MLS: Twelve Points, Twelve Matches, One Left

James Grossi gets us back into the swing of things by rewinding and pressing play on what happened in this year’s MLS playoffs and the lead-up.

The first twelve matches of the 2011 MLS playoffs have been played; one remains to determine who will take the honours as Champions. There have been some great matches and some dull ones, some standout performances and some disappointments. Players have stepped up, while others have withered in the spotlight.

With plenty to talk about, here’s some of the best:

The New York-Agudelo-Depth-Substitution Complex

"Whew, glad that's over"

New York, despite all the big name star-power has been severely limited by their lack of depth. Coach Hans Backe has consistently been unable or unwilling to rely on his bench, not even bothering to name a full complement of substitutes for the playoff matches.

Nowhere has this controversy been more acute than with the problem of Juan Agudelo – the promising youngster who has been riding the pine all season long. He’s been good enough for his country to select him, but not for club. (Note: Agent Ron Waxman confirmed this morning that Agudelo will train with Bundesliga outfit, VfB Stuttgart.)

Backe is a conservative manager, one who relies on proven heads, and experienced shoulders. His acquisition strategy is a perfect example of this, collecting players with years under their belts. Joel Lindpere, Jan Gunnar Solli, Frank Rost, Luke Rodgers, both Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez are also deep into their careers.

In part due to his personal ethos, but also because there is an urge to win now in a club that has yet to find any sucess and to connect with the local fan-base. The impetus, to cash in on the hype surrounding their shiny, new ground, and solidify the investment prior to any New York II club coming in and causing divisions.

The US is not particularly deep in the forward category, nor have there been any real matches to speak of – Gold Cup aside – allowing space for a young player with tons of promise. That is simply not the case in New York. A solid, effective partnership between Henry and Rodgers is the obvious first-choice pairing. When Rodgers was out with injury Backe fielded Dane Richards in his stead, instead of the young Columbian-American.

The reason for that is Agudelo’s inexperience; for all his attacking gifts – that goal versus DC early in the season was positively Henry-esque – he is still not a two-way player, tending to drift through the match, rather than rampaging about as do Rodgers and Richards. With Henry on the field, his partner must provide more defensive work, closing down defenders, not allowing them to play out of the back and young Juan just doesn’t provide that.

Had New York not struggled so badly for the entire second half of the season he most definitely would have got more time on the field and that lack of match play made him unsuitable for tense situations in the playoffs. As much as one could argue that it was time to take a chance that is not Backe’s way, preferring the slow grind to the unexpected.

It’s a good sign for the league that the pressure to win has replaced the need to field players not ready for the level of competition, though there should be concern as it could stifle the development of a promising player.

The ability to train with seasoned vets like Henry should serve Agudelo well, but look for him to make more of a contribution next season. Backe needs to learn to trust his bench, even if only to rest some tired legs and see out a result, but that was not a position the Red Bulls were in this season, with each contest being a tight affair, as it is the strength of those players that determines a club’s success.

Columbus Facing Another Rebuild?

Three key midfielders – Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo – are out of contract and following last season’s cleanout on Black Monday the team has yet to choose which direction they will take.

Where will Columbus draw the line?

Additions such as Andrés Mendoza and Emilio Rentería were able to provide the goals, but not enough other players contributed. Injuries to Gaven and Rogers limited their effectiveness, while the usually solid defensive core of Will Hesmer and Chad Marshall were also hampered by injury for chunks of the season.

The Crew seemed to excel in the midseason lull, picking up unimpressive wins while the rest of the league was drawing matches, to surge to the top of the Eastern Conference, only to fall back into the pack when it really mattered come season’s end.

They succumbed rather meekly in the wildcard matches to an equally underwhelming Colorado side, but the sheer youth of the team, as well as the ability of their South American attackers to adjust to the league should have gained some traction with the experience.

The players out of contract have been the base of the Columbus teams for the past several years, and they must decide in which direction they will go. Stick with what you have, or continue to blow it up and rebuild.

Bad Luck Champions

"Riding that train, everyone's in pain...."

Colorado had a very disappointing season of their own, having begun the campaign with a 4-1 pasting of the expansion Portland Timbers and a similar demolition of DC United, things were looking good for the defending champions, but it was a false dawn and it was all downhill from there.

What followed was a three-match losing streak, then a summer of draws and narrow defeats – for the most part – combined with the added weight of international competition to spoil their hopes of a solid defense of their title.

Things could have been different though, there are no figures available, but if you added all the man-matches lost by key players through injury, suspension, and international duty, it would likely be a record for the amount of hardship a team has endured.

Conor Casey was lost for the season, Omar Cummings battled with muscle injuries and international duty all year, Brian Mullan was suspended for ten matches, and when it counted most – in the playoffs – midfield stalwart Pablo Mastroeni was absent due to concussion.

The injury woes go much deeper than the short list above; it seemed now-former Coach Gary Smith was forced into changing his attacking duo virtually every time they took to the field.

Add to that the apparent turmoil in the front office that has led to Smith’s departure from the club and it has been a very sorry season indeed.

Overlooked in the storm have been the strong contributions of several players – Sanna Nyassi had a breakthrough year when he was moved to a more attacking position. Their defense proved steady, especially when the emergence of Miguel Comminges allowed Drew Moor to replace the aged Tyrone Marshall in the middle. Marvell Wynne has been reborn as a centre-back, while the younger side of the club got some valuable – though limited – experience.

It will depend heavily on who is chosen to replace Smith, but expect a stronger Rapids team next season.

Importance of a Dead Ball

Of the twenty-six goals scored over the course of the twelve playoff matches, twelve came from dead ball situations – thirteen if you consider throw-ins as well.

Granted several of those were penalty kicks – four to be exact – but the importance of the set-piece is undeniable. In tight matches, the team that is best able to capitalize on those few opportunities will often be the victors.

It is no coincidence that the two sides to progress to the final, were those who most took advantage of those opportunities.

Oddly there has not been a single goal directly from a free kick, perhaps speaking to the paucity of excellent takers or chances from really dangerous positions.

Fighting on the pitch

These guys aren't playing Uno...

Perhaps this is just the Canadian point of view, but nothing says playoffs like a bit of the ole’ ultraviolence. Granted, in soccer the most you can expect is some pushing and shoving, the occasional poorly-aimed slap-punch – just handbags at twelve paces really – but a bit of emotion and animosity goes a long way towards making a tie special and memorable.

In three of the four quarterfinals (conference semifinals) those tensions were on display. New York and Los Angeles had their bust up at the end of the match, after the much-discussed Márquez throw at Donovan and the subsequent afters.

Philly had the mood set early, pumping in the Theme from Rocky over the loudspeakers as the home crowd took their seats. A poor tackle from Sheanon Williams on Adam Moffat precipitated some pushing and shoving in a physical encounter between the Union and the Dynamo.

The drama continued in another physical match in Colorado between the Rapids and Sporting. A free kick into the mixer in front of goal led to a confrontation between CJ Sapong and Matt Pickens that was escalated by Kei Kamara – skeleton gloves and all – coming in to inflame the situation and throw a few punches.

At times an ugly side of sport, but a demonstration of how important and competitive MLS has become; each team was desperate to win and that spirit of competition is good to see.

The Referee   

Considering how intense and physical the matches became it is impressive how reserved the officials managed to be.

Only two red cards were shown in midst of matches – a further two after the New York-Los Angeles post-match handbags. Both were well warranted – Jan Gunnar Solli’s tackle from behind on Daniel Hernández and Tyrone Marshall’s denial of a goal-scoring opportunity last man barge on Teal Bunbury; though for a big, strong man Teal did fall rather easily.

The referees have done their best to let the balance of play be decided by the teams on the pitch rather than by egregious decisions. Something one can only hope carries over to the regular season next year.

The one outlier was the Andy Williams penalty that opened the scoring for LA in their conference final against Salt Lake, but as it was quickly recovered by an Álvaro Saborío header and the better team on the night won in the end, it served only as a catalyst to a fine match and not as a deciding factor.

Seattle’s Playoff Jinx

It happened again this year?!

Seattle, what can you say about a team that does so well over the course of the regular season only to struggle in the playoffs?

They got their first win in their sixth attempt – an exciting 2-0 victory in their return leg versus Salt Lake, unfortunately they had laid a stinker in the first meeting falling 3-0 in Salt Lake, that third goal proving fatal. Many have argued that they should have accepted the two-goal loss and bunkered down to return home with an achievable deficit to correct, but they were caught trying to grab one back and paid.

They were shutout once more – four times in six matches – having only tallied one measly consolation goal last year in the dying moments versus Los Angeles. For a team that was so explosive offensively over the course of the year, it was peculiar that they did not threaten more once Salt Lake lost their centre-backs.

Missing key players Mauro Rosales and Steve Zakuani was certainly a factor, but the pattern of failing when it really counts is an obstacle that could derail all the positive momentum they’ve built with the spectacular crowds and their shows of support.

It was an anticlimactic ending to the stellar career of Kasey Keller, but his contributions to the game are not over,

Sigi Schmid will be under pressure to end this curse in the coming season, lest he be forced to pay the ultimate price. A move that would be a mistake, as he’s one of the best in the business, but soccer is a cruel mistress, and somebody must eventually pay for failures.

Resurgent Salt Lake

There was some concern as to whether Salt Lake’s reign of domination was coming to an end having reached its zenith with the CONCACAF Champions’ League Final.

A difficult stretch saw Salt Lake fail to find form following that disappointing loss in the final and the devastating injury to playmaker Javier Morales. Many favoured Seattle to advance through their tie, but a breakthrough performance in the first leg showed the Salt Lake of old.

Morales, fit...

Morales was perfect, collecting a pair of assists, running circles around Osvaldo Alonso; Kyle Beckerman stood strong in the midfield, stifling whatever attack Seattle could muster. Álvaro Saborío netted a brace and Ned Grabavoy grabbed the essential third before they withstood the loss of both Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers to injury, to seal the victory and take a dominant lead into the return leg.

They then saw out a strong second half comeback attempt by the Sounders without either of their two preferred starting centre-backs to move on to the conference finals in Los Angeles.

But the Galaxy were too much for the Royals on the night, the questionable fitness of Olave and the absence of Borchers could not be overcome as they eventually fell 3-1 on the night, though they did confirm their participation in the upcoming regional tournament with their progression.

A rollercoaster of a season was over, will they take heart in gutting out a solid run and build that into next season, or was this one last throe of the dice?

Sporting KC

A season of two halves for the reborn – and rebranded – franchise; the first marred by that hellacious ten-match road swing, the second a picture of perfection striding confidently towards the regular season Eastern title on the strength of some superb home form.

To overlook the benefits of the front-loaded schedule – leading to a string of home matches and less travel come the conclusion – could cause some distortion as to how well this team should have done. Some expected them to reach the final, but in falling to a more seasoned Houston they did not fail by any means.

It arrived

A young team chalk full of rising stars and a solid defensive unit, this year’s successes – and failures – will serve them well as they look to marry a good second half of the season to a full campaign, the second in their new home, the majestic Livestrong Sporting Park.

As much as their dynamic attacking trident and their staunch, tough-as-nails defense have been stories this year, theirs is more a tale of reclamation. A struggling club in a small market, playing out of a ridiculously small former baseball ground – complete with pitching mound hugging the touchline – in front of embarrassingly small crowds; transformed into a veritable juggernaut of passion, the so-called Blue Hell, drawing in the hardcore and the general public in equal amounts.

The cantilevered roof reverberating the noise – rumoured to be the loudest in the league, save Portland and Seattle, but comparable – the amenities both for players and for the crowds have shown some of the less-performing markets the value of investment – Are you watching New England? Columbus? Dallas?

For that reason, as well as their exciting play, keep an eye on what next season brings for Kansas City. Potentially a new dawn for a league that must bring some of the older, less-profitable clubs up to the level of the newest ones to continue to grow.

Dynamo Find the Energy

Prior to the playoffs there were concerns that Houston were too one-dimensional; that opponents could focus on shutting down catalyst Brad Davis to stifle the Dynamo attack, but that has just not been the case.

Bigger audition?

In large part due to a resurgent Brian Ching, Houston has carried their good end of season form all the way to the upcoming MLS Cup Final. The word most used to describe their performances has been “Professional”; Ching is the embodiment of those traits usually found in Dominic Kinnear’s teams – hard working, strong, and clutch; physical and yet skillful; sturdy at the back and unwavering in attack.

It has not been completely up to the Captain, he’s had some help. Davis was his usual standout contributor, while Calen Carr has become a natural partner for Ching, his speed stretching defenses allowing the veteran more pockets of space to exploit.

The central midfield pairing of Luiz Camargo and Adam Moffat have been integral to everything they do. With Moffat destroying, harrying and moving the ball, Camargo has been free to initiate attacks finally proving himself a true Brazilian with some lovely through-balls in the conference finals. He’s not been shy about getting back for defensive duties either, making a few key interventions. Their ability to control the middle of the park, along with Danny Cruz in shutting down the right-flank and Corey Ashe covering any space that may open on the left behind Davis, has been decisive in overcoming both Philadelphia and Kansas City, two younger teams that were not allowed the time on the ball to establish any rhythm or momentum.

Their backline too has been formidable, Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron have dominated their opponents, allowing just one goal in their three matches, and eliminating the efficiency of set-pieces with their aerial ability. Tally Hall has been immense, making the big save when called upon, but also remaining calm enough to control the pace of the match, taking the sting out when necessary and pushing quickly when required.

And what can be said about the play of Andrew Hainault; two goals – including the eventual game-winner in Kansas City – solid if unspectacular performances in his unnatural right-back slot; the Canadian is proving himself to be one for the big game and dangerous from restarts – all but one of his career MLS goals have come in the month of October – and all on the road.

Davis has been the usual bastion of consistency; a constant threat, he has added some deft run of play touches to his sublime free kick deliveries to round out his game. Despite teams knowing that they must not conceded free kicks, Houston’s play as a unit by has been impossible to stop. A squad that wasn’t assembled until the end of the summer has finally become a team.

The loss of Davis to a torn right quadriceps is a major blow, but Moffat is a pretty good replacement – one very underrated due to the amount of time he missed with knee injury the past few seasons – and if the rest of the team, led by Captain Ching can dominate the Los Angeles midfield, their backline should be able to keep the attackers in front of them, restricting the scoring chances to a minimum. It only takes one chance for Houston to take advantage, one chance… The Galaxy has been giving up those chances.

The man of the people did it all this campaign...

Who is this David Beckham Character? And where has he been the last four seasons?

The question most asked in this season of expectancy was would this be Beckham’s final season in MLS? And would they win the cup before he left?

The final, scheduled to be played at their home ground; the first good omen. An excellent regular season saw them dominate – particularly at home – and run away with the Supporter’s Shield; the second.

Their progression in the playoffs was largely due to some absolutely heroic performances from Mr. Beckham. A potentially difficult opening round tie with an unpredictable New York, navigated via three goals – two assisted by Beckham, the other a penalty won by the man himself, as well as his domination of the midfield when his side were without Juninho, their usual midfield pacemaker, absent due to suspension.

This Beckham is the one the league had hoped would show up for the length of his contract. While at times his contributions on the field have been subpar and his attentions seemed to be elsewhere, those allegations cannot be leveled at the man leading this team now.

In the semifinal – conference final – match against Salt Lake, it was Beckham’s service to his favourite playoff target Mike Magee that gave Los Angeles the lead, before Robbie Keane went on to seal the victory soon after.

Beckham left the pitch to a rousing applause in recognition of the player he’s been this postseason. Whether this is a swansong or a sign of things to come is undetermined; Beckham has had an MVP caliber season, the final has the potential to be his masterpiece – in MLS at least.

The International Break

There was now a two-week break in the playoffs, separating the conference finals and the cup itself. This stay of determination could be either good or bad; it’s hard to say which.

On one hand the extra rest will ensure that all players – with the exception of Brad Davis, though his involvement cannot be ruled out until the match kicks off – will be fit and ready for the final.

On the other, both teams will have extra time to study their opponent, analyzing strengths to be countered and weaknesses to be exploited.

Part of what has made this incarnation of the playoffs so tantalizing is the pace at which it has progressed. Fitness doubts, travel, and the difficulty of the opposition were all magnified by the pressure of compression.

There is a risk that the extra preparations could lead to a dull, cagey match in which neither side allows the other to play having over-studied and over-theorized the event. Though in the same vein should something happen early, all that planning could be for naught.

Difficult to predict, but either way it should be an intriguing matchup. Two sides, each a mesh of experience and youth, strong defensively, and a threat on the attack. The high-scoring Galaxy against the professional Dynamo; the grandmaster Bruce Arena against the incumbent Dominic Kinnear; winner takes the prize.

Sneaking in a bonus, shh: One More for Luck – Bob Bradley in Egypt

Bob Bradley was a bit of a prickly personality during his time in charge of the US Men’s National Team. He often dismissed questions, gave stock answers, or generally belittled those who asked questions.

There was concern as to how this man would transition to his new role as the Head Coach of the Egyptian National Team.

In initial interviews he has come across as a very respectful man, aware of the country’s new political awakening, and of the task he faces in advancing the perennial underperformers – despite domination of Africa Cup of Nations – through qualification for the World Cup.

Perhaps this speaks to a level of disrespect for the burgeoning national soccer conscious in the States, and how Bradley felt superior to those reporting on the game.

If anything his son, Michael Bradley’s outburst at Eric Wynalda’s criticism of his role in the team in place of others – Mo Edu and Jermaine Jones – who Wynalda believed had done more to earn that position, is exemplary of a family that saw themselves as above the opinion of others.

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