Eight things to note, conference finals edition
A few early items leading up to the Nov. 23 MLS Cup championship match (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC):
1. That tingling in your tummy may be due to a shot of Red Bull. Columbus surely will be favored in the MLS Cup final. Sigi Schmid's team has been the class of MLS all summer and fall.
Still, don't you think there's a wee little knot in every tummy in Columbus Crewville today?
That's because when the Crew face Red Bull New York at the Home Depot Center, the underdog will look increasingly like a side favored by forces none of us understands.
What says "Destiny's Child" like watching the Red Bulls survive while the home team smacks the post three times?
Three! Are you kidding?
We'll call the night "Sadness in Sandy." If the goals in suburban Salt Lake City were 24 feet and 2 inches wide (instead of 24 feet), the game wouldn't even have been close.
That said, credit Red Bull for conceding just one goal in three playoff matches, including two tests on the road. That's why the franchise, now in its 13th year, will play for its first MLS Cup.
|MLS Cup final|
New York vs. Columbus
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
2. We've seen this before. Beyond the luck factor, Juan Carlos Osorio's men are in the final instead of Real Salt Lake because the Lakers never could sort out two problems this year.
First, Yura Movsisyan picked a bad time to regress to erratic form. All year, Real Salt Lake was good in possession but was habitually stung by a flagging killer instinct near the goal. Movsisyan got hot briefly, which is why Real made it so far.
But on Saturday, at rocking Rio Tinto, Movsisyan, Nat Borchers, Will Johnson, Robbie Findley, Javier Morales and Kenny Deuchar all had memorable misses -- the kind they'll think about for years to come.
On the other end, center back Jamison Olave was prone to costly concentration lapses all year. Sure enough, he had a mental boo-boo Saturday, taking a bad angle while challenging John Wolyniec and getting burned badly for it. (RSL fullback Robbie Russell was at fault, too, lazily tracking Dave van den Bergh and allowing the Dutchman to convert uncontested.)
3. The best from the East. Did the best team emerge from the West side of the bracket? Maybe. Maybe not.
But that's what playoffs are all about. Like it or not, the process of placing teams in the MLS championship match annually is only loosely attached to overall season performance. To succeed in the second season, you just have to get there -- then seize the moment.
Hello, Red Bull.
But as for the East, there really can't be any debate. Columbus is the rightful and proper rep. Schmid's team performed well during the regular season and claimed the Supporters' Shield as the top regular-season point-earner.
The Crew stepped up in games that counted, such as a statement match on Sept. 4, when Guillermo Barros Schelotto & Co. clobbered New England 4-0.
Columbus earned its home-field advantage in the conference final with a strong regular season. Then, in Thursday's conference decider, the Crew were the better team. The Crew difference-makers rose to the moment.
4. The end of a yucky trend? As we await next year's debut of the league's 15th team (the Seattle Sounders) and No. 16 (Philadelphia) in 2010, let's hope that 2008 will close the book on one unfortunate MLS Cup footnote.
Red Bull New York will be the third team with a losing regular-season record to play in an MLS Cup final.
As playoff spots become increasingly more difficult to claim in the future, let's take it a step further: Let's hope we've seen the last playoff team with a losing record, period. That's not a shot at Red Bull this year. But it will be a better league when the regular season is more important, when every single match matters.
5. Home field matters -- but not much: Everybody wants home-field advantage in the conference finals. Heck, RSL probably generated $500,000 or so in bonus revenue by getting the extra game in Utah. As they say, pretty soon, you're talking about real money.
But competitively, clubs gain only a marginal edge by hosting conference finals. Since MLS went to the current format (in 2003), home teams are 7-5 in the conference deciders.
6. Denial is not a river in Egypt. Some sentiment coming out of Chicago seems to say the Fire have a better roster than the Crew. Thus, the thinking goes, it's manager Denis Hamlett's fault that the boys from Chicago won't be sniping for that Philip F. Anschutz Trophy in Carson on Sunday.
Go position by position. Beyond Gonzalo Segares at left back and one other center back spot, Columbus' starting 11 are every bit as good, if not better, than Chicago's. Period.
You surely can quibble with Hamlett's substitution decisions on Thursday. But no one should say the Crew's smartly assembled roster, including the reserve depth, doesn't deserve its spot in the final.
7. The $2.7 million question in Chicago. That said, there is plenty to like about the Fire's roster. But we all know about the elephant in the room when it comes to Chicago. More accurately, there is a big ol' Blanco in the room.
Brian McBride as the target guy, with spry Chris Rolfe running off him sounds OK, eh? They could do better at holding midfielder, but Logan Pause can hold his own. John Thorrington has something as a right-sided or attacking midfielder.
Jon Busch is solid in goal. Segares is the league's best left back, while Wilman Conde and Bakary Soumare provide a tough and tidy center back pairing.
Then there's Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Not that he's terrible, not by any stretch. Blanco definitely still can be effective in spots. It's just that he's limited, and he'll become increasingly so next year at age 36. We already saw evidence of diminishing returns in 2008 when Blanco slumped through the summer (although he did rally late).
In the bigger picture, his lack of mobility forces others around him to adjust their games -- and forces Hamlett to fix his tactics accordingly.
And as with all roster decisions in professional sports, it's all about value. Simply put, you have to wonder whether the $415,000 cap hit can be better spent -- not to mention Blanco's actual salary of $2.7 million.
8. Early tip on best matchup. Everyone will have plenty of time to dissect Sunday's matchups in Carson (which may be a bit sooty unless they can get those terrible fires under control in Southern California). But here's a little matchup appetizer: It will be fascinating to see what Osorio cooks up for dealing with Schelotto.
Schelotto has such a free role for Columbus, prowling behind striker Alejandro Moreno, that it's difficult to arrange for him tactically. If the Red Bulls assign a marker, the wily Argentinean playmaker, who has 19 assists this year, can find ways to exploit that, too.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.