C. United 4:1 FC Dallas
FC Dallas' defense comprises some of the best individual defensive performers in the league -- George John, Ugo Ihemelu, Jair Benitez and Zach Loyd. Yet that group conceded four goals, including three in the second half, quintupling DC's season total in just 90 minutes. For the second week in a row the Dallas defense allowed nine shots on target, but this time Kevin Hartman could be counted on for only four saves.
Meanwhile, with Brek Shea back in the lineup after failing to qualify the US for the Summer Olympics, Dallas improved their offensive production over the previous week. But even with him added to the attack, Dallas lacked sharpness and energy in their play and weren't able to create any sustained pressure against DC.
I know nobody is forcing me to watch these games -- I do it because I think it helps Timbers fans better understand their place in the Western Conference. Usually I enjoy it, so I'm not complaining. But once a week I have to watch the Vancouver Whitecaps play, and with it another 90 minutes of my life evaporates. The last time they put a shot on the frame was March 17 -- in soccer time, that was 3:22:59 ago. And yet they continue their unbeaten streak. Can somebody please beat them already? San Jose? Kansas City? Buehler? Anybody?
Seattle threw out the game plan they employed against Houston last week and pushed hard for more offensive production. Their efforts fell flat, though, and they lost on an ill advised, retaliatory foul against Steven Lenhart, resulting in a Chris Wondolowski penalty kick. Even when his antics result in a Seattle loss, I still can't stand that guy.
Seattle tried their best to equalize, with six shots on the frame, but the important statistic of the game was the 30 open play crosses. I know people kind of wonder why MLS keeps track of that statistic, and usually it's fairly meaningless. But when a team whose two strikers are no taller than 5'9" tries 30 crosses in one match, you know they're not creating the right kind of scoring chances. Meanwhile Seattle's defense played well in denying the poachy opportunities Wondo loves, but losing their cool was the one thing they couldn't do, and they did it.
San Jose crowded Seattle's attackers out of the center of the field, and by abandoning the offside trap for most of the match they prevented the kind of runs behind the defense that Fredy Montero and David Estrada thrive on. That forced Seattle to play the ball up the wings, which, as I mentioned above, they don't do so well at. On offense San Jose kept up the pressure for much of the match, having their way with Christian Sivebaek and Zach Scott on the left flank, but they were unable to finish the chances they created. Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez both had plenty of room to run in Seattle's half of the field -- Portland's fullbacks will need to keep their eyes on the two of them when they visit in July.
The word is officially out: the Galaxy defense is soft, and Josh Saunders is a dodgy keeper. Sure, they can score goals occasionally, but first they have to dig the ball out of their end of the field. Their attack was slowed by the absence of Landon Donovan due to a minor injury. As such, they created very few opportunities for themselves, instead relying on a New England error for their only goal. But man, their defense sucks, especially the CBs -- their 2.3 goals allowed per match is second in MLS only to Montreal's 2.5. The Timbers get to play LA next after they're done with Chivas, and, while the Galaxy attack will be cause for concern, I think Kris Boyd is really going to enjoy himself.
I had my doubts about Martín Rivero. But the young Argentine playmaker proved to be the missing piece, as striker Omar Cummings finally got the service he was looking for, and the 4-3-3 formation finally took shape. That's not to say Colorado dominated, nor does it mean Cummings looked any better on the ball than usual. But winning looked far easier with Rivero on the field. With him they have a player who can create opportunities from the center of the pitch and create space for Tony Cascio and Brian Mullan to work on the wings. With Conor Casey's return looming, Colorado suddenly looks like a team to watch out for.
Sporting Kansas City is now the only MLS team that has neither lost nor drawn (and that's a fact this time), but perhaps more interestingly, Chivas is the only team that has played to the same 1-0 scoreline in each of its games. They've only won one of those games, but their run of one goal games is nonetheless impressive. Their defense is partially responsible, but mostly they owe their success to Dan Kennedy. His 16 saves on the season are good enough for a tie for first among MLS keepers. It's no doubt discouraging for him that the MLS' worst offense didn't manage a single shot on target against SKC.
Next Up: Chivas USA
As I mentioned above, Dan Kennedy is outstanding and will be the biggest obstacle to a Timbers win this Saturday. He's the best keeper in the MLS right now, with only three goals allowed and 16 saves. His combination of quickness and size is unmatched in the league, and I think it's fair to say, with four inches on Nick Rimando, Kennedy would have gotten to at least one -- and possibly both -- of Darlington Nagbe's goals last week. It will take all of Boyd's superior finishing ability to get the ball past him.
On the offensive side, it's cliche, but Chivas isn't as bad as their one goal in four games suggests. They are actually fairly effective at going forward and keeping possession in the attacking third, but with Juan Pablo Angel still out with a concussion, they're relying on rookie Casey Townsend to finish. That hasn't worked well. But Portland's weak fullbacks will have to contend with the talented Laurent Cortois and Ryan Smith on the flanks, and like every other opponent we face, all they need is a well placed cross.