We’re nearing the Holidays and stateside, that means Christmas wreaths and season’s greetings signs gracing shopping plazas and trees and lights in shopping malls in full décor even here entering the second week of November. That also means three more matches to determine the Champions of MLS. The Conference semifinals produced high drama and high-quality football, as well as lower seeds advancing in three of the four pairings. More on the phenomenon of lower seeds below—but don’t get carried away—with the exception of the Earthquakes, it is very difficult to argue that any of the lower seeds who advanced were definitively the lesser side or unworthy of a spot in the conference finals. While Jason Davis disagrees with me about a gap in class between New York and San Jose (he calls it “virtually non-existent”), he does write compellingly that this type of result is exactly what the structure of MLS hopes to enable. Among the critical points from his column that I’d call a “must-read”:
“ MLS chose the parity model because it gives the league the greatest chance to attract casual interest in each of its markets; when every team has a chance to turn things around in short order or come out of “nowhere”, the total baseline of attention across every city is likely to be greater. MLS willingly trades off the chances of a superclub taking root in New York, LA, or elsewhere to ensure that teams aren’t handicapped by never having a real chance to win. Everyone, even Toronto, can reasonably dream that they’ll be lifting the MLS Cup by the end of any given year.
Parity and playoffs mean there are no guarantees. It doesn’t matter if New York was better than San Jose, or if RSL was taken out by a lesser team. The legitimacy of the title lies in the needed effort and level of play it takes to get to the Final and win it; a full schedule played over the course of months is one way to determine a champion, but a short pressure-packed knockout-style tournament is an equally valuable alternative. If a team isn’t good enough to put everything together when it counts the most, perhaps they don’t deserve to be called champion.”
The Eastern Conference Final, held Saturday (9:30 PM, Fox Soccer Channel), will feature two sides from the Western Conference (Don’t ask me, ask Jason Davis, by the way …maybe he can figure out why MLS works this way…), Colorado and San Jose. Jaime Clary has written a nice piece about the history of “comeback kids” from San Jose, this rendition of who will now travel to Denver hoping to extend their magical late-season form for one more match and earn the right to play in the last match. Meanwhile, the Rapids earned the right to host despite, like San Jose, being the lower-seeded team in their conference semifinal after surviving a thrilling 2-1 defeat and subsequent penalty shootout in Columbus when the Crew’s Brian Carroll missed the fifth Crew penalty over the Rapids’ bar, handing Colorado a 5-4 victory. It is interesting to note that the Rapids’ survival in penalties was a proper serving of justice, given that MLS has no away goal tiebreaker. In any other league in the world, the match would have ended after ninety minutes and the two-leg semifinal with it—with Colorado advancing with one away goal to none. Not in MLS, however, no sir. In America, we have to cater to the folks who don’t really care anyway who we think care, and we’re left with penalties and no away tiebreaker. It is insanity and it is easily the most valid criticism of the otherwise exciting MLS playoff format—but here justice was served anyway and the Rapids advanced.
The Western Conference final (Sunday, 8:30, ESPN 2), meanwhile, features FC Dallas, fresh off a superbly-fought 3-2 aggregate victory over Real Salt Lake, and the remaining high seed in the tournament, the Supporters Shield winning Los Angeles Galaxy, who dispatched of a feisty Seattle Sounders side 3-1 on aggregate with a more comfortable than the scoreline 2-1 victory Sunday night at the Home Depot Center. With all due respect to the Earthquakes and Rapids, who both played exceedingly well in the semifinals and warrant a spot in the final, it is hard not to think of the Western Conference final as the match that will determine the league’s champion. I write that sentence keenly aware of its danger—after all, no one outside of Utah felt Real Salt Lake would win last year’s final, and with players like Chris Wondolowski, Omar Cummings and an on-fire Conor “Claire Forlani’s Dad from MallRats” Casey, both sides are capable of an upset and championship. I’ll still take my thinking man’s chances, however, and declare that either FC Dallas or the Los Angeles Galaxy will be crowned champions of Major League Soccer November 21st.
FC Dallas, led by North American Soccer Writers’ Association Player of the Year David Ferreira, have simply been the best team in the league by any objective standard for months. They’ve weathered all sorts of injury and adversity, gone nineteen without a defeat at one point, and this past weekend, put on a footballing display that would make any high-level competition proud, holding the defending champions at bay in the Rio Tinto 1-1 in the decisive semifinal.
It’s hard to know what part of the Hoops performance was the most impressive. Holding a 2-1 lead after the home leg, Dallas ventured to the Rio Tinto, where Salt Lake are nearly unbeatable, and defended the only way one can defend when one’s season truly does depend on it. There were several on Twitter and in and around the message boards the other evening who seemed a bit taken back by Dallas’ tactics in the second leg. To you I make two unapologetic arguments.
First, I wonder if you watched the “Special One” guide Inter past Barca last year in the Champions League semifinals. If you did, you had better have been whining about the tactics in that second leg as well, or else you are simply being a “Eurosnob”, which is a dreadful thing for an American soccer fan to be. Mourinho’s strategy with the lead at the Camp Nou was even more of a park-the-bus mentality—indeed, after Thiago Motta was sent off, Mourinho practically played a 4-5-0, with Wesley Sneijder generally the furthest player forward. As odd as it was seeing Samuel Eto’o playing deep in the left (practically another fullback) and Diego Milito playing deep on the right, it was masterful. Inter essentially ceded the possession of the ball but dictated the space where the game, and of course, the ball, could be played, creating two lines of four that blanketed the width of the pitch on the edge of Inter’s area. Meanwhile, Sneijder menacingly defended the center, forcing Xavi and Busquets to forgo the usual short-passing deep-lying center game they favor, instead playing the ball wide to Dani Alves and Gabriel Milito. The result, of course, was a suffocating, 2006 Chicago Bears style victory that didn’t last long on TIVO but made soccer geeks exceedingly satisfied intellectually. A coffee-shop victory, if you will. That was brilliant stuff, and it brings us full-circle back to this weekend’s second leg in Sandy, Utah.
Schellas Hyndman put on his own “Special One” clinic, one that echoed Mourinho’s self-proclaimed “park-the-bus” Barca strategy in most ways save the fact that they avoided a red card. Dallas ceded the center line, rarely pressuring Salt Lake when they possessed the ball in their own half. Once the defending Champions crossed into the Dallas portion of the pitch, the 4-5-1 converged towards the center, forcing Kyle Beckerman to either try a tightly-defended ball through the middle or play the ball to wider positions. This was defended as well as it could be given this tactic as well, because Hydman’s fullbacks simply didn’t go forward, instead sliding way wide to defend the wide ball, hopefully either to force a turnover and counter or force a cross into a tenaciously defended box. The only attacking was rapid counters after turnovers, and after one of these counters produced a Dallas goal from Dax McCarty (who looked every bit a worthy US Senior team international, by the way), the choice to move forward and counter was even more cautious.
The second-half was more of the same but far more riveting to watch. Salt Lake battled bravely and when Robbie Findley (who changed the game, to a large extent) scored, the strategy shifted even more dramatically. Instead of an Inter post the Motta ejection 4-5-0, Dallas essentially adopted the United States vs. Spain “defend the Alamo” style of soccer, without a Clint Dempsey moment to calm hearts. Indeed, had it not been for The Yanks Are Coming MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Kevin Hartman, performing his best Ryan Miller at the Olympics headstand in the final forty-five minutes, Dallas may not have made it through.
It is here that I offer my second argument to those of you disagreed with the tactical choices Dallas made. MLS Champions, you’ve got a lead, and you’re on the road. What would you have done that would have been better? Hard to think of anything really. And hard to imagine a scenario where a more brilliant or worthy display of individual talent, here in the form of Kevin Hartman, could have made a game more entertaining despite a defensive posture. The FC Dallas blog “3rd Degree” gave Hartman a NINE for his performance, noting that complaining about it is like “complaining Pixar only makes one movie a year.” They’re right, and the game was better for it. It was a single man’s rebuttal to silly pieces like this one by Daniel Feurstein of Major League Soccer Talk, who argues petulantly that the MLS Playoffs are “a joke.” Sure, if you hate tactical acumen, heart, effort, individual brilliance on both sides that changes a game and heroic goalkeeping. Then you’re right. They’re a joke, Daniel. In the end, words really aren’t accurate in expressing Hartman’s brilliance, particularly in the final fifteen minutes, but it was simply glorious to watch, and it was enough to send the Hoops to Los Angeles, where they will lose to the Galaxy.
Weren’t prepared for that? Okay, fair enough. And I’ll happily be wrong if Dallas makes watching soccer as enjoyable next Sunday as they did this weekend. But I’m relatively confident the Galaxy will win this weekend and hoist the trophy in two weeks because, and I agree the logic is, to some extent, circular, the Galaxy are confident they’ll win too.
Bruce Arena’s team was masterful Sunday evening, surrendering a garbage time goal that made an exercise in domination over an outstanding Sounders side appear close. The remarkable return of David Beckham has re-energized a Galaxy side that appeared teetering on the edge of collapse late in the season, and last night, Beckham, as well as the Galaxy’s best defensive effort since early in the season, were the difference. The man with the million dollar hair delivered countless trademark set piece deliveries, and two found Edson Buddle and Omar Gonzalez respectively to set up the first half goals that gave the Galaxy a three goal aggregate lead and a vice grip on the semifinal.
It wasn’t just set pieces from Beckham either. He, along with fellow aging warrior Eddie Lewis, did their fair share of tracking back on the defensive end, complimenting a steady performance by the back four, highlighted once again by the terrific flank defending of young and shining American side back talent Sean Franklin, who again stifled the Sounders splendid winger Steve Zakuani. It was one-hundred eighty minutes of frustration for Zakuani, and more evidence of Franklin’s bright future. Landon Donovan did his part defending too, giving meaning to the notion of a “quiet 10,000” meters in stifling, and later forcing the substitution of Seattle winger Sanna Nyassi. Donovan’s defending has always been the least appreciated, and most undervalued (outside of David Moyes) part of the American star’s game, and it was on full display last evening as he led a team effort to force Seattle inside and away from the wide strength that made their attack potent throughout the year.
The night, and the playoffs, however, may belong to the man sent to “save American soccer.” Beckham’s presence provides exactly the type of game-changing, moment-of-brilliance stuff that often wins in the MLS playoffs, and as good as Kevin Hartman is, it will be hard to argue with his counterpart Donovan Ricketts in the Western Final. That’s about as close to a wash as you get, and with the team-first Landon Donovan ready to follow the free-roaming and dangerous David Ferreira around for ninety minutes, it may be another piece of Beckham brilliance that is again the difference.
Beckham, however, was happy to deflect individual praise, and more than pleased to talk about tracking back and defending on a night where his tracking back aided the Galaxy’s ability to suffocate Seattle for nearly one-hundred eighty minutes in the semifinal.
“”I [tracked back] when I was 18, 19 years old at Manchester United,” said Beckham. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be doing that at 35 years old here. Obviously, Landon and I have worked hard in these two games and we’ve seen the success that we had. We know that if we defend well, we’ve got the power to break teams down.” Or, perhaps, they just have David Beckham’s right foot, or as Hugh Grant, playing the role of a young British prime minister, put it in the globally-adored Holiday film Love Actually, his left-foot, come to that. Defensive commitment, and two feet. That’s how favorites look in this, the most wonderful time of the year.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.