The Long, Maddening Journey: An MLS Playoff PreviewKyle Burkholder on 27 October 2012 in BBVA Stadium, Chicago Fire, DC United, General, Houston Dynamo, LA Galaxy, Major League Soccer, New York Red Bulls, NY Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC, Vancouver Whitecaps
As final MLS weekend comes around and the playoffs start up, there is no better time for an unofficial official Crocketteers playoff preview. Maybe it is nothing more than a subconscious nod to the loved/hated/loved Jurgen Klinsmann, but this year’s playoffs feel like a remake of the 1972 West German film “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”. The film, starring classically insane Klaus Kinski and directed by the legendary Werner Herzog, received international acclaim, inspired films along the line of Apocalypse Now, and developed a cult following that is still thriving today.
The basic plot follows Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre and his crew on an expedition down an Amazonian river in search of El Dorado. The crew is slowly picked off by Indians, nature, the river, starvation, and even Aguirre himself. In the final scene, Aguirre is left alone on his raft – the last man standing – floating aimlessly down the river while talking to an infestation of monkeys that are taking over his decimated vessel. He is the lone survivor, the victor, even if there is not much left of the man by the time he gets there. Warm and fuzzy, right?
Welcome to the brutal journey that is the MLS playoffs. Many will seek El Dorado (the MLS Cup) and all but one team will be killed, lost, or devoured along the way, leaving one woozy but victorious survivor to claim immortality and raise the MLS Cup (and perhaps talk to marauding monkeys).
Let’s look at the contenders, working our way from weakest to strongest
INDIAN TARGET PRACTICE (The Long Shots)
Never has a team backed into the playoffs in a less hopeful manner than this year’s Whitecaps. Giving away a home match to a bitter (cellar-dwelling) rival, the beleaguered Portland Timbers, that allows the enemy to take home the Cascadia Cup (and produces an impromptu celebration from away supporters) is not exactly confidence-inspiring stuff.
Only 2 MLS squads have scored fewer goals this year and that neutered attack is not likely to find its legs against the league’s elite. The ‘Caps are still several pieces away from truly contending and draw the defending champion LA Galaxy in the play-in match. Someone give them a “Participant” ribbon.
Question: What do you do with a team that has a Road Goal Differential of -10 and only 17 road goals on the season…when that same team has to open the playoffs on the road in an elimination game against a team that only dropped two home matches all year? Answer: You place them in the “Long Shots” category of your playoff preview.
With apologies to the great Brad Davis, this side simply lacks the finishers to be taken seriously. High-stakes playoff football will be played at beautiful BBVA Stadium one day soon. Just not this year.
No matter what you read about Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius, the fate of DC United rests in the strength of the defense. The loss of Dwayne DeRosario eliminates the possibility of this bunch storming the MLS Cup behind a flurry of 3-1 wins (even if their record sans DeRo has been 5-0-1).
The hybrid 4-5-1 / 4-4-2 look that DC has unveiled shows just how committed they are to limiting opportunities and trying to capitalize on the counter. Bill Hamid may very well have a hot streak in him. It looks unlikely, however, that the attack will generate enough to go deep in the playoffs.
HOPEFULLY DOOMED (The Sleepers)
You have to believe that Seattle’s year is coming. And, while the club hasn’t put together a truly dominant stretch this year, the recent form of Eddie Johnson has to make one wonder if there is enough magic to bring a championship to the Emerald City.
The surprising truth about the Sounders is that for all of the raucous energy of enormous CenturyLink crowds, this is a team built on great defense and occasional offensive precision. Seattle is behind only Sporting KC in goals allowed on the year and is in the bottom half of the league in Shots On Goal. Translated, if Seattle can spring the counter-attack and free up Rosales, Montero, and Johnson – look out. If things bog down and offensive chances are limited, this could be another agonizing finish for the Sounders.
Real Salt Lake
If you polled league fans about teams they would least want to see their side face in a winner-take-all match, Real Salt Lake would be at or near the top of the list. Jason Kreis’ men are perpetually ready to pounce and, while slowing with age, have had a quietly impressive year from Alvaro Saborio, whose 17 goals would be talked about much more if not for Chris Wondolowski’s run at history.
The back line is still anchored by man-mountain Jamison Olave, but age and injuries are catching up with him. Throw in questions around porcelain Javier Morales and a banged up Fabian Espindola and RSL looks unlikely to survive the grind this year.
The Chicago Fire are either the team that registered a goal differential that was better than only the Vancouver Whitecaps among playoff teams or the soaring group that has risen to the top tier of every internet MLS Power Rankings. One has to believe that their recent form will continue. But which “recent form” is that? The 1-3-0 stretch leading into the season finale against DC or the 7-1-0 record that preceded it?
No matter, Chris Rolfe is healthy and is the team’s leading scorer despite only getting on the pitch in June. His impact has brought life to Sherjill Macdonald and their finishing combined with the deadly Chicago speed will make the Fire a tough out.
New York Red Bulls
The New York Red Bulls boast an incredible wealth of talent and will need to see the stars align in order for their championship dreams to finally be realized. The Red Bulls have a maddening propensity to disappear offensively for long stretches, almost as if they take their foot off the gas at times. Perhaps the playoffs will inject some urgency in the attack.
Following the season-ending win to avoid the Knockout match, the case to be made for the Red Bulls involves a suddenly effective Rafa Marquez linking up with indefatigable Tim Cahill and a motivated Thierry Henry. Hans Backe’s men seemed to have solved their defensive set-piece issues from a year ago, but have yet to put together the kind of consistent stretch of elite football to install them as anything other than a team of undeniable talent with an unpredictable trajectory.
HAVE THAT CRAZY LOOK (The Favorites)
If the LA Galaxy can find health for Landon Donovan and David Beckham, there is a case to be made for the defending champion Galaxy being the favorites to repeat. The defense has begun to tighten up behind Omar Gonzalez and the solid midfield supporting pieces continue to quietly carry the club. And despite missing Robbie Keane David Beckham, and Landon Donovan to international duty, Olympic cameos, and various minor injuries, the Galaxy were second only to San Jose in goals scored.
It is not inconceivable to imagine the Galaxy ripping off a win against Vancouver and using the momentum to unseat San Jose, topple the winner of RSL and Seattle and then going on the road to conquer the MLS yet again. IF they can find health…
Sporting KC is the prototype for a mid-market MLS side. The team features a workmanlike quality, a unity and hustle that wears down opponents. Neither Kai Kamara nor CJ Sapong will be confused for Mario Balotelli, but the way they combine with US International Graham Zusi typically makes up for any less-than-technical finishing.
It is the stingy defense in front of Jimmy Nielsen that inspires confidence in KC going forward. Giving up a league-low 27 goals on the entire season, Nielsen and company will have plenty of star strikers to shut down if they are to complete the double of hoisting the US Open Cup and MLS Cup in the same season.
The Quakes will score goals. No one doubts that. The question is whether they can prevent opponents from scoring. And that seems much less certain. As defenses buckle down and intensity reaches new heights, the Lenhart/Gordon/Wondolowski trio will have to continue to produce in order to overcome an inconsistent back line.
The Quakes gave up 3 or more goals in 12% of league matches this season and a five-match run to the MLS Cup awaits. If the defense holds, San Jose has to be the favorite. If not, they will need every ounce of the late-match heroics that saw them lead the league with 22 goals scored in the final quarter-hour and set a league record with 9 goals in 2nd half stoppage time.
Under advisement from (and in an effort to cajole) MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the unofficial official prediction is..
LA Galaxy 2 – 1 over New York Red Bulls
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