The most star-studded encounter in Major League Soccer history is upon us when the Galaxy meets the New York Red Bulls on Friday night in front of a (sure to be) sellout crowd at Home Depot and millions more watching on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.
David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafa Marquez and -- best of all -- Thierry Henry.
The French wing-forward, who has been mesmerizing for the rejuvenated Red Bulls, shouldn’t be here, not after his admittedly “stupid” actions Thursday night in Frisco, Texas. Whether or not you choose to believe conspiracy theories, it is curious how Henry avoided a red card or suspension after injuring FC Dallas’ Kevin Hartman -- the best goalkeeper in MLS this season -- during what he called a post-goal celebration in the 2-2 draw.
Mehdi Ballouchy’s goal in first-half stoppage pulled New York even, 1-1, and Hartman (Rancho Palos Verdes/Peninsula HS and UCLA) had the ball at his feet, ready to kick it toward the center circle for kickoff. Henry came bounding in and booted the ball full strength, taking Hartman’s right leg with it.
Hartman collapsed to the turf clutching his right knee. Henry already had a yellow card, and referee Hilario Grajeda somehow determined that the Frenchman’s folly didn’t warrant another, which would have meant a red card and suspension from the showdown with the Galaxy.
Hartman limped off at halftime with Henry trying to apologize, came back out for the second half, then determined he couldn’t go on. An MRI exam exposed a sprained medial collateral ligament (and “sprain,” remember, means slight tear), and he’ll be sidelined an estimated two to three weeks.
“The ball was there, and like I do sometimes, I just wanted to kick the ball back in the net,” Henry, whose attempt flew well wide of the goal, told reporters after the game. “[Hartman] put his foot out there, and that’s how he got injured,” Henry said after the match. “That was unfortunate. …
“I went to apologize at halftime, because I didn’t mean to hurt him. He put his foot out there, and I just wanted to smash the ball back in the net -- a pure accident. I told him I was sorry. He accepted it. It was one of those stupid things.”
Hartman said he didn’t want to get into a media war with the four-time World Cup star -- one of the finest players of his generation and probably the best talent ever to appear in MLS -- saying only that he was “not real sure exactly how it happened” and that “Henry went to hit the ball, and I tried to intercede, and, unfortunately, I hurt myself or got hurt.”
That’s kind. Hartman’s coach, Schellas Hyndman, wasn’t nearly so gracious, saying that Hilario “didn’t really have the courage to make the call” and give Henry a second yellow card.
“That’s what it came down to,” Hyndman said. “You can say he kicked the ball, he did this, he did that, but would we be in such a predicament as we are now going into these next few games?”
FC Dallas appealed to MLS, which on Monday fined Henry $2,000 but failed to levy a suspension. No surprise. Henry’s absence would make Friday’s game just another game.
Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, who watched the game on television, called it.
“That’s definitely a yellow card,” he said Saturday. “It’s a foolish play. I think Henry knows that. I know Kevin well, and I feel bad for that. The reality is you might have ended his season, and that’s unacceptable.”
And, on whether MLS might retroactively suspend Henry: “I’m sure he’ll be playing next week.”
DALLAS DONE?: The draw with New York extended FC Dallas’ unbeaten streak to 15 games and gave the Hoops a 10-2-12 mark, with the fewest losses and fourth-most points (42) in MLS. It came at great cost.
Hartman, perhaps FC Dallas’ (and maybe the league’s) MVP, is out for a few weeks because of the MCL sprain. And captain Daniel Hernandez, the midfield general that Hyndman calls “the heart and soul” of the club, departed in the 26th minute after suffering a strained left hamstring that will force him off the field for an estimated two to three weeks.
Moments after that, 20-year-old winger Brek Shea was red-carded after a two-footed, from-behind take down of Red Bulls right back Chris Albright. Shea received a two-game suspension and $1,000 fine for his antics.
That means the Hoops are without three key players for games Wednesday against New England and Saturday against Kansas City, and Hartman and Hernandez (both former Galaxy players) also will miss the Oct. 2 game against Chicago and likely the Oct. 9 match against Colorado. The hope is they’ll be back for the Oct. 16 game against the Galaxy at HDC and the Oct. 23 regular-season finale at home against Real Salt Lake.
BATTLE FOR BERTHS: The fight for the final three playoff berths -- figuring Real Salt Lake, Columbus, FC Dallas and New York are in, even if only the Galaxy has clinched -- is heating up as the regular season’s final month arrives. The Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 teams won last weekend, keeping the gap between the haves (Colorado, Seattle and San Jose) and the have-nots (Toronto FC and Kansas City) at five to seven points.
K.C. is the likeliest club to catch one of the Western Conference’s trio, based on current form (the Wizards are 5-1-3 since mid-July) and schedule (they’ve got seven games left; Seattle and Toronto have only five), and it can’t help but watch what’s going on above.
“We matched them [by winning this week],” Wizards backline leader Jimmy Conrad (Temple City/Temple City HS and UCLA) said after Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Chivas USA. “So it continues to put the pressure on them, and seven games left for us, and, you know, we’ve been part of this before, where we were in that position and we choked, so one of those three teams is going to get tight, and [we’re ready] to take advantage of it.”
Sixth-place Colorado (37 points) posted its third successive 3-0 home win, over New England, as Omar Cummings and Conor Casey scored their 10th goals of the season.
Seventh-place Seattle (36) rolled to a 4-0 stunner at Eastern Conference leader Columbus on Blaise Nkufo’s spectacular hat trick, which gained the Swiss World Cup forward a Player of the Week nod.
And eighth-place San Jose (36) topped Philadelphia, 1-0, on Chris Wondolowski’s ninth of the season.
Toronto FC (31) kept pace by rallying, on two Dwayne De Rosario goals -- both from free kicks, the winner four minutes into stoppage -- to beat Houston in interim coach Nick Dasovic’s first MLS game in charge.
Kansas City (30) received late goals from Kei Kamara (Lawndale/Leuzinger HS and Cal State Dominguez Hills) and Teal Bunbury in its victory, and head coach Peter Vermes said ultimately it doesn’t matter what the teams ahead of his do.
“The fact of the matter is we can hope that everyone else does our job for us, but at the end of the day we have to go and get results …,” said the former U.S. national-teamer. “I think the guys realize we have a mission ahead of us, our destiny’s in our own hands, and we got to take it one game at a time, and that has to be our focus.”
Kansas City will qualify if it wins its remaining games, certainly a tall order. The Wizards must play Seattle (at home Oct. 9) and San Jose (at home Oct. 23) and have matches against stragglers Houston, Chicago and New England. They also must face FC Dallas (at home next weekend) and New York (at Red Bull Arena on Oct. 2). The Wizards’ remaining foes are 61-62-45 (.497).
Colorado, which has games left against Real Salt Lake (home and away) and at FC Dallas and the Galaxy, has six games against teams a combined 62-43-42 (.565). Seattle’s five opponents are 35-54-30 (.420), San Jose’s seven are 53-78-38 (.426) and Toronto’s five are 45-53-24 (.467). Seattle also has three CONCACAF Champions League games, the U.S. Open Cup final (Oct. 5 vs. Columbus) and a friendly (Oct. 12 vs. Guadalajara) on its schedule.
DYNAMOAN: Houston’s decline this season to the league’s second-worst club seems incomprehensible, at least on the surface. Saturday’s 2-1 loss at home to Toronto FC -- on De Rosario’s heroics -- was the Dynamo’s 13th of the season, its fifth in the past six league games (and sixth in seven in all competitions) and left their record 1-9-4 in MLS since beating bottom feeder D.C. United on May 22.
The Dynamo (6-13-5) has just 23 points, 13 from the playoff zone with just six games to play, and Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear has more or less given up.
“The season’s over,” he said after Saturday’s game. “The way we’re playing, we are not going to do it. It’s sad to say it, but it is a reality.”
What went wrong? Injuries took a toll, especially those to forward Brian Ching, midfielder Geoff Cameron and goalkeeper Pat Onstad, and the defensive play has been abysmal. But the root to the problem has to do with Houston’s success.
The Dynamo won MLS Cup titles in 2006 and 2007, their first two seasons after relocating from San Jose, and would have been a deserving title-game foe for Columbus in 2008 had New York not coupled an otherworldly performance by Danny Cepero in goal with Dane Richards’ game-changing speed to pull off perhaps the greatest playoff upset in MLS history. Houston last year took the Galaxy to overtime in the Western Conference final.
The club always had a superb spine, from Onstad in the nets through an aggressive center-back tandem (led for a time by Eddie Robinson, then by Bobby Boswell, then by Cameron), through Ricardo Clark and De Rosario in midfield and to Ching up top. But De Rosario took off for Toronto FC, his hometown club, before last season, and Clark and Stuart Holden (De Ro’s successor) bolted for Europe when last season ended (Clark to Eintracht Frankfurt, Holden to Bolton) en route to roles on the U.S. World Cup squad this summer.
Cameron, an MLS Best XI choice last season as a backliner, was set to step into the midfield void, but he suffered what was expected to be a season-ending knee surgery in April, and the Dynamo couldn’t absorb another loss in central midfield after the departures of De Rosario, Clark and Holden.
Cameron’s unexpected return last month has been in the backline, where there’s the most need, and Houston dealt club icon Brian Mullan last week to Colorado, for the Rapids’ playoff push. That leaves Ching, who has been fine since returning from a hamstring injury that cost him a World Cup spot, 42-year-old Onstad and winger Brad Davis among glory-day linchpins. It just isn’t enough.
ODDS AND ENDS: Neither Henry (knee) nor Marquez (ankle) participated fully in the Red Bulls’ training session Monday, and coach Hans Backe said he was uncertain of their statuses. … New York traded for former Chivas USA defender Carey Talley just before Wednesday’s roster-freeze date, sending a conditional second-round pick in next year’s draft to D.C. United. … Real Salt Lake set an MLS record by extending its home unbeaten streak to 23 games. The victory over Chicago (0-4-2 in its last six) was helped by Wilman Conde’s red card just before halftime for pulling down Ned Grabavoy in the box. Alvaro Saborio converted the resulting penalty for the game’s only goal. … Andy Najar, D.C. United’s teen sensation, said he would not make a decision on whether to represent his native Honduras or the U.S. until he completed high school. Najar isn’t yet eligible to play for the U.S. … New York rookie midfielder Irving Garcia (UC Irvine) underwent hernia surgery Monday and was placed on the season-ending disabled list. Garcia has not played in an MLS game but appeared in four U.S. Open Cup matches. … Longtime media exec Julian Posada, who launched the Hoy Los Angeles newspaper, is the Chicago Fire’s new president.
Past week’s scores (home teams listed first)
San Jose 1 (Wondolowski 69), Philadelphia 0
FC Dallas 2 (Rodriguez 24, Alexander 68), New York 2 (Ballouchy 48+, og Benitez 82)
L.A. Galaxy 2 (Donovan 81, 86), D.C. United 1 (Najar 60)
Real Salt Lake 1 (Saborio pen. 47+), Chicago 0
Columbus 0, Seattle 4 (Nkufo 4, 39, 75, Sturgis pen. 42),
Houston 1 (Ching 18), Toronto FC 2 (De Rosario 60, 94)
Colorado 3 (Cummings 5, Casey 35, Thompson 83), New England 0
Chivas USA 0, Kansas City 2 (Kamara 70, Bunbury 83)
Western Conference: L.A. Galaxy 50 points, Real Salt Lake 47, FC Dallas 42, Colorado Rapids 37, Seattle Sounders FC 36, San Jose Earthquakes 36, Chivas USA 25, Houston Dynamo 23
Eastern Conference: Columbus Crew 44 points, New York Red Bulls 41, Toronto FC 31, Kansas City Wizards 30, Chicago Fire 25, Philadelphia Union 24, New England Revolution 24, D.C. United 18
Playoff race: 1. L.A. Galaxy 50, 2. Real Salt Lake 47, 3. Columbus 44; 4. FC Dallas 42, 5. New York 41, 6. Colorado 37, 7. Seattle 36, 8. San Jose 36. Just behind: 9. Toronto FC 31, 10. Kansas City 30.
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Houston at Kansas City, 5:30 p.m.
New England at FC Dallas, 5:30 p.m.
New York at L.A. Galaxy, 8 p.m.
Chivas USA at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
San Jose at Toronto FC, 1 p.m.
Houston at D.C. United, 4:30 p.m.
Columbus at New England, 4:30 p.m.
FC Dallas at Kansas City, 5 p.m.
Seattle at Chicago, 5 p.m.
Colorado at Real Salt Lake, 7 p.m.
1. Edson Buddle (L.A. Galaxy) 14
2. Juan Pablo Angel (New York) 12
3. Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto FC) 11
Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia) 11
5. Conor Casey (Colorado) 10
Omar Cummings (Colorado) 10
Fredy Montero (Seattle) 10
8. Justin Braun (Chivas USA) 9
Kei Kamara (Kansas City) 9
Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake) 9
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose) 9
1. Landon Donovan (L.A. Galaxy) 14
2. Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia) 10
3. Bobby Convey (San Jose) 9
David Ferreira (FC Dallas) 9
Fredy Montero (Seattle) 9
6. Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus) 8
7. Brad Davis (Houston) 7
Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake) 7
Patrick Nyarko (Chicago) 7
Ryan Smith (Kansas City) 7
Michael Stephens (L.A. Galaxy) 7
Past week's results (home teams listed first)
CONCACAF Champions League: Columbus 3 (Griffit 47, Garey 51, Lenhart 79), Joe Public (Trinidad & Tobago) 0
CONCACAF Champions League: Saprissa (Costa Rica) 2 (Guzman 56, Aleman 81), Seattle 0
Friendly: Chivas USA 0, Guadalajara (Mexico) 0 (Chivas USA wins on penalties, 4-2)
CONCACAF Champions League: Real Salt Lake (USA) 4 (Beckerman 21, Olave 40, Saborio pen. 69, Araujo 80), Toronto FC (Canada) 1 (Maicon Santos 8 )
This week's games (all times Pacific)
CONCACAF Champions League: Santos Laguna (Mexico) at Columbus, 5 p.m.
CONCACAF Champions League: Toronto FC at Cruz Azul (Mexico), 7 p.m.
CONCACAF Champions League: Real Salt Lake at Arabe Unido (Panama), 5 p.m.
CONCACAF Champions League: Seattle at Monterrey (Mexico), 5 p.m.