When the summer transfer window opened in MLS two months ago, nearly every team was trying to add that one player who would transform their season. The Columbus Crew, as it turns out, found two in Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta.
For the first 18 games of the regular season, the Crew were averaging exactly one goal per game. But ever since Higuain was paired up top with Arrieta three games ago the Columbus attack has taken off, scoring eight goals in that span. Higuain has tallied three times during that period (to go along with two assists), while Arrieta has added two more goals, giving him a total of five since his first match on July 14. So much for that "settling in" process.
"It's not what we normally see when new guys come to the league," said Columbus defender Chad Marshall about his team's new front-line duo. "Normally there's an acclimation time where they've got to get used to the physicality of MLS. They've come in and picked things up right away and the chemistry they have together has been unreal for us."
Higuain's start has seen him buck his usual trend of flying under the radar, especially given the megawatt glare that usually accompanies his more famous brother, Real Madrid star Gonzalo Higuain. The Columbus forward scored just 10 goals in 62 matches for Argentine side Colon, yet Crew manager Robert Warzycha had been chasing Higuain for the better part of 16 months. Finally, with just a year left on the striker's contract, the Crew manager got his man -- and not a moment too soon.
"You won't see Higuain on the front page of the newspapers that often I would say," said Warzycha via telephone. "But watching him play for Colon, he was very good. We were watching him play, and we said, 'Wow, if we have that guy ... he's really what we need.' He's good on set pieces, he's a link player and also he has some speed so he can get behind defenses."
Higuain's two free-kick goals against New England last weekend revealed his dead ball artistry, though Arrieta nearly stole the show, delivering two razor-sharp finishes, the second of which won the match with just four minutes remaining. The Costa Rica international was signed in April but had to wait until the opening of the summer transfer window to start playing matches. At 5-foot-9 Arrieta appears to be a bit undersized to play the high striker role, but hasn't looked overmatched at all.
"Arrieta likes the physical contact," Warzycha explained. "He's a smart player to be honest with you. Also, he's a good finisher. He can turn a half chance into a goal."
However, the Crew's newfound offensive prowess has come at a cost. Defensively the team has begun leaking goals at a higher rate and was cut open repeatedly in the first half against New England. But Marshall is among those who appreciate what Higuain and Arrieta have done for the Crew, even if the current balance between attack and defense needs some recalibrating.
"Throughout a game, you want to hold a certain line [defensively] but as you continue to lose the ball or give away chances, you drop back and you're trying to hang on for that tie," he said. "That was a problem in the first half of the season. We just didn't have anyone to finish, and gradually towards the end of games we'd just be defending and trying to salvage some kind of points. With those two guys up top we have the confidence that we can score goals and not just hope for the win."
In the process, a Columbus side that was among the least aesthetically pleasing teams in the league has all of a sudden become one of the more entertaining. That ability, not to mention a 4-2-1 run that has the Crew firmly in the playoff hunt, has improved the vibe within the team as well, even as it continues to cope with the tragic death last month of midfielder Kirk Urso.
"For me as a coach, I'm happy for the guys because it seems like they are having fun again," Warzycha said. "They know they can win."
Toja, Toja, Toja: The arrival of Juan Toja in New England via the allocation process has made the Revolution's packed midfield -- a group that includes Ryan Guy, Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber and Kelyn Rowe -- even more crowded. Given the roster freeze set to take place on Sept. 15 it's unlikely that any additional players will be passing through the allocation process, so New England did the right thing in acquiring the Colombian. But Toja's arrival has ramped up speculation that any one of the team's current crop of midfielders could be shipped out, especially given the team's needs in the center of defense.
New England GM Mike Burns admitted that he was still receiving calls from teams interested in acquiring Toja, but for the moment, the midfielder was staying put.
"We felt what was offered to us wasn't better than adding Toja to our roster," he said. "That's what it came down to."
Speculation has focused on Feilhaber as the player most likely to depart even though his guaranteed annual compensation of $446,000 would seem to preclude any move. But Burns stated that the team's problems run a lot deeper than the perceived shortcomings of New England's highest salaried player.
"I think at times Feilhaber has played well and I think at times he wished he'd played better," Burns said. "But I would say that across the board for our entire team. When I look at how close we've been in our results -- we've lost 13 of our 14 games by one goal -- I certainly don't put all of that on Benny. And I certainly don't put that all on one player. I think it's unfair for people to say the team is where it is because of his performances. I think that's unfair to him."
As it stands now, it looks like any additional roster help will have to wait until after the season.
MLS Cup conundrum in San Jose? Last weekend, San Jose announced that the groundbreaking for its new stadium will take place on Oct. 21. But as the organization basked in the excitement surrounding the news, a different kind of stadium question was raised: If San Jose reaches the MLS Cup final, where precisely would the game be played?
Granted, the query can rightfully be filed under "Looking too far ahead," a point that Quakes president David Kaval went to great lengths to emphasize.
"We really are just trying to get through the season, get into the playoffs, and then just take it one series at a time," he said in a phone interview.
But with the MLS Cup final set to be played in the stadium of the team with the better regular-season record, there is a real chance that San Jose could end up hosting the event. So would MLS really consent to having its marquee game played at small, antiquated and amenity-challenged Buck Shaw Stadium?
On the one hand, San Jose has every right to play the match at a venue where a considerable home-field advantage has been established, even if it holds only 10,500 people. The Quakes haven't lost at Buck Shaw in more than a year, a streak of 14 games. Then again, the Santa Clara University-owned venue isn't exactly the place for the league's honchos to woo sponsors and other dignitaries. Suites are almost non-existent and, as one media member put it after last weekend's game against Colorado, "I'm dying to see [Commissioner] Don Garber walk out of a porta-potty."
Obviously, there are other options that would spare the commissioner such an indignity. San Jose has played home games this season at both AT&T Park and Stanford Stadium, although if the Stanford football team has the best record in the Pac-12 this year, it would host the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30, thus ruling out a potential MLS Cup final. (The O.co Coliseum in Oakland is out due to an Oakland Raiders game being played there on Dec. 2.) That would leave AT&T Park, which Kaval confirmed is available, though no decision has been made just yet.
"We're just trying to be prudent about having conversations with the different parties, and understanding what options exist, and trying to do as much planning as possible" Kaval said. "But at the same time, we're just trying to get through the season and not get ahead of ourselves."
SKC loses Bunbury, but help is on the way: Sporting Kansas City suffered a significant blow on Monday when it was revealed that striker Teal Bunbury would be lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.
Fortunately for SKC, the team has a ready-made replacement in C.J. Sapong. It's easy to forget that when Kansas City started the season 7-0-0, it was Sapong who was getting the bulk of the minutes at center forward. And while SKC will miss Bunbury's acceleration, they'll gain Sapong's better aerial presence and stronger play with his back to goal, meaning there shouldn't be much, if any, drop-off now that he is back in the lineup.
"A lot of the stuff will remain the same," said SKC manager Peter Vermes via telephone. "Our formation hasn't changed one game, and it's not going to."
That said, it's the return of two other injury victims that could determine just how deep Kansas City goes in the playoffs. Head coach Peter Vermes indicated that both Bobby Convey and Jacob Peterson are set to resume training next week and with the team having a bye week after this weekend's game against Toronto, they'll have some extended time on the practice field to build up their fitness. Their return should enable SKC to add some variety to its attack, one that ran aground against a bunkered-in New York defense last weekend.
"There's no doubt, Convey's got some pinpoint accuracy with his service that has been missed," Vermes said. "In regards to Peterson, he really runs well off the ball. He can get behind people from those wide positions as well. Just having those things late in the game, you can put them on if you have to, especially with Jake where he can change what's going on in the game. It's a big help and we haven't had that."