MLS Playoff Roundup
This week’s midweek MLS playoff action provided plenty of surprises and massive amounts of drama. Although it is unfortunate that the Supporter’s Shield recipient, the New York Red Bulls, were bounced out of the tournament early, it is good to see three out of the top four seeds still alive. The Supporter’s Shield race was close all season so at least one of the teams that was in the running for the title at the end of the regular season will be rewarded with home-field advantage in MLS Cup Here are the final results from this week’s action and the upcoming ties for the Conference Finals:
MLS Conference Semi-Finals Results
|Eastern||New England 1-Sporting Kansas City 3||3-4|
|Eastern||Houston 2- New York 1||4-3|
|Western||Los Angeles 0- Real Salt Lake 2||1-2|
|Western||Seattle 2- Portland 3||3-5|
MLS Conference Finals Matchups
|Conference||Match Fixture(Lowest Seed First)||Game #1||Game #2|
|Eastern||Houston v Sporting Kansas City||11/9 2:30 NBC Sports Network||11/23 NBC Sports Network|
|Western||Real Salt Lake v Portland||11/10 9pm ESPN||11/24 ESPN|
A couple of thoughts before we get to the next round of matches:
- While many people will give credit to the Houston Dynamo for once again pulling off the upset and beating the New York Red Bulls, let’s face facts: the Red Bulls blew this game. Much like in Sunday’s game the Red Bulls dominated the first half, controlling possession, taking good shots on target and having a stout, resolute defense. Even without Jamison Olave they looked like they were going to go through. It is very difficult to score on Houston Dynamo GK Tally Hall so one would have thought that would have been enough to get the Red Bulls through. Instead in typical Red Bulls fashion, their defense breaks down in the 37th minute (thanks in part to Ibrahim Sekagaya refusing to go off or at least stop play because of an injury,) and the team plays right into the hands of the Dynamo. Houston did exactly what they always do: play solid defense, rely on Tally Hall to make 1-2 quality saves, make the most out of free kicks and use their deep bench to their advantage. The Red Bulls had this team beat not just once, not just twice, but three times over the span of this two-leg playoff. Although I am sure that there are plenty of fans who will be happy with the Supporter’s Shield, the team’s first-ever trophy, it feels like yet another missed opportunity for the Red Bulls.
- While the Red Bulls may have letdown their fans with the result on Wednesday, the worst performance thus far in the playoffs belongs to the Seattle Sounders. Facing a 3-1 deficit and going on the road to their hated rivals, the Portland Timbers, one would have thought that the Sounders would have come out of the box playing aggressive and trying everything to pull closer to Portland. Instead, within the first 47 minutes the club was down 3-0. Only a complete breakdown by the Portland defense made this game at least marginally close, but the Sounder’s last two goals felt more like garbage points than anything else. The Sounders have looked flat for the past two and a half months and really have not been the same team since Forward Eddie Johnson decided to give the “pay me” sign to owners back in August. I am not really sure why Adam Moffat and Shalrie Joseph were starting over Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales, but it seemed to be counter-productive to the whole “scoring” thing.
What made Seattle so great for so many years is it felt like this team had a plan that you could see on the field. From youth development to scouting to signing international players, you could always see that there is a clear direction for this club. But by signing players like Joseph, Martins, and let’s be honest Clint Dempsey, it feels like the club is unbalanced that there are too many overpriced, experienced players and not enough young talent to bring some creativity and flair. Perhaps with Lamar Neagle out due to yellow card accumulation they had to readjust their lineup. But Seattle has not looked good for a few weeks now and I would think that there may be some changes in terms of player personnel at the end of the season.
- As for the other two Semifinal losers, Los Angeles and New England, their postseason runs almost feel like trial runs for next year. Both teams are loaded top young talent, and to be honest both probably made it farther than they should have this year.
That may sound strange with Los Angeles, but if you think about all of the things that they have gone through this season with David Beckham leaving, Landon Donovan heading to parts unknown for a few months, the goalkeeper mess, trading Mike Magee, and the Omar Gonzalez contract situation they have had a lot happen to them this season. As opposed to caving in, the club signed an excellent goalkeeper in Jaime Penedo, signed Gonzalez and Donovan long-term deals, and give playing time to many of their academy players. DEF Kofi Opare, MID Jose Villareal, FWD Gyasi Zardes, and FWD Jack McBean are all considered to be some of the top young talent in American and all of them will figure prominently in Coach Bruse Arena’s game plans next year.
Unlike the Galaxy, no one expected the New England Revolution to make it this far, let alone take Sporting Kansas City to the limit in a two-leg playoff. Revolution management’s efforts to improve their academy and draft selections have led them to accrue a core nucleus of explosive, talented players. Credit should also go to Coach Jay Heaps, who has done a phenomenal job in getting all of these players to play as a unit, which can be difficult if you don’t have a foundation to build off of.
What will be interesting is to see how this team replaces GK Matt Reis (retiring) and MID/FWD Juan Agudelo (Transfer to Stoke City) in the offseason. Backup GK Bobby Shuttlesworth was a very capable replacement for Reis during the season, but he often lacked decisiveness when it came down to the final minutes. Agudelo will be far more difficult to replace. His partnership with Fagundez and Rowe in the midfielder was the key for the Revolution’s success this year. You have to wonder if signing former US Men’s National team Forward Charlie Davies in August was meant to be Agudelo’s replacement. Davies plays a very similar style to that of Agudelo; however he has never been the same since the car crash that nearly took his life back in October 2009. The good news is that if Davies does not work out, the club has plenty of Allocation money and young players to move for a more proven veteran striker.
Conference Final Previews:
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City
A rematch of last year’s 2012 Conference Semi-Finals matchup, which saw the Dynamo upset Sporting K.C. 2-1 on aggregate, this series should be a very close set of games. Although Sporting did defeat the Dynamo earlier this 1-0 in Houston, who at the time had a 25 game home unbeaten streak, the Dynamo were also able to get a 1-1 draw at Livestrong Park in Kansas City. Expect a very physical set of games: in their two previous matches this season the two teams had a combined 56 fouls and 6 cards (all yellow.)
The key to this series is if Sporting Kansas City can limit the number of unnecessary fouls. The reason why the Dynamo are so difficult to defeat in a two-legged playoff is that they have are able to exploit their opponents weaknesses and are deadly with set pieces. Kansas City cannot give away too many chances to the Dynamo or they will suffer the same fate as the New York Red Bulls.
Although it seems like Bad Karma to pick against the Dynamo, given their history, I give the slight edge to Sporting Kansas City. Yes they will be physical and probably draw a few unnecessary fouls, but they have also shown that they are able to come back from any deficit and pull out a victory. MID/FWD Graham Zusi has been in amazing form as of late, and I really like the partnership that he has developed with Sooney Saad. Also, if Claudio Bieler (game-winning goal in extra time against New England on Wednesday) is actually ready to play he could be a difference-maker in this series off of the bench.
Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers
If you are a soccer mom or dad and you want to get your son or daughter to watch a game of American soccer, have them sit down in front of the T.V. and watch one of the two matches between Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers this month. No, not because Timber Joey gets to chop down a tree or because you want to explain to your kids what “YSA” means. Chances are they already know that one. You want your kids to watch this matchup because these two teams when they are at their best play the best form of American soccer.
What’s interesting about this match is that it would seem that the Timbers would have a distinct advantage over RSL. They have not lost a match since late August, a 4-2 loss to Real Salt in Utah, and just smoked the Seattle Sounders. Plus Real Salt Lake’s form has been very poor since the U.S. Open Cup final against D.C. United and it looked like all of the controversy regarding coach Jason Kreis’ contract had finally got to them.
Then Thursday night happened and the Real Salt Lake team that at the halfway point of season were the front-runners for the Supporters Shield showed up again. The swift counter-attacks on the right flank by Luis Gill was back, as was Alvaro Saborio’s clever touches and passes. I also really like the addition of Velasquez to the lineup, who was the only player to play with any initiative during the previous match. They also showed tremendous perseverance after having Javier Morales’ splendid free kick nullified by a curious call by the referee.
Despite all of this, I still like for Portland to make it through to the MLS Cup. While Real Salt Lake has turned it on as of late, Portland has not really given one bad performance throughout this entire MLS Season. Even in the early part of the season, when the team was still trying to adjust to Coach Caleb Porter’s style, they always played with a commitment to defense and avoiding risky shot selection in the attacking third.
Going back to the 3-3 draw against Real Salt Lake in August, Portland found tremendous success in moving the ball through the center of the midfield through Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe up to Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri. Real’s midfield is more of an attacking midfield than a defensive one and had tremendous problems against the Los Angeles attack during their two game set. Although I would expect RSL GK Nick Rimando and RSL DEF Chris Schuler to continue their solid run of form, it will be difficult for RSL to keep up with the Timbers offense.