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Thursday, September 29, 2005
Herculez brings the Open Cup home

Jeff Carlisle

If a U.S. Open Cup final was held and hardly anyone went to see it, is it still a "championship"? The answer is yes, and not just because the good folks at GolTV insisted on reminding us of this ad nauseum during their pregame show. After all, players love silverware more than a prospective bride. Ditto for crystal, or whatever the heck that thing was being paraded around the Home Depot Center by the victorious Los Angeles Galaxy.

But let's not kid ourselves either. The Open Cup ranks a distant third on the wish list of honors for most MLS players and coaches; behind MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield. And ten years of participation by MLS teams hasn't changed that fact, nor will it in the future. At least not until the event is blessed with the kind of marketing and promotion that will make a difference. One only has to look at the sparse crowd and the game's consignment to GolTV to realize that the Open Cup still has a long way to go before it creeps into the consciousness of the average soccer fan.

Perhaps the bigger question following the Galaxy's 1-0 triumph over FC Dallas is: Can either team use their cup run as a springboard to greater things this season?

With Los Angeles serving as the league's biggest underachievers for three years running, Galaxy head coach Steve Sampson is desperately hoping that the answer is yes. But despite Wednesday's heroics, I'm not convinced. While the Galaxy showed plenty of defensive fortitude in shutting down the Hoops, let's not forget that the stout display by the Los Angeles back line came in the friendly surroundings of the HDC. Given that the Galaxy's path to the MLS Cup will likely require playing two of three games away from home, the L.A. defense will need to carry that form onto the road, something it has failed to do for much of this season.

And what is up with Sampson's continued insistence on playing Landon Donovan in a wide role? Playing the league's most dangerous attacker on the wing is like removing the clip from an automatic weapon. It renders it useless.

Yes, Donovan was at the heart of all things Galaxy in the game's latter stages, but that came with Dallas throwing caution to the wind in an ultimately futile attempt to equalize. A more accurate assessment of Donovan's impact could be seen in the first half, when he was barely heard from.

I'm sure that the Galaxy's three potential playoff opponents are praying to the soccer gods that Sampson persists with this experiment. This way they don't have to lift a finger to neutralize L.A.'s most potent offensive force.

But if the soccer deities do smile on Sampson, and he does manage to hang onto his job, he'll have forward Herculez Gomez, scorer of the final's only goal, to thank. The Las Vegas native has probably been the Galaxy's most consistent player this season. And while that might qualify as damning with faint praise to some, the fact remains that without Gomez's play -- not to mention his six goals in the tournament -- the Galaxy would have been watching the final instead of playing in it. For the Galaxy to have any hope of hoisting more trophies this season, Gomez will need to maintain his fine form come playoff time.

As for Dallas, their prospects don't look much better, but for a vastly different reason. Right now, they're probably more concerned with the status of Ronnie O'Brien than the fact that they're wearing runners-up medals. A seemingly innocuous challenge from Marcelo Saragosa -- if there is such a thing -- just six minutes into the match saw the Irishman fall awkwardly to the ground, and his mobility was compromised thereafter.

O'Brien gamely continued, but if the sight of the Dallas winger making way for Bobby Rhine to run down the flank wasn't evidence that something was wrong, his removal just minutes into the second half confirmed it.

While O'Brien's injury may turn out to be minor, the Hoops could be forgiven for going into convulsions at the mere thought of losing the former Juventus man for any length of time. With Eddie Johnson and Carlos Ruiz already sidelined, the potential loss of O'Brien might be one injury too many.

The timing of a possible O'Brien injury couldn't be worse. The Hoops have just recently snapped out of their summer funk, and appeared to be righting themselves at the perfect time. In particular, their defense finally seemed to be sorting itself out. Now the offense, which could be shorn of its three most prolific attackers, will be forced to rely on players like Arturo Alvarez, Ramon Nunez, and Roberto Mina to carry the load.

While all three are talented performers, none of them have been tested in the postseason. And that has the makings of a playoff run without any silverware.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com


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