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THE 23rd week of MLS action threw up some interesting fixtures: first vs second in the Eastern Conference, bottom vs second-bottom in the Western Conference, and two hotly-contested derbies. There were also goals seconds after kick-off and – as has become a regular occurrence this season – late drama in stoppage time. The culmination of the US national team’s Gold Cup campaign has seen many clubs’ star players return to MLS action, and this weekend’s fixtures were all the richer for the added quality.

We start in Kansas, where first-placed Sporting KC tried to defend their hold on the Eastern Conference against second-placed New York Red Bulls. Predictably, this game was full of drama. The Red Bulls took the lead on 27 minutes thanks to Jonathan Steele’s low shot, but Kansas levelled in first-half injury time when Kei Kamara reacted quickest to pounce on the loose ball after Luis Robles had parried a Soony Saad shot.

Lloyd Sam shone in the Red Bulls’ win over Sporting KC (pic:

Red Bulls coach Mike Petke introduced ex-Charlton Athletic winger Lloyd Sam on 63 minutes, and it was a decision which turned the game around. The substitute’s first action was to play Fabian Espindola through to score from a tight angle, and six minutes later, Sam confirmed his status as a supersub when he added a fine goal of his own to make it 3-1. Goalkeeper Robles started a quick counter-attack by launching the ball half the length of the pitch; the impressive Steele centered and Sam beat the last man and Kansas custodian Jimmy Neil.

The hosts’ Dominic Dwyer halved the deficit on 92 minutes from a Kamara cross, but despite a ridiculous ten minutes’ stoppage time, Kansas couldn’t find an equaliser. New York’s Thierry Henry celebrated more than most at the final whistle, perhaps still bitter from his controversial red card in this fixture two years ago.  This win sees the Red Bulls overtake their opponents into first place, opening up a two-point lead at the top of the table.

With Kansas slipping up, third-placed Montreal Impact hoped to take advantage in their visit to lowly DC United, but it was the Washington strugglers who bagged all three points here. Luis Silva, who has quickly emerged as DC’s best player since joining from Toronto in July, scored his third goal in as many games for United, opening the scoring on 19 minutes following a period of sustained pressure from the hosts. On 52 minutes, the Impact levelled after right-back Jeb Brovsky’s clever one-two with Davy Arnaud outfoxed the DC defence and put him through on goal.

However, United were not to be denied and they regained the lead with 20 minutes to play when Derby County loanee Conor Doyle scored his first senior career goal, and it got better for Ben Olsen’s men: they added a third in injury time when Doyle broke clear; with Montreal’s defence nowhere to be seen, and with Jared Jeffrey in support for DC, Doyle had a two-on-one against Impact ‘keeper Troy Perkins. He made no mistake, unselfishly feeding Jeffrey to tap into an open net and crown an excellent result for the Eastern Conference’s bottom club.

With a raft of promising youngsters coming through, Silva in excellent form, and the talismanic Dwayne De Rosario back from injury, things are certainly looking up for DC, but Montreal supremo Marco Shallibaum will be concerned by his team’s poor run: they have now won just once in their last seven games.

The Chicago Fire kept their play-off hopes alive with a 2-1 win at the Philadelphia Union. Estonia international Joel Lindpere’s cross from the left was missed by everyone and ran through for Patrick Nyarko to open the scoring on 9 minutes. The Union responded well, with Danny Cruz and Sebastian Le Toux both going close, before defender Sheanon Williams equalised on the hour with surely the strangest goal of the season. Trying desperately to get on the end of a Le Toux free-kick, Williams performed an accidental slow-motion forward roll, and the ball followed his forward movement with perfect symmetry, carrying it into the net via his studs.

However, Williams’ amateur acrobatics counted for nothing when the Fire’s prolific Mike Magee swept home the winner against the run of play, making him the league’s top scorer with 14 goals. It was harsh on Philadelphia, who had carved out the game’s best openings, but Chicago held on for a precious three points.

Real Salt Lake needed just 80 seconds to open the scoring away to the Colorado Rapids, Kyle Beckerman crossing for the unmarked Ned Grabavoy to take advantage of an already disorganised Rapids backline. However, RSL’s defence was equally slow to react eight minutes later when Clinton Irvin’s goal-kick was flicked on; Real’s centre-backs fatally allowed the ball to bounce, giving the speedy Deshorn Brown time to nip in and slide an equaliser.

RSL shot-stopper Nick Rimando was in fine form against Colorado (pic:

The action continued to come thick and fast, with RSL taking the lead once more on 20 minutes. Robbie Findley was floored by Rapids defender Drew Moor, and – after debate as to whether the game should be abandoned due to the swirling winds overhead – Alvaro Saborio converted the penalty. Saborio and his team-mates needed goalkeeper Nick Rimando to make three fine saves to protect their lead, but even he was helpless to prevent Colorado’s equaliser on 70 minutes through substitute Jaime Castrillon’s header. The draw meant the Rapids won the Rocky Mountain Cup – contested annually by these two clubs – as they had won and drawn against Real in the first two games. The triumph represents the Rapids’ first Mountain Cup win since 2006.

The Houston Dynamo lifted themselves back into the Eastern play-off places with a 3-1 defeat of the Columbus Crew. In yet another early goal, Houston’s ex-Derby midfielder Giles Barnes used his pace to break clear on 10 minutes before falling under Chad Marshall’s challenge; Brad Davis made no mistake from the spot. Honduras international Boniek Garcia set up the hosts’ second after half an hour, robbing Agustin Viana on the half-way line before breaking forward and feeding Will Bruin, who finished well – so confidently, in fact, you wouldn’t have guessed it was Bruin’s first goal since May.

Columbus pulled once back with 75 minutes on the clock when Houston defender Kofi Sarkodie scored an unfortunate own goal, prodding the ball into his own net in an attempt to stop Crew substitute Ryan Findley doing the same. The visitors then missed a great chance to draw level as momentum swung in their favour, Justin Meram spotting the unmarked Bernardo Anor at the back post, only for the Venezuelan to side-foot wide when it looked easier to score. Houston made them pay with five minutes remaining when Cam Weaver arrowed a fine effort into the top corner with the outside of his boot to seal the victory.

Having helped the US national team to Gold Cup success last month,  San Jose Earthquakes frontman Chris Wondolowski transferred his midas touch to domestic action, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Chivas USA in a meeting of the Western Conference’s worst two sides. Chivas – thirteen points adrift at the foot of the table – missed two good chances before San Jose opened the scoring in the final few seconds of the first half. Steven Beitashour’s inch-perfect long ball was nodded back across goal by Victor Bernardez, and Wondolowski hardly had to break stride to head into the roof of the net.

Chivas thought they’d grabbed an equaliser through Mario De Luna’s header on 58 minutes, only for the linesman to rule it out for offside, and things got worse for the California outfit when they had former Fulham man Carlos Bocanegra shown a straight red for a robust tackle on the Earthquakes’ Shea Salinas. Referee Armando Villarreal showed no hesitation in whipping out the card – the tenth red he’s shown in 23 games as an MLS official. The hosts made sure of the win late on when Salinas’ shot was parried by Dan Kennedy and Wondolowski coolly chipped home the rebound. The Earthquakes’ clean sheet – only their third of the season – will likely please interim manager Mark Watson as much as the win.

Clint Dempsey is unveiled as a Sounders player before Seattle’s win over FC Dallas (pic:

High-profile Seattle Sounders recruit Clint Dempsey has spoken of his excitement at being back in the MLS, and he’ll be even more eager to get started after watching from the stands as his team-mates secured a comfortable 3-0 win over FC Dallas. Over 39,000 were present at the CenturyLink field – a figure no doubt swelled by Dempsey’s attendance – and they were not disappointed as the Sounders flew out of the traps to open up a two-goal lead within 25 minutes. The first arrived with nine minutes played as Obafemi Martins headed Mauro Rosales’ free-kick over his shoulder and into the net, despite having his back to goal. Around a quarter of an hour later, Martins’ strike partner Eddie Johnson doubled the Sounders’ advantage after breaking away from the Dallas defence too easily and latching onto Brad Evans’ through ball.

Dalllas improved in the second half but Evans sealed the win from the spot in the 94th minute after Lamar Neagle had been felled by David Ferreira – it was no more than Ferreira deserved for his awful bleach-blonde mullet. An impressive performance from the Sounders, but they should have points deducted for showing a dreadful video of Dempsey “rapping” as part of his unveiling as a Seattle player.

In Portland, Oregon, the Timbers had to settle for a 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps in a feisty Cascadia derby that saw 30 fouls and six yellow cards. With the teams separated by just two points in the Western Conference, this game was always likely to be close, and so it proved. The Timbers survived a penalty scare just 10 seconds in when Kekuta Manneh went down under Pa-Modou Kah’s challenge, and on 33 minutes the hosts had a claim of their own ignored by ref Radu Petrescu after Darlington Nagbe collapsed in a heap under the attention of a group of Caps defenders.

The first goal arrived on 49 minutes, Timbers targetman Ryan Johnson heading home from Diego Valeri’s cross, but with 20 minutes to play, Caps’ Jordan Harvey restored parity from Camilo Sanvezzo’s corner to ensure it ended all square.

Sunday’s only fixture saw Ryan Nelsen’s Toronto pull off an impressive victory at the New England Revolution. Matias Laba’s 2nd minute goal was the difference between the two teams. Winning the ball on the half-way line, Laba produced a fine solo effort, slaloming past two challenges and finishing at the second attempt. The Revs came back strongly, and only goal-line clearances from Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley preserved Toronto’s lead. New England’s Andrew Farrell was unlucky not to get an assist from his brilliantly improvised overhead-kick cross, but with the hosts’ attack seemingly having an off day, the Canadians were able to hold out. Incredibly, this win marks the first time Toronto have won and kept a clean sheet since July 2012 – and that was also against the poor old Revs.


TOTTENHAM Hotspur’s Clint Dempsey is set to make a surprise return to the United States after the club announced they had reached an agreement with MLS outfit the Seattle Sounders. Dempsey, 30, has been playing in England since joining Fulham in 2006, but only moved to Tottenham last summer.

After playing youth football in his native Texas, Dempsey started his senior career with the New England Revolution and was near-ever present in his first season in the MLS in 2004. He spent two further years at the club, posting a record of better than a goal every three games in both seasons, before being signed by Fulham for £2 million – making Dempsey the US’ most expensive export to England.

Dempsey made a name for himself during five years at Fulham (pic:

At Fulham, the midfielder enjoyed the best years of his career, somehow managing to improve every season and earning praise for his versatility and all-action style. Fittingly, his best performances in a black-and-white shirt came in his final campaign at Craven Cottage in 2011-12, when he netted 17 times in the league and 23 in all competitions.

Having established himself as one of the Premier League’s best goalscoring midfielders, Dempsey earned a £6 million move to Tottenham in the summer of 2012. Once more, the transfer shattered records in his homeland, making the Texan the US’ highest-paid footballer of all time. Despite relative success in his first season at White Hart Lane, Dempsey’s place in the side’s starting line-up – he had mainly been employed as a second striker by Andre Villas-Boas – was put into doubt by Spurs’ acquisition of Valencia forward Roberto Soldado.

Looking for guaranteed playing time, and perhaps missing the US after so long away, Dempsey appeared to entertain the notion of returning to the MLS. Earlier this week, rumours on Twitter claimed the US national team captain had been spotted in San Francisco, waiting to board a plane to Seattle, and some overly-enthusiastic Sounders fans even waited for his arrival at the airport in Washington.

However, Dempsey never arrived, which, combined with Sounders forward Eddie Johnson dismissing suggestions Clint would sign with the club, sparked a media frenzy as the US tried to second-guess where Dempsey would appear next. The attention he was afforded – rarely seen in America for footballers – demonstrated Dempsey’s stature in the US, but MLS fans were devastated to hear rumours that he was, in fact, flying out to Los Angeles to join up with Everton’s pre-season tour.

“What do you mean there’s no place for me?” Dempsey has left Spurs for regular game time (Pic:

But the speculation turned full circle when ESPN claimed the Sounders were on the verge of completing the player’s signature, and that was confirmed this afternoon when Spurs issued a statement on their website announcing that Dempsey would “return to MLS.” The BBC say the Sounders will match the £6 million Spurs shelled out for Dempsey a year ago, while several media outlets suggest the midfielder will become the MLS’ highest paid player at $5 million per year, overtaking his fellow ex-Premier League attackers Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry ($4 million and $3.75 million per year respectively).

Dempsey’s much-heralded arrival will provide a welcome boost to the Sounders’ attacking roster – the club are currently languishing in seventh position in the nine-team Western Conference, four points adrift of the play-offs.

There are some parts of the American take on the beautiful game that just won’t be transferred to England. Strapping cameras to referees is one, the MLS SuperDraft – where players are traded, assigned and picked from colleges – is another, and finally, there’s the annual MLS All-Star game between the league’s 20 best players and a club from another country.

Since switching from the East vs West format in 2005, the MLS had chosen a British team every year as the All-Stars’ opponents, but this year, Italian giants Roma broke that trend by travelling to Kansas City to play against the cream of America’s footballing crop, coached by Kansas boss Peter Vermes. The involvement of a non-British club follows the increasing glamour the All-Star game has attracted; while the likes of Fulham and West Ham United were early opponents, Manchester United, Chelsea and now Italian sides are becoming open to the idea (no doubt attracted by the revenue opportunities associated with the game).

Vermes and MLS Commissioner Don Garber had picked a strong squad including the likes of Thierry Henry, Marco Di Vaio and Landon Donovan,  and while Roma brought their star-studded first-team – among them captain Francesco Totti and fellow Italy internationals Daniele De Rossi and Federico Balzaretti – the most familiar name to US football fans was national team midfielder Michael Bradley, who has been playing in Europe since 2006.

Strootman slots home Roma’s opener (Pic:

There’s been much debate in the US as to whether the league would be better served by a return to the East vs West format of the past, but there’s still plenty of interest in this fixture: the 21, 175 who turned up to Kansas’ Sporting Park was the highest attendance in the stadium’s history.

Vermes opted for an experienced front-line, pairing Henry and Di Vaio (combined age 72) while Roma named Totti, Bradley and new signing Kevin Strootman in an impressive line-up.  To the crowd’s dismay, Roma controlled the tempo from the start and took just four minutes to open the scoring; exploiting the All-Stars’ high defensive line, Strootman collected a through ball before beating Peruvian ‘keeper Raul Fernandez in the hosts’ goal (via an unfortunate deflection off Kansas defender Aurelien Collin.

The All-Stars struggled to recover from that early blow, and just three minutes later Roma almost doubled their lead. Totti, picking the ball up deep in his own half, curled an exquisite 30-yard pass in behind All-Star left-back Corey Ashe for Alessandro Florenzi to run onto, but the 22-year-old’s shot slid just wide. Vermes’ men were dealt another blow on 24 minutes when Graham Zusi, playing just behind the strikers, was forced off with an injury; he was replaced by Vancouver Whitecaps’ Brazilian magician Camilo Sanvezzo.

With the Italians continuing to dominate proceedings but failing to add to their lead, half-time arrived with the score still at 1-0. Just seconds after the restart, however, they made the All-Stars pay: Ashe once more failed to track Florenzi’s run, and Balzaretti’s centre from the left was clinically converted by the unmarked midfielder.

The All-Stars almost managed an immediate reply when Thierry Henry took on three defenders on the left before crossing towards Chris Wondolowski, but the San Jose Earthquakes frontman just failed to connect with the delivery. The hosts’ best chance arrived 20 minutes later, when an unwise short goal-kick from Roma allowed Landon Donovan to pinch possession back; the ex-Everton man rounded the last defender but fired straight at Morgan De Sanctis from close range.

Roma celebrate with the All-Stars trophy after their win (Pic:

It was a miss they were made to pay for. From Roma’s next attack, Bradley released the impressive Strootman with a brilliant one-touch pass, and the Dutchman’s pull-back was turned in by Junior Tallo. Rookie full-back DeAndre Yedlin – on as a substitute for the hapless Ashe – came close to pulling one back on 85 minutes, playing a delightful one-two with Wondolowski but skying the final effort at goal.

However, the All-Stars didn’t have to wait long for their goal. In the first (and only) minute of injury time, Sanvezzo curled a fine free-kick onto the head of fellow sub Omar Gonzalez, and the LA Galaxy defender summoned up enough neck power to beat De Sanctis’ deputy Bogdan Lobont and restore some credibility to the scoreline.

The final whistle blew soon after on an interesting contest that will divide opinion on whether the MLS is as close to Europe as it thinks it is. Make no mistake, Roma strolled to victory here, but, as Jeff Carlisle notes for ESPN, “[given] that the MLS players had a grand total of one training session, and that the Roma players are all eager to impress new manager Rudi Garcia, it was no surprise to see the visitors run out to a 3-1 victory.”

League Commissioner Garber used the game’s interval to announce plans to expand the MLS to 24 teams by 2020 (it currently has 19, with New York City FC set to join in 2015). That demonstrates an ambition that can only help the MLS close the gap on Europe’s elite in the near future, and, as Carlisle adds, “a loss in the All-Star Game isn’t going to change that.”

All-Stars: Fernandez (Rimando 45); Besler (Gonzalez 45), Beltran, Collin, Ashe (Yedlin 66); Johnson, Beckerman (Magee 45), Davis (Donovan 45), Zusi (Sanvezzo 24); Henry (C) (McInerney 57), Di Vaio (Wondolowski 45).

Roma: De Sanctis (Lobont 63); Torosidis, Benatia, Castan, Balzaretti; Pjanic (Marquinho 63), Bradley, Florenzi (De Rossi 63), Strootman; Totti (C) (Ricci 87), Tallo (Caprari 80).

Referee: Hilario Grajeda.

Game MVP: Alessandro Florenzi.

The 22nd week of this season’s MLS had a bit of everything: a seven-goal thriller, some questionable refereeing (with three debatable penalties in the aforementioned game) and some half-forgotten Brits resurfacing on the other side of the pond. Once again, the league demonstrated its growing ability to entertain, and it’s little surprise that attendances are on the rise across the country.

Real Salt Lake, fresh from an eventful 3-2 loss to Sporting Kansas City in which they conceded the winner in the 97th minute, travelled to the New York Red Bulls hoping for a more straightforward contest. However, this was anything but straightforward. With each side challenging at the top of their respective division, this game was always likely to be important, but few could have predicted the end-to-end goalfest that followed.

Real’s Alvaro Saborio (left) grabbed a hat-trick but still ended up on the losing team. (Picture:

The Red Bulls opened the scoring on 11 minutes when Tim Cahill yet again proved his aerial ability, launching himself at a Thierry Henry free-kick and heading between ‘keeper Jeff Attinella’s legs. The goal was made all the more impressive by the fact that just minutes earlier Cahill had been lying injured on the sidelines, seemingly unlikely to continue. Real had clearly not learned their lesson, because just 12 minutes later, another Henry set-piece caused panic in the visitors’ box. Henry’s free-kick from the right was cleared to the edge of the area, but Abdoulie Mansally was adjudged – somewhat harshly – to have dragged Red Bulls’ Brandon Barklage to the floor in trying to clear the ball. Fabian Espindola coolly chipped the resulting penalty down the middle to double the advantage and leave Real on the brink.

Just when it seemed like the Red Bulls would take a two-goal lead into the interval, Salt Lake were awarded a slightly fortunate spot-kick of their own. Olmes Garcia broke through from the wing and collided with centre-back Markus Holgersson, and Alvaro Saborio converted the penalty to ensure his team grabbed their lifeline with both hands.

The start of the second half saw a calmer contest, but events became frenzied once more late on. On 80 minutes, Saborio scuffed a low shot past Luis Robles after good work from substitute Luis Gil and suddenly Real were level. The Red Bulls were still reeling from that setback when their visitors broke again on the other wing, with Joao Plata – also fresh off the bench – tearing down the left before centering for Saborio. The Costa Rica international had options but went alone, avoiding two tackles before brilliantly improvising a prodded shot into the top corner. Real celebrated like it was the winner – and with just eight minutes of normal time remaining, it looked that way.

However, New York’s Fabian Espindola had clearly not read the script. With 88 minutes played, the Argentine launched a solo attack on the left, trying to push-and-run his way into the box before going to ground only too happily under the attention of two defenders. He was fortunate to have been given the penalty, but Espindola made no mistake from 12 yards, putting considerably more power into this spot-kick than his first-half chip.

Incredibly, the Red Bulls weren’t done there. By the fourth minute of stoppage time, Salt Lake were understandably looking tired, and failed to cut out an attack in midfield. The ball was worked out wide to Barklage, and his inch-perfect cross was met by Dax McCarty’s flying header: 4-3. Having lost to an injury-time goal for the second week running, Real boss Jason Kreis will have to be careful to keep dressing room morale high.

There was further refereeing controversy in Vancouver as the Whitecaps lost 1-0 to the Philadelphia Union. The hosts were reduced to 10 men with just eight minutes played following an ugly altercation between Vancouver’s Jun Marques Davidson and Union midfielder Keon Daniel. As Davidson attempted to flick the ball clear from the foetal position, Daniel stormed in, launching a dangerous kick. Davidson was understandably furious and retaliated with a headbutt – for which he was sent off – but referee Baldomero Toledo inexplicably failed to remove Daniel from the field as well.

Davidson mid-headbutt on Keon Daniel – ref Toledo looks terrified. (Picture:

Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Caps battled well and dominated for much of the game, with Russell Teibert, Kekuta Manneh and ex-Rangers striker Kenny Miller all going close, but they were made to pay for their wastefulness when Philadelphia sub Antoine Hoppenot delivered a cruel blow on 85 minutes, finishing well from Aaron Wheeler’s backheel.

DC United had no-one to blame but themselves for another abject performance against the New England Revolution. United took a rare early lead through Luis Silva, but once again surrendered the points when the Revs’ Dimitry Imbongo and Diego Fagundez scored in the second half. It’s not looking good for the MLS’ worst team: DC have now lost four of their last five games and have several players ruled out through injury.

Toronto FC claimed their first win for six games, beating the Columbus Crew 2-1. The Crew took the lead on 17 minutes when, after fine build-up in midfield, Dominic Oduro’s powerful shot from near the sideline somehow beat Joe Bendik, but Ryan Nelsen’s Toronto turned things round with two late goals. Jonathan Osorio’s 87th minute equaliser (set up by ex-Reading winger Bobby Convey) looked to have rescued a point for the Eastern Conference strugglers, but things got even better when Convey was on hand again to tee up Andrew Wiedeman to clinch a 94th minute winner.

High-flying Western Conference rivals Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy met at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, with the Rapids prevailing 2-0 on home turf. The Galaxy were beaten by a goal either side of half-time: former Wigan midfielder Hendry Thomas headed home Dillon Powers’ corner on 41 minutes, before Powers himself made the game safe two minutes after the interval. It’s been a fine first season in the MLS for Powers – who only joined the Rapids from the Austin Aztex in January – but his performance here was overshadowed by one of the season’s most bizarre refereeing decisions (and there’s been a few).

In the first half, the Galaxy’s Juninho skipped past a defender before being unceremoniously dumped to the ground by Hendry Thomas. Juan Guzman pulled out a yellow card; Thomas, already on a booking, no doubt prepared to make the long walk to the dressing room. Imagine his, the Galaxy’s and the spectators’ surprise, then, when Guzman thrust the card in Juninho’s face instead, accusing him of simulation!

The Montreal Impact finally got back on track with a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City ending a five-game barren run. Having won last week with a goal in the 97th minute, Kansas got a taste of their own medicine here when the Impact’s Blake Smith (another MLS newcomer) converted from Marco Di Vaio’s through ball in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Cam Weaver (right) seems unsure how to react after scoring his first goal since May 2011. (Picture:

There’ll likely be no-one happier than Houston Dynamo forward Cam Weaver this week, after the 30-year-old scored his first goal for over two years in the 1-1 draw with Chicago. Weaver’s opener on the hour was cancelled out by the much more prolific Mike Magee two minutes later. Both sides suffered serious injuries, with Houston’s ex-Hearts winger Andrew Driver forced off with an achilles injury, before Fire midfielder Alex followed suit later in the first half.

Saturday’s final game saw the San Jose Earthquakes claim a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers, a crucial three points in the Earthquakes’ bid for a play-off place. San Jose defender Victor Bernardez – on spot-kick duty in Chris Wondolowski’s absence – converted from 12 yards on 55 minutes, and Steven Lenhart doubled the advantage soon after from a quickly-taken free-kick. Darlington Nagbe pulled one back for the Timbers to set up a tense finale, but even after the hosts’ Marvin Chavez was sent off for two yellow cards in one minute (the second for blocking the taking of the free-kick he had given away), they were unable to find an equaliser.

The Seattle Sounders saw off Chivas USA in Sunday’s only fixture. Chivas, recently accused of discrimination against non-Spanish-speaking players, took the lead through new signing Erick Torres early on, but Brad Evans levelled the score on 23 minutes. The Sounders grabbed all three points thanks to Lamar Neagle’s second-half goal, and playmaker Mauro Rosales will be pleased to have got the assist after the Argentine’s recent poor form had put his future at Seattle in doubt.

The MLS All-Stars will play Italy’s AS Roma in the annual All-Stars game on Wednesday, 31 July at Kansas City’s Sporting Park. Roma’s participation marks the first involvement of an Italian team against the MLS’ best. Kansas coach Peter Vermes will lead the All-Stars, whose squad includes Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan and Marco Di Vaio. Tim Cahill and Robbie Keane were initially included, but withdrew because of injury.

Round 21 of the MLS season saw Eastern Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City travel to Western Conference table-toppers Real Salt Lake in what promised to be a mouth-watering clash. Elsewhere, there were decidedly fewer goals than the previous week, with three of the ten fixtures ending goalless and only one game that could be considered one-sided.

Quite clearly, the standout match of the weekend occurred on Saturday when Real Salt Lake welcomed Sporting KC as the first-placed clubs went head to head. Despite their geographical separation limiting the games between these two sides, there was clearly no love lost – the hosts’ Chris Wingert was booked just 13 seconds in for flying into Sporting’s Kai Kamara, a challenge that warranted a straight red. After the visitors’ Soony Saad had squandered two decent openings, Real opened the scoring on 56 minutes, Robbie Findley capitalising on goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen’s spilled catch.

Sporting KC’s Ike Opara wheels away after his controversial winner at Real Salt Lake

However, the Royals’ joy didn’t last long. On 66 minutes the hapless Wingert was dismissed for a second yellow, and within 60 seconds Sporting were level as Soony Saad swivelled to volley home after a goalmouth scramble. The bad-tempered game looked set to peter out into a draw as Real’s ten men clung on, but in the seventh minute of five minutes of injury time, Sporting centre-back Ike Opara headed a late, late winner, causing near silence at the Rio Tinto Stadium.

The week’s MLS action had begun on Wednesday with Colorado Rapids’ 2-1 win over the New England Revolution. Juan Toja had got the Revs off to a fine start with his first MLS goal since 2008, but Colorado regrouped and Nick LaBrocca equalised on the hour before visiting defender Jose Goncalves gift-wrapped the three points for the Rapids by inadvertently deflecting a cross beyond his own ‘keeper.

Wednesday’s other fixture saw Chivas USA clinch a 1-0 win over Ryan Nelsen’s Toronto in what was a tale of two Erics. Chivas’ Eric Avila was sent off on 24 minutes, but the hosts somehow claimed the victory when debutant Erick Torres (a signing from Mexico’s CD Guadalajara, for whom, ironically, Chivas were supposed to be a feeder club) found the net. Struggling Toronto are now well off the pace and look set to be in a scrap with DC United to avoid finishing bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Toronto did put in an improved performance three days later to earn a creditable 0-0 draw at home to New York Red Bulls. The hosts dominated a seemingly disinterested Red Bulls side, but, with Robert Earnshaw sidelined through injury, lacked a cutting edge in attack. Indeed, their closest attempt came via defender Richard Eckersley, when the ex-Man United full-back forced Luis Robles into a world-class stop. Both teams had a goal disallowed, although Tim Cahill’s header was later shown to have been scored from an onside position.

In Washington, the Seattle Sounders were held to a 1-1 draw by the Colorado Rapids – the visitors thereby ending a seven-game losing streak in this fixture. The hosts’ promising right-back DeAndre Yedlin – recently inducted into the MLS All-Stars team for the first time – gave his side the lead with a header, but Rapids’ Drew Moor cancelled it out with a nodded effort of his own.

DeAndre’s rising stock will have been accelerated by his goal this week

Two teams desperate for a win met when the Montreal Impact faced FC Dallas, but typically, neither was able to break the deadlock. Montreal, still clinging on to second in the Eastern Conference, were the better side – Justin Mapp hit the bar in the first half – but Dallas defended resolutely. The Impact have now gone five games without a win, while Dallas’ barren run was extended to eight matches.

Jose Goncalves made up for his own goal three days earlier by scoring at the right end in the Revs’ 2-0 win at Columbus Crew. The Portuguese converted from Lee Nguyen’s 91st minute corner, and Nguyen made sure of the win three minutes later by teeing up Diego Fagundez.

The clash between the Philadelphia Union and Portland Timbers was delayed for almost an hour due to lightening, but the players’ boredom during the wait to play was soon shared by the fans as the teams played out a drab 0-0 draw. Danny Cruz was impressive for the Union but couldn’t find a way past Timbers’ man-mountain shot-stopper Donovan Ricketts. Philadelphia will be disappointed not to have got the win, but without manager John Hackworth (suspended) and in lieu of the terrible conditions, a draw is an acceptable result.

The biggest margin of victory this week was achieved by Chicago Fire in their 4-1 demolition of struggling DC United. Chicago raced into a 3-0 first-half lead against the demoralised visitors, inspired by Estonia international Joel Lindpere’s goal and two assists. In-form forward Chris Rolfe bagged a goal at each end of the first-half, while Mike Magee’s penalty made him the league’s joint-top scorer. Luis Silva’s spectacular consolation on 58 minutes was all United could muster in response.

The final game of the weekend pitted Western Conference rivals LA Galaxy against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Camilo Sanvezzo gave the Whitecaps the perfect start by netting his 13th goal of the campaign, but Bruce Arena’s men came from behind with goals from Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes.

This weekend’s Major League Soccer action – the 20th week of the season – threw up some interesting results and a masterclass from an ex-Premier League hero. There were also several red cards and a sprinkling of emphatic wins, with three games won by a margin of three goals or more.

Kicking off the weekend’s fixtures was the clash between the Philadelphia Union and Chivas USA on Friday night. The hosts, comfortably within the top half of the Eastern Conference, knew a win would keep them in the race to finish top, while Chivas desperately needed a result to avoid being cast adrift at the bottom of the Western Conference.

For a while it looked like the visitors were in with a chance of snatching an unlikely win – Colombian striker Jose Erick Correa fired his side into an early lead, one which they held until half-time. However, things unravelled for Chivas after the break, as Philadelphia equalised through Brian Carroll before late goals from Michael Farfan and Conor Casey ensured all three points remained at the PPL Park. Chivas were hardly helped by Josue Soto’s second yellow card with the score still at 1-1, and the pouring rain provided perfect pathetic fallacy for Los Rojiblancos  at the final whistle as they came away with nothing.

The pick of Saturday’s games was undoubtedly the top-of-the-table clash in the Eastern Conference between league leaders Montreal Impact and the New York Red Bulls, close behind in third. Given the clubs’ proximity in the standings, no-one could have predicted the one-sided game that followed.

Henry celebrates a virtuoso performance against Montreal

The warning signs appeared as early as the 10th minute, when Thierry Henry found Eric Alexander and the midfielder danced through a series of weak Montreal challenges before beating Troy Perkins. Henry got on the scoresheet himself just six minutes later, expertly flicking Fabian Espindola’s inch-perfect cross beyond the beleaguered goalkeeper. The Impact, marshalled by ex-Italy international Alessandro Nesta in defence, managed to stem the tide until half-time, but on 63 minutes the Red Bulls sealed the win. Yet again, Henry was heavily involved, sending over a corner from the left for an unmarked Tim Cahill to head beyond Perkins, and Péguy Luyindula made it 4-0 with a late penalty won by Lloyd Sam.

Elsewhere, Scotsman Adam Moffat’s fine brace helped the Houston Dynamo to a 2-1 win at the New England Revolution, who saw Dimitry Imbongo sent off with eight minutes left. Moffat’s goals (his first a thunderous goal-of-the-season-contender volley) were made all the sweeter by the fact that he was the first opposition player to score at New England’s Gillette Stadium since 11 May. Ryan Nelsen’s Toronto FC fell to a 3-0 defeat away to Sporting Kansas City, helping Kansas to leapfrog Montreal into top place in the Eastern Conference. They won thanks to Sonny Saad’s brace and Claudio Bieler’s clincher after Toronto had been reduced to 10 men for Reggie Lambe’s foul, and the performance will have done Sporting’s fanbase no harm: playing in front of Sporting Park’s highest-ever attendance, the win could convince a few floating fans to stick around.

The weekend’s other 3-0 win was achieved by Western Conference leaders Real Salt Lake on their trip to FC Dallas. Despite Fabian Castillo shining for the hosts, it was Real who opened the scoring shortly before half-time through Javier Morales, and the win was sealed in the second half with strikes from Ned Grabavoy and Olmes Garcia. Dallas will be disappointed not to have put up more of a fight: a win here would have propelled them to second place in the table.

Adam Moffat (centre) is held aloft by his team-mates after netting both of Houston’s goals

Rounding off Saturday’s action was the game between San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders, and Portland Timbers versus LA Galaxy. San Jose grabbed all three points in their encounter thanks to Walter Martinez’s first goal in the MLS, while Portland saw off their visitors 2-1, coming from behind to snatch a last-gasp winner via Andrew Jean-Baptiste’s 94th minute strike.  The final fixture of the weekend pitted the Vancouver Whitecaps against the Chicago Fire on Sunday evening; an impressive showing from the Caps saw them run out 3-1 winners, tricky Brazilian Camilo scoring twice.

In Utah, the US national team progressed to the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 4-1 win over Cuba, but the regional heavyweights’ blushes were only spared in the second half after Cuba had taken a shock lead through Jose Alfonso. Goals from Landon Donovan and Joe Corona turned the game back in the US’ favour, before Chris Wondolowski came off the bench to net twice.

This article, by Natalia Guerrero, originally appeared on the BBC Mundo (the Spanish-language BBC) site on 10 June 2013; all credit should be given to her. The original article can be accessed at

24 hours before their game against Spain, Haiti’s national football team still doesn’t have a kit or anywhere to train. It’s raining non-stop in Miami and Haiti’s limited resources mean they’re unable to hire somewhere undercover to practice.

Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, had sent their team to this American city to face Spain – the world champions – for the first time in their history. The incentives for setting up the clash included the presence of the Spanish superstars, the agreement that, for every spectator attending the game, $1 would be donated to Haiti, and moreover, the chance to see a classic David versus Goliath encounter.

However, the feeling of jubilation enjoyed by almost all of the 37,000 fans at the Sun Life stadium when the Haitian forward Donald Guerrier scored his country’s only goal against Spain contrasted with the team’s reality for the rest of the week. BBC Mundo accompanied the lonely Haitian team on their journey to play the world’s favourite team.

Extra Shirt

It’s 3:30 on Friday evening – the day before the game –  and the kit is due to arrive at the hotel where the team are staying. The Colombian Miguel Trujillo, the Haiti Football Federation’s exclusive agent, is feeling stressed. He doesn’t want the players or the coaching staff to arrive at the press conference without a shirt to wear. “They have to be equal to Spain. Haiti is beginning a new era in which it won’t lack the basics. We’re not inferior to anyone,” affirms the agent.

Miguel Trujillo presents the new shirt to one of the Haitian players (Photo: BBC)

However, Trujillo has had to jump through all kinds of hoops to make sure the eleven boxes of kit arrive on time.  They come from Colombia because Saeta, a sports clothes manufacturer, agreed to sponsor Haiti with high-tech kit. Their contract with the Haitian Football Federation, according to Trujillo, will last 4 years, in which time the company will invest close to $1 million; their shirts will be sold online and through the Federation.

But according to defender Judelain Aveska, the most exciting part of the agreement is that the players are now able to exchange shirts with their opponents at the end of a game – something that was previously unthinkable: if they’d given their shirt away in the past, they wouldn’t have had a shirt to wear in the next game.

A Turbulent Week

That Friday, Haitian officials had managed to secure the use of a playing field on the outskirts of Miami. Training lasted less than ten minutes. The players began to form two circles, but while they filled the field with their singing and laughter, it began to hail, and they were forced to take shelter. After two hours of waiting hopelessly for the weather to clear up, Blake Cantero – the team’s technical director, of Cuban origin – was concerned; his team were unable to train, partly because of the rain and partly because they’d only arrived the day before.

“We are Cubans, they don’t give us the Visa easily,” he told us, to explain the delay, adding that the side’s fitness coach – also Cuban – hadn’t received his Visa in time for the match. Cantero asked the players to board the bus and assured us that he would get them to jog along the corridors of the hotel, because “they can’t arrive like this tomorrow.”

The two Cubans have been in charge of Haiti’s national team for little over a year; their presence in the team is based on an agreement between the football federations of the two countries which is understood as a Cuban mission in Haiti. Each one has been allocated a monthly salary of $1,000 – all the Haitian Federation can afford given it has just one sponsor. To put that in perspective, their wage is roughly 158 times less than what Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque earned in 2012.

Life After Death

The earthquake in 2010, which devastated the country and caused more than 200,000 deaths, instilled in the players a renewed sense  of responsibility for their country. This has resulted in an improvement in the FIFA World Rankings: Haiti has gone up 18 places in the last two years and are now ranked 63rd – above countries with economic conditions much more favourable for sport, and with more experience in international competition.

“After the earthquake, something very strong happened in the players – a positive reaction to the tragedy. We understood that we were playing not only for ourselves…now we have a concrete way of obtaining money for our country,” says midfielder Jean-Marc Alexandre.

The whole stadium celebrated Haiti’s goal against the world champions (Photo: BBC)

One of the first examples of that “concrete” method of helping their country occurred just a few days after the earthquake. The team travelled to Germany for a game; the money raised by the match was donated to the Haitian government. Almost half a million dollars were raised – money which was invested in the reconstruction of the Football Federation’s Headquarters (which had disappeared with the tragedy)  and in the building and improvement of football facilities.

The Federation now boasts its own bus and a school for children in which they’re given training, education, food and free accommodation as a way of escaping their difficult environments.

“The ball is a little round thing and it’s for everyone”

Before the game, Judelain Aveska, a defender for Independiente de Rivadavia in the Argentine second tier, forms an imaginary sphere with his hands. I ask him if he thinks Haiti can beat Spain, and he tells me – in Spanish, with an Argentine accent – “the ball’s a little round thing, and it’s for everyone”.

His team-mate Jean-Marc Alexandre, a player for American side Orlando City, agrees that the two teams have the same possibilities: “We respect them, but it doesn’t mean we can’t beat them. We’re ready and excited to play,” he told BBC Mundo. Both players are Christians, and revealed that they often pray before a match. “Before I go out on the pitch, I pray that my opponent doesn’t get injured, because an injury can end your life,” says Jean-Marc

“We’re not aliens”

Despite losing 2-1 to Spain, the Haitian players are content at the final whistle. Fans gather in front of the team bus at the stadium exit to greet the Haitians as if they’d won, asking for autographs and pictures. Minutes later, in the press conference inside the stadium, goalscorer Donald Guerrier is sat between coach Cantero and a translator. He looks happy; he says his goal was dedicated to his son, born the previous day.

Although Guerrier has been patient with the journalists’ repetitive questions, this time he decides to answer more bluntly: asked how he feels, having scored against the best team in the world, he retorts: “I’m not an alien, I’m a human and my job is to score goals if the ball comes to me. On the pitch, we’re all equal.”

With that attitude, the Haitian team left later that day for Brazil, with another friendly lined up against Italy on Tuesday.

In this age of world football television coverage and instant internet connection, it’s unusual to have a team of unknown quantity at a major competition, but that’s exactly how Tahiti appear to many football fans looking forward to this month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.

In fairness, it’s hardly surprising that few are familiar with either Tahiti or their players – this is the first time Toa Aito have qualified for a major tournament; they have never reached the World Cup finals, and last year’s Oceania Nations Cup victory – which earned Tahiti a place at the Confederations Cup – was the first time the country has come out on top in their region.

The turnaround in fortunes has been incredibly quick: historically an also-ran in the Oceania Confederation, as recently as 2007 Tahiti failed to even qualify for the Nations Cup, faring only marginally better than minnows Tuvalu and the Cook Islands in the qualification process. The team’s future looked bleak, and even the most optimistic of Tahitians would have ruled out any major success in the foreseeable future. Credit must be given to the Fédération Tahitienne de Football, who recognised the need for change and have managed an impressively rapid rate of improvement.

Tahiti celebrate an unlikely triumph at the 2012 Nations Cup

Their efforts culminated in the hiring of Eddy Etaeta, an ex-Tahiti international as a player, as the country’s new manager in 2010. Etaeta, only 43 himself, has successfully blooded a new generation of youngsters – over half of the squad for the Confederations Cup are aged 24 and under. Many of these fresh faces came from the national under-20 team, which had reached the U-20 World Cup for the first time in Tahiti’s history in 2009.

Inevitably, for a nation of around 250,000, Etaeta’s squad is bereft of the kind of big names that Tahiti’s Group B rivals Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria possess, but the coach has been able to make one quality addition to his almost exclusively locally-based group. AS Nancy striker Marama Vahirua, born in the Tahitian capital Papeete, has finally linked up with his compatriots, having spent most of his career in France. Vahirua is set to make his international debut at the unusually ripe age of 33, but his vast experience at Ligue 1 level should prove beneficial for a Tahiti squad lacking in knowledge of European playing styles.

His playing CV may be significantly more impressive than his team-mates’, but Etaeta insists there will be no favourable treatment in the dressing room: “We don’t have any key players. We have always put the spotlight on the bigger picture: the state of mind and being a group. For me, the star is the whole team.” Nevertheless, Vahirua looks like the side’s best bet for a goal at the finals.

A cursory glance at the remainder of Etaeta’s squad list returns the oddity of no fewer than four players with the same surname: brothers Alvin, Lorenzo  and Jonathan Tehau will all be competing for midfield places, while their cousin Teaonui has recently made the breakthrough to the senior side as a promising forward. Says Alvin, “I’m very proud to play in the national team with my family. We are a unit…I think it helps the team as a whole.”

Captain Nicholas Vallar also boasts professional experience, having spent three years at Montpellier; after spells at lower-league clubs in France and Portugal, the 29-year-old returned home in 2009 to play for AS Dragon, Tahiti’s current league champions. Striker Steevy Chong-Hue, of mixed Chinese-Tahitian heritage, similarly made the jump to Europe – joining Belgium’s BX Brussels, recently taken over by Vincent Kompany – before re-signing for AS Dragon.

Tahiti will play Spain at the Maracanã on 20 June – slightly more luxurious surroundings than their 10,000 capacity Stade Hamuta

With the 2012 Nations Cup final Tahiti’s last competitive fixture, Etaeta set up a game  in February of this year against Australian outfit Sydney FC, which the A-League franchise comfortably won 4-0. A more recent tour of Chile yielded wins over Universidad de Chile’s under-20 team and second tier Deportes Magallanes, but in their last warm-up game Tahiti were thrashed 7-0 by Chile’s under-20 side.

Results haven’t exactly been reassuring ahead of the country’s biggest test yet, then, and even the two victories are of doubtful use: the gulf in class between the Chilean second division and world champions Spain is wider than Etaeta’s grin will be if Tahiti pull off an upset or two later this month. However, the Fédération Tahitienne de Football have defended the decision to play low-key opposition, citing the need to “build confidence for the future”. Etaeta concurs: “We’re not in denial – we know 8-10 weeks of professional training isn’t going to make up for the 10 years of professionalism that separates us from Spain or Uruguay.”

However, the mild confidence-building of those wins will surely have been ruined by the 7-0 hammering which followed. Etaeta will have a huge job on his hands if he is to convince his players they are capable of taking on Xavi, Iniesta and co, and the flight to Brazil the day after the under-20 defeat was no doubt in more sombre spirits than is healthy given the size of the task ahead.

And the team’s spirit will have been further damaged by Tahiti’s disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign which ended in elimination in March – with Toa Aito having just one win and two goals to their name after six games. Upsets in Brazil, then, are unlikely, but at least Etaeta is realistic in his targets for the upcoming tournament: “to not concede any goals in a half would be impressive in itself. But above all, to score a goal would be a huge achievement.” That seems reasonable, and you have to hope the minnows have a Hollywood ending to a story no-one could have dreamt up a year ago.

The Republic of Ireland held England to an impressive draw at Wembley in a game which bore more positives for them than their hosts. West Bromwich Albion striker Shane Long nodded the visitors into the lead early on, but Frank Lampard levelled soon afterwards, and neither team was able to break the deadlock in the second half.

This was the sides’ first meeting since 1995 – that clash, at Landsdowne Road, had been abandoned after English fans began to riot. Ireland had last played the Three Lions at Wembley in 1991, and this fixture marked the renewal of an old rivalry; although a friendly by name, they game was always likely to be hotly contested with national pride at stake more than ever.

Roy Hodgson rewarded Ashley Cole recently reaching the 100-cap mark by bestowing upon him the England captaincy – a somewhat controversial decision given the Chelsea defender’s rocky relationship with the Football Association. Ireland were skippered by a much more obvious choice: Robbie Keane, by some distance the country’s leading marksman.

It was Keane who produced the game’s first shot, on 3 minutes, but his effort flew comfortably wide of Joe Hart’s goal. England responded well, dictating possession and the pace of the game, and Wayne Rooney fired a warning to the Irish with a weighted chip that dropped wide of David Forde’s far post.

Shane Long rises highest to nod Ireland into an early lead

However, it was the visitors who broke the deadlock soon afterwards with a goal from nothing. Everton full-back Seamus Coleman was given time and space on Ireland’s right, and he duly made the most of it: his brilliant cross was met equally well by Shane Long, who glanced a header over Joe Hart and into the far corner.

Predictably, the Green army in the stands were ecstatic, and their joy was demonstrated as play resumed, a plume of green smoke seeping across the Wembley pitch as the Irish continued to celebrate. Their team looked to have the upper hand – the early goal had once more brought English pessimism to the fore – but the lead was to be short-lived.

10 minutes after Long had found the net, Daniel Sturridge received the ball wide on England’s left. With little to aim for in the area, the Liverpool attacker delayed his cross. He finally whipped the ball over after spotting Frank Lampard’s late run, and the veteran midfielder was on hand to poke beyond Forde after Sean St Ledger failed to clear. It was a goal arguably deserved on the balance of play.

Sturridge’s assist would prove to be his last notable action: the striker’s first international start was cut short on 32 minutes when he damaged his ankle in a challenge with Glenn Whelan,  and had to be replaced by Jermaine Defoe. Theo Walcott did the most to provide further excitement, his searing pace allowing him to glide beyond Stephen Kelly on 38 minutes, but the Arsenal winger’s low centre was well cleared by St Ledger.

The first half ended in mild controversy when Keane had a penalty appeal turned down – England somehow managed to clear the ball backwards from an Ireland corner, and Rooney appeared to haul Keane to the floor as the visiting captain attempted to scramble home.

He’d been forced to make a change earlier in the game, but at half-time Roy Hodgson opted to further tinker with his line-up, introducing West Brom custodian Ben Foster for Joe Hart and Phil Jones for Glen Johnson at right-back. England started the second period brightly, and Rooney’s excellent chip found Walcott in space on the right; his first-time centre almost reached captain Cole for what would have been his first international goal, but Ireland defenders converged to intervene.

It would prove to be Cole’s final chance to score as captain, as he was replaced on 54 minutes by Everton’s Leighton Baines, the armband passed to Cole’s clubmate Lampard. England continued to threaten, and a quick counter-attack ten minutes later saw Defoe release Walcott in space, but Millwall stopper Forde made a good save from the winger’s low drive.

A momentary lull in proceedings followed, with Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni ringing the changes – Keane, Aidan McGeady and Whelan were sacrificed for Simon Cox, James McClean and Jeff Hendrick. The substitutions helped swing momentum back in the visitors’ favour, and Foster’s blushes were spared with ten minutes to play when he fumbled a deflected cross under pressure from Long, the referee calling a foul before Jon Walters could prod home.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spurned two good chances for England

England responded by creating the clearest chance of the second half: Rooney feigned to shoot before cleverly sliding a ball into Oxlade-Chamberlain’s path, but the Arsenal youngster shot into the turf and against Forde’s legs. Two minutes later they sliced Ireland open again, Lampard picking out Walcott in space, but once more Forde blocked well to preserve parity.

Further substitutions disrupted the game as it drew to a close, and a draw was the fair result on the balance of play. Clearly, however, it went down better with the visitors – Shane Long’s elated celebrations at full time served to prove that. England looked assured in possession but were worryingly wasteful in front of goal, while Trapattoni will take pleasure from his side’s fine defending.

England: Hart (Foster 46); Johnson (Jones 46), Cahill, Jagielka, Cole (Baines 54); Walcott, Lampard, Carrick, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Milner 87); Rooney, Sturridge (Defoe 33).

Ireland: Forde; Coleman, O’Shea, St Ledger, Kelly; Walters (Sammon 82), McCarthy, Whelan (Hendrick 74), McGeady (McClean 68); Long, Keane (Cox 66).

Player Ratings – England:

Hart: 6 – Little to do and not at fault for Ireland’s goal.

Johnson: 6 – Offered an occasional threat on the overlap; solid enough defensively. (Jones 6 – eager to attack but no end product)

Cahill: 6  – Rarely beaten, but occasionally caught in possession or out of position.

Jagielka: 6 – Sometimes struggled with the troublesome Long, but generally sound defensively.

Cole: 7 – Determined to impress as captain. Fierce in the tackle and almost found the net. (Baines 6 – looked good in possession, but rarely able to get in behind Ireland)

Walcott: 7 – Threatened with pace, especially in first half, but failed to take chances. Promising at times.

Lampard: 7 – Scored the all-important equalizer and used possession well; dictated pace of game.

Carrick: 6 – Efficient if unexceptional. Some good defensive work.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6 – Poor defensively but used pace to scare Ireland on occasion. Should have scored. (Milner 5 – not given enough time to make an impact)

Rooney: 6 – Some clever link-up play from “in the hole”, but never looked like scoring.

Sturridge: 6 – Set up England’s goal but game cut short by injury. (Defoe 5 – quiet; didn’t look like scoring)

Player Ratings – Ireland: 

Forde: 8 – Some excellent saves, and could do little to about the goal. Unlucky not be Man of the Match.

Coleman: 8 – Skillful going forward and brilliant cross for Ireland’s goal. Decent defensively; given Man of the Match.

O’Shea: 6 – Sometimes wasteful in possession but defended well.

St Ledger: 6 – Could have prevented goal, but otherwise solid enough.

Kelly: 6 – Played out-of-position at left-back, but did a reasonable job on Walcott.

Walters: 5 – Worked hard, but little end product. (Sammon 4  – little time to impress, but contributed nothing of note)

McCarthy: 6 – Tidy in possession but failed to threaten England’s goal.

Whelan: 5 – Put in a shift in midfield, work was mainly spoiling rather than creating. (Hendrick 5 – little impact)

McGeady: 7 – Looked tricky, tested Johnson down Ireland’s left with mazy dribbling but dragged shots wide. (McClean 5 – failed to test Jones)

Long: 8 – Superb header to open the scoring, and was a thorn in England’s side in first half. Faded towards the end.

Keane: 6 – Quiet but some intelligent link-up play. (Cox 5 – tried hard but little of note going forward)

The sixth and final round of the 2014 Oceania region World Cup qualifying group ended on Tuesday with New Zealand completing a perfect qualifying campaign, winning all six games, while second-placed New Caledonia recorded a 1-0 win over Tahiti. After beating the Solomon Islands 2-0 in their final group game, New Zealand will face the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF region in an inter-continental play-off in November for a place at the World Cup proper.

Solomon Islands 0

New Zealand 2 (Payne 3,88)

Their place in the inter-continental play-off already confirmed, New Zealand boss Ricki Herbert opted to send the majority of his first-team squad back to their clubs, travelling to the Solomon Islands with a team largely made up of fringe players. With the Solomons also fielding a much-changed line-up – only captain Henry Fa’arodo and winger Benjamin Totori survived from the 2-0 loss to Tahiti four days earlier – it was destined to be a stop-start game with both sets of players unfamiliar with their team-mates.

It was Blackburn Rovers striker Tim Payne who did the most to impress Ricki Herbert, opening the scoring on three minutes from fully 25 yards. Employed “in the hole” behind the main striker, Payne would prove to be a thorn in the Solomons’ side throughout, and will surely be rewarded for this lively display with more senior call-ups in the future.

Tim Payne boosted his chances of international football with a brace

Fa’arodo provided the home side’s biggest threat, and after two free-kicks had earlier sailed over the crossbar, the midfielder managed to force Jacob Spoonley into a fine stop on 22 minutes. The strike led to a spell of increased pressure by the Bonitos, but their momentum was halted by an enforced water break as Tahitian referee Averii Jacques acknowledged the searing heat in Honiara.

New Zealand looked the sharper side after the water break, and Kosta Barbarouses came within a whisker of doubling the All Blacks’ lead when his effort grazed the crossbar just before half-time. Looking for only their second win in the group stage, the Solomons took the game to their visitors in the second half but were frustrated by a stubborn New Zealand defence showing why it has conceded just two goals in the six games.

And it was the All Blacks who had the last laugh as Payne grabbed his second of the game with just two minutes of normal time remaining, pouncing to score after Barbarouses’ shot had been blocked. Solomons coach Jacob Moli has work to do, and will quickly need to establish who his best starting XI are; his team finished bottom of the group on goal difference, conceding an average of over three goals per game.

The performances of Payne and other fringe players will have given Ricki Herbert some pleasant selection headaches ahead of the play-off in November, but it was the inclusion of one player, defender Andrew Durante, which attracted particular attention from the media. Centre-back Durante, Australian by birth, became a naturalized New Zealand citizen at the start of this month and was included in the squad for the games against New Caledonia and Solomon Islands.

With New Zealand failing to receive official confirmation from FIFA that Durante was eligible to play, Herbert understandably chose not to field Durante against New Caledonia on 22 March, but with FIFA still playing hard to get, the coach handed Durante a debut in the hope that his selection would provoke a FIFA inquiry that would accelerate their eligibility confirmation.

New Zealand would actually encourage either the Solomons or the Oceania Football Confederation questioning Durante’s eligibility in order to get the matter deferred to FIFA – as the All Blacks’ performance manager Fred de Jong says, “It’s a waiting game for us. We are waiting to see if anything has come out of the game that would instigate an investigation into Durante’s eligibility.”

New Caledonia 1 (Lolohea 85)

Tahiti 0

New Caledonia ended a fine qualifying campaign on a high after recording a narrow win over Tahiti. Les Cagous took maximum points from their fixtures against Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, but their failure to take anything from their games against New Zealand cost them in the race to finish at the top of the group.

The first half followed the form-book, with the dominant hosts only denied by a combination of wasteful finishing and good goalkeeping by Tahiti captain Xavier Samin. Aided by a triple substitution early in the second half, New Caledonia continued their pressure after the break, while Tahiti struggled to create any clear-cut chances.

Tahiti’s Stanley Atani (left) battles for the ball

Just as the game looked like ending goalless – and therefore being, incredibly, the only draw of the entire group stage – New Caledonia finally made their dominance count with five minutes left on the clock. Cesar Lolohea’s volley ensured all three points stayed in Noumea, and that Tahiti were eliminated from the qualification process with just a solitary win to their name.

With Tahiti also having been soundly beaten 4-0 by Australian A-League side FC Sydney in February, Eddie Etaeta’s men look destined to be on the end of some heavy defeats in their 2013 Confederations Cup group later this year – which also includes world champions Spain, as well as star-studded Uruguay and Nigeria teams.