We open with the continuation of the Hex, where Boswell got a shock start alongside Gooch in the USA's 3-1 home victory over El Salvador vaulting them into second in the standings, three points clear of the play-in spot. A 2-0 road win over T&T then saw the USA clinch at least the play-in spot, though neither Boswell nor Olsen made Bradley's game-day 18.
September is going to start slowly, but the five week stretch starting home to LA Firpo on 9/23 is going to see us play 10 games in 36 days, with the most awful stretch, hereafter referred to as "the Death March," seeing us play Saturday home to Columbus, Monday away to Dallas, Wednesday home to Toluca, Saturday away to Kansas City, and Wednesday away to Saprissa. That's five games in twelve days! Deep breath everybody... here we go...
Seattle: We looked pretty rusty after the international break. Seattle controlled much of the opening half, limiting us to five shots, with none on frame. In our house? I don't think so! I laid into the guys in the locker room and they came out flying, putting three shots on frame in the first five minutes. But the breakthrough didn't come until I swapped out the underperforming Pontius for the struggling Camara. Camara drew two yellows and scored within 10 minutes of being put on. He had another couple of looks but couldn't sneak a second past Keller, and a nervous three minutes of stoppage time saw us run out deserved winners with Vavá taking home yet another match ball after laying on the winning assist and generally directing traffic from his #10 slot. Fingers crossed that Camara has found his way out of his summer slump. (W 1-0)
The domestic transfer deadline is in the books, meaning I'm stuck with the roster I've assembled thus far. Let's hope we're deep enough to survive the coming months...
[CCL Group A] @Toluca: After the first 20 minutes, I was shocked that we weren't down by at least two. They were making us look silly, and we didn't have an attack of note until nearly the half-hour mark. That one chance, fashioned completely by Vavá, who then spurned it himself, was followed by another moment of Vavá magic that was thwarted by their keeper. Then Simms slipped one in to the man of the moment, and he finally got one in the net. Two minutes later, we were up 2-0 after a Jakovic header was saved, but deflected in off a Toluca defender. With the lead, we settled and really started bossing the game. They had loads of corners and set pieces, but rarely troubled us, and our counters were growing increasingly dangerous, though Camara's current run of rotten luck meant he missed or had four or five breakaways saved.
With 15 minutes left, they threw the proverbial kitchen sink at us, but Simms volleyed home from a corner with 10 minutes left to make it 3-0. I was going to yank Camara because he was playing so poorly, but his relative fitness compared to my flagging midfield meant I stuck with him, and he rewarded me with the fourth two minutes after Simms' goal, nodding home a chipped Rogers cross to make it 4-0. Oh how I relished the sparse group of supporters dancing in their tiny little corner of Toluca's house. They grabbed a consolation on a 25 yard rocket with a couple of minutes remaining, but by that point, I was beyond caring. Simms took Man of the Match honors, but Vavá and Jakovic were instrumental as well. Great start to the Champions' League campaign would be an understatement. (W 4-1)
With Simms being in such fine form, I decided to see if he was ready to negotiate a more realistic contract extension (when last we sat down, he wanted Moreno money). This time around, he wanted to continue on similar wages, so I gave him a little bump, and he jumped at the offer, locking him up with us until 2013...
[CCL Group A] LA Firpo: Henri Camara signaled his return to form by nodding home a Quaranta cross from point-blank range to open the scoring on 8 minutes. 10 minutes later, Boswell took advantage of our height advantage to thump home a corner to make it 2-0. I wanted to keep the pressure on and get a third to bury the game, but Gonzalez managed to flap at a hopeless cross and send it into his own net, leaving us with a slender 2-1 halftime lead. It stayed that way until Vavá took a free kick touched into his path by Szetela and rammed a 35-yard screamer past the Firpo keeper. Vamos! Game, set, and match, we settled in and enjoyed a couple more chances before Camara added the bookend, slamming a shot home from the edge of the box after a sweet move that swept from side to side before being touched into Camara's path for the finish. (W 4-1)
The next set of games is one of those where you see the balance of the season being decided. Home on Sunday to the Quakes in the league and home on Wednesday to Saprissa in the Champion's League. With only two days rest, I'm likely to have to make extreme changes, so which game gets precedence? Beating the Quakes keeps the unbeaten run alive, confidence high, and the Supporters' Shield firmly in our grasp. Beating Saprissa would make our passage to the knockout stages of the Champions' League pretty likely, meaning we could focus on the remainder of the league fixtures. What's a manager to do?
San Jose: I decided to do a little mixing and matching, making six changes to my normal lineup, keeping some of the really important guys fresh for Wednesday's match with Saprissa. I expected to struggle a bit from the off, but we were up almost immediately, Pontius taking a corner kick rebound at the edge of the box and driving it through a mass of bodies. Within three minutes Rogers blew past two defenders on the left and crossed. The deflection fell kindly to Sosa, who picked out the corner of the net to double our lead. Three minutes after that Vavá touched Moreno into space, and the Godfather of Goals delivered. 3-0 and only ten minutes played! You've seen this scenario before right?
We dominated the play for about the next fifteen minutes before San Jose started recovering from their shell-shock. A silly foul by Wallace on the edge of the box allowed Alvarez to get one back for them in first half stoppage time. The beginning of the second half was fingernail-biting time as the Quakes prodded and probed, but couldn't find a way through. I swapped out Vavá (as I'd always planned to do) early and replaced Olsen when he started to run down. Almost immediately, the new legs in midfield (Fred and Jacobson) saw us recover our poise. I switched to a direct counter game and put on Lopez for the glacial Moreno, reaping further rewards as Rogers and Lopez were running onto some precise balls from Sosa and Jakovic. Sadly, despite three or four good chances, we could never find the fourth. Happily, they rarely looked a threat in the final half-hour. (W 3-1)
Oh, I'd forgotten... the San Jose match was our "fan day," and Kevin Payne, et al are rather pleased that I treated the crowd to an early goal glut. Attendance is expected to blossom. We're on a thirteen match unbeaten run and the win sees us grab a playoff berth with four games remaining on our league schedule, though Chicago is going to make the Supporters' Shield race pretty interesting.
[CCL Group A] Saprissa: The first half was worrying. We had a lot of tired legs out there and it showed. Saprissa had all the early chances, and it took us until twenty minutes to generate anything of interest in the attacking end. When we did, it was Boswell, once again feasting on aerial-challenged Central American defenses, heading home another corner kick goal to put us up. The balance of the half was fairly even and pretty dull, so I lit a fire at halftime. The response was good. A couple of early chances went begging, but when Rogers got mauled in the box, Vavá was delighted to slot home the PK. A mad scramble on a corner two minutes later came off both of my center backs before dropping on the line for Camara to race in and smack home. After that, I took off some of the guys who'd been racking up major miles and played possession. RFK was roaring as we strung together long passing sequences and killed the game. Both the Burundi and Canadian bosses were in the house, looking at Habarugira and Jakovic respectively. Great. Given the fixture pileup that's rapidly approaching, call ups are all I need. (W 3-0)
Can you say "hot streak"?
Halfway through the group stage, we're on 9, Toluca is on 6, and Saprissa and Firpo are joint bottom with a point apiece. The other MLS entrants? Houston is tied atop Group B with Cruz Azul on 7 points, Columbus sits second in Group C behind Pachuca, and the Red Bulls are joint second with Guatemala's Municipal on 4 points in Group D, 5 points back of leaders Pumas.
The USA U-20's managed to replicate the feat of their real-life brethren, bombing out in the group stages of the U-20 World Cup, finishing last in their group. In fact, all four of CONCACAF's participants managed to finish rock bottom in their respective groups. Way to fly the regional flag with pride, fellas!
Chivas USA: The Death March is rapidly approaching, so I'm getting prepared by giving most of the scrubs a match and resting my big guns. Only the center back pairing and the keeper were normal starters, and it showed in the first half. We were at home and controlling possession, but they had as many good chances as we did (though not many went either way). Fortunately, Galindo choked on his chances as the Goats' lone striker, while Lopez managed to bury one of his to give us the 1-0 halftime lead.
Looking for breathing room, I went for broke to start the second and pressed hard for the insurance goal, which duly arrived within five minutes when Fred floated a free kick into the box that Boswell had time to take on his chest, spin, and slot through a wall of bodies on the line. After that, we sat back, clogged the midfield, and looked to hit them on the counter. I suppose, given their 4-1-4-1 formation, that that had been their plan all along as well, so the rest of the match was pretty bland, with lots of balls booted around a midfield saturated with bodies. This being Chivas, they managed to thug it up, sending Moreno and Wallace off with knocks and leaving Fred limping around with a gashed leg at the final whistle. (W 2-0)
I'm starting to get suspicious of this streak we're on. It reeks of "...and then the wheels fell off" time, doesn't it?
Camara and Boswell get their respective calls from national team bosses and will be heading off after our Champions' League date with LA Firpo.
[CCL Group A] @LA Firpo: Hugely disappointing. Of our remaining Champions' League fixtures, this was the most winnable, and I want to win the group. The draw leaves us just a point clear of Toluca, though it does get us through to the knockout stages, taking some of the pressure off the two matches that will be packed into the upcoming Death March. We dominated, as you'd expect, and had three penalty claims waved off. Nonetheless, we really should have tested their keeper more, and Camara was shockingly bad. (D 0-0)
And on that note, we'll enter the next international break. The Champions' League group looks like this with two games to go (Home to Toluca, Away to Saprissa)...
And the MLS table, if my math is correct (and it is) shows us that DC United are your 2009 Supporters' Shield winners! You'll note that the Bruce, deprived of Donovan and Beckham before a ball was ever kicked, has managed not only to make the playoffs, but may do so as the Western Conference champs. Somehow, New York and Houston have swapped bodies...
Next time I post, we will enter the dreaded 5 matches in 12 days...the Death March!
Think I'm making a mess of this? Grab a copy of Football Manager 2010and have a go yourself. Then write it up and post it to your own blog or send me a copy and I might post it here on FBF...