This weekend’s MLS Playoff action proved what some already knew about Major League Soccer: that there is very little in differentiation in talent between the first place teams and the fifth place teams. In all four matchups this weekend, games were decided by a goal or less and no lead is insurmountable. Here is how the games went down this weekend, along with the schedule for this week.
|Match (Road Team, Home Team)
||Upcoming Game (Time, TV)
|Sporting KC 1, New England 2
||New England at Sporting KC Wed (9pm, MLS Live)
|Portland 2, Seattle 1
||Seattle at Portland Thu (11pm, NBCSN)
|New York Red Bulls 2, Houston 2
||Houston at New York Wed (8pm, Univision/ MLS Live)
|Real Salt Lake 0, Los Angeles Galaxy 1
||Los Angeles at Real Salt Lake Thu (9pm ESPN2)
Just a quick heads up: Major League Soccer does not give an advantage for goals scored on the road. While I am not going to say if that is a good thing or bad thing, it does give added pressure for a team to get results at home. Without this sort of advantage, it makes Seattle’s situation much more dire. Although home-field advantage can be overstated at times, the Portland faithful will make things very uncomfortable for the Sounders.
The other thing I want to say is thank you to Doctor Who and the Time Lords for creating Daylight Savings Time. After a day of chasing around my three year old nephew (who was being fueled by cupcakes, candy, and pizza) it took everything in me to stay up and watch the Portland and Seattle match. A half of a Red Bull and a clock being turned backward kept me pushing through to the last minute. With work the next day, I honestly have no idea how I am going to make it through that Seattle-Portland 11pm match on Thursday.
Oh, and for those wondering how my nephew did at his first soccer match: he made it through the first half of the Houston Dynamo-D.C. United match. Let’s give him credit: that is probably longer than most people would last at a D.C. United match. By the way, goodbye Carlos Ruiz and Lionard Pajoy.
(Still working out how I feel about dropping DeRosario.)
And now that we have had our first ever Doctor Who reference dropped on the Global Football Today website, here are a few observations from this weekend’s games.
#1: Defense matters.
No matter the sport or the league, it seems like in every playoff series the x-factor comes down to the team that can play the best defense. It is what led Seattle and Houston in defeating Colorado and Montreal respectively earlier in the week and what led to many of the results in the weekend’s matches.
Perhaps one of the more surprising results was how well New England played against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. Sporting Kansas City plays a physical style which leads to a lot of fouls and a bouquet of cards, but also causes the opposition’s attack to become more tentative. New England striker Diego Fagundez held up very well against the likes of Aurelien Collin, who knocked him down at least twice during the match, and was able to keep pushing the ball in Sporting’s defensive third.
You can also tell how much a particular player matters to a team’s defense when they are taken out of the match. For example, the turning point in the Houston-New York match occurred when Red Bulls defender Jamison Olave was sent off in the 68th minute for his poor tackle on Houston forward Omar Cummings. Olave, one of the frontrunners for the MLS Defensive Player of the Year, was a key reason why the Red Bulls had built up a 2-0 lead by stifling the Dynamo’s counter-attacks and set pieces. Without their imposing central defender, the Dynamo were able to score two goals off of their signature plays and keep their playoff hopes alive.
I would also like to tip my cap to Real Salt Lake defender Chris Schuler who along with Goalkeeper Nick Rimando was able to hold the Los Angeles Galaxy to only one goal. Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan was able to strip a Salt Lake midfielder, drive the ball down the left flank and deliver pinpoint crosses to forward Robbie Keane or midfielder Gyassi Zardes. Schuler kept Salt Lake in this match by anticipating where these crosses would land and clearing them out or stuffing the attacker and taking away possession. Rimando was also on form last night, making two spectacular saves.
#2 The Galaxy and Dynamo do it once again.
I know I am not the only person who looks at the playoffs every year and says, “Ugh. Houston and Los Angeles again?” It is a yearly routine that drives fans of the other teams in the league crazy. Both teams barely make the playoffs, then show up and defeat higher seeded teams and make their way to the MLS Cup. It may drive soccer purists crazy, but it is effective.
For Houston and Los Angeles, the reason for their success is simple: good management. There has been very little change in either of these teams for years, with the style of play and the personnel going relatively stable. Houston will always look to have about 60%-70% of the possession in the match, while Galaxy will push the ball to the outside with Donovan who will get it into Keane. They don’t go into a playoff match looking to pull a fast one on their opponent, which Salt Lake tried to do by switching from their normal “diamond formation” to a standard 4-4-2. They don’t deviate from their game plan, which has brought both teams a great deal of success.
The problem that each team faces in their second match though is that they will be heading on the road. The Galaxy have been a terrible road team this season, going 3-4-10 (W-D-L). They were able to defeat Real Salt Lake 2-0 earlier this season in Utah but then lost 3-1 back in June. Real Salt Lake is a much better home team than they are a road squad. Plus they should build off of their success late in last night’s match by starting midfielder Sebastian Velasquez against the likes of Galaxy defenders Omar Gonzalez and Kofi Opare. Then again, the Galaxy have already eliminated RSL twice in the postseason in the last three years, so they should be prepared for RSL coach Jason Kreis’ gameplan.
Likewise, Houston also has a very difficult task ahead of them in New York. Let’s keep in mind that the Red Bulls have already beaten the Dynamo 3 times this season by a combined score of 11-3, including a 5-2 pasting at the end of the season. What is key for Houston is getting that first goal. If they can get the first goal, they can play their style of play (heavy possession, few mistakes, counter-attacks). In the Montreal, they were able to dictate play by scoring early and making Montreal chase them for the remainder of the match. However if they go a goal behind, they will need some luck like they received on Sunday. Then again, it is the Red Bulls who are perennial chokers in big matches.
#3 Football Lines on A Soccer Pitch?
Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman kind of stole my thunder during ESPN’s halftime show for the Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake match, but I think it is ridiculous that three of the four home pitches this weekend (Houston, New England, and Seattle) showed football lines on the pitch, making for a very bizarre looking field and putting a small damper on what was a really enjoyable weekend of football.
Now it is obvious that MLS has much larger problems than the lining of the field. And of course in New England and Seattle the unplayable turf fields pose more of an injury hazard than a giant Patriot or Seahawk. You could also say that the refereeing was abysmal and that there should be a FIFA investigation for some their calls. Sporting Kansas City and New England reminded me of an ECW match with Head Referee Mark Geiger playing the role of the comatose referee. Again, no arguments here.
But these are larger issues that everyone expected coming into the match. You would think that for a big weekend in MLS that the league and the hometown owners could keep the football lines off of the field. Instead America’s first division matches looked like high school fields. Although it would have been near impossible for the Revolution to remove the lines for their game, given that the University of Massachusetts was having a match earlier in the day and there was a Patriots game on Sunday, there is very little reason why BBVA Compass Stadium officials could not remove the lines for the Dynamo after the Southern University versus Texas Southern college football game was played TWO days earlier. The same can be said for Seattle, whose game was the day before the Seahawks game. Professional basketball and hockey teams routinely play games on the same day and that requires ice and a Zamboni. Removing lines on a pitch requires a can of spray paint and a good lawn mower.
It may seem like a small thing and other leagues have to deal with this as well. For example, the Oakland Raiders routinely have to play on a baseball pitch when the Oakland Athletics are playing in the fall. And for the players it probably does not matter. But for a league that is still struggling to gain respect from both the soccer community and the American sports community, small things like having a pitch without football hashmarks makes a difference.