MLS Playoff Primer

henryNow that the World Series is over, American sports fans turn their attention to the MLS Play-offs.  Right?  I mean, what else could distract them at this time of the year? (Cue the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian).

But don’t worry if you weren’t following this weekend’s MLS action, with the opening legs of the conference semifinals (otherwise known as “quarterfinals”) ties.  Here are six things you can say about them to sound informed and knowledgeable as you head out to watch the second legs tonight and tomorrow:

Complain about using American football fields.  This will suggest that you have actually been watching the games.  Be sure to point out that you could barely see the lines in the New England-Kansas City and Seattle-Portland games.  You can add that at least in Houston they managed to clean up most of the Texans’ markings.  Although you could credit LA’s soccer-specific arena, that would involve praising something called the StubHub Center.  Better to suggest that you’re looking forward to watching a game in Jen-Weld Stadium, or (if you’re too good for Portland) in Sporting Park (KC).

Talk about the role players for the LA Galaxy.  Most Americans are at least familiar with the Galaxy, and sports fans will likely know at least one or two of their star players.  So if you want to score points here, you need to move beyond Donovan, Keane, and Omar Gonzalez.  I’d point out that LA was able to dominate by stretching the game down the flanks, especially through Gyasi Zardes on the left, though in the second half Robbie Rogers was also fairly effective on the right.  That’s important, because the Galaxy are without their usual Mr. November, having traded Mike Magee to the Chicago Fire in return for the rights to Rogers.  Defender Sean Franklin’s goal was something of a fluke (beautiful though it was), but the Galaxy were clearly the better side thanks to their wide play.  Oh, and it’s always worth making a joke about this being the team Robbie Keane supported as a child.

Observe that Real Salt Lake is only the second most ridiculous name for a sports franchise in the city.  You know who I’m talking about.

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Describe the Houston Dynamo as the San Antonio Spurs of the MLS.  Without any of the glamour signings that have fueled the Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston has managed to reach the MLS final in four out of their seven seasons despite only finishing 1st in the West once in that time.  LA, by comparison, has three first place finishes in the West over the same period to go along with their three MLS Cup finals appearances.  Clearly, Houston understands that the real season starts at the end of October, and while they don’t always win (in the last two seasons, they have lost to the Galaxy), they play their best football in the tournament.  Coming back from two behind against a star-studded Red Bulls team (starring Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill) leaves them with a real chance heading into the second leg, especially with top New York defender Jamison Olave ruled out for a mildly controversial (but wholly deserved) red card.  This is a team that could just make it back to the MLS final.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you might suggest that Brad Davis is the Tim Duncan of the MLS (it’s not true, but most people won’t know who you’re talking about anyway).  Also, point out that “Dynamo” should come before Houston, and make a joke comparing Texas Republicans to the Soviet military.

Suggest that the Portland Timbers represent what’s best AND worst about the MLS.  Far more than Houston, the Timbers are a team without stars.  Coach Caleb Porter may well be their biggest star, with the Argentine Diego Valeri probably being their top performer.  But despite 10 goals and 8 assists, he’s hardly a household name.  The fact that they have a real chance to challenge for spot in the MLS finals is a testament to the equity in the league.  Moreover, when Liviu Bird describes Portland’s tactics (perhaps in more detail than you wanted–and note that he’s writing about their last regular season battle here, in which Portland were much less reactive than in this weekend’s clash), he makes them sound like the MLS’s Barcelona on a shoestring with their high press and a possession game.  Who wouldn’t love that?  Their game against the Seattle Sounders was probably the most exciting of the weekend’s games from start to finish, high energy from both sides and a great end-to-end battle.

But if you look at the Timbers game plan in action, the Barcelona analogy breaks down pretty quickly.  The problem is that with MLS quality players and refereeing standards, a high press is probably better described as a high battering.  MLS is a league where most of the players are better athletes than soccer players.  In some contexts, the lenient refereeing common in the league might seem a cause for praise–English referee Howard Webb is often lauded in these terms.  But in a league where many of the bodies hurling themselves about (as well as those seeking to evade that hurling) have a relatively limited skill set, lenient refereeing is a recipe for injuries, as James Grossi has noted in Issue Two of The Blizzard.  Diego Chara’s tackle on Clint Dempsey in Portland’s late season win against Seattle is a perfect case in point.  You can’t really blame the Timbers or Caleb Porter for recognizing the nature of officiating in the league and incorporating it into their game plan; but neither is it necessarily a cause for praise, for the league, for the officials, or for the Portland Timbers.

Point out that the New York Red Bulls are actually playing a 4-2-2-2.  Even amongst serious soccer fans, breaking out this sort of formation is likely to drive people crazy.  NBC Sports analyst (I use the term loosely) Kyle Martino is one of them.  Nonetheless, that’s how New York opened up against the Houston Dynamos.  Wingers Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander were playing narrowly in between the front line of Henry and Cahill and the deep-lying Dax McCarty and Peguy Luyindula.  This changed after the opening goal, with Luyindula becoming more adventurous and shifting the team into something more like a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond.  Then Cahill began to sag as well, creating something more like a 4-2-3-1 until Olave’s sending off.  But I’d stick with the 4-2-2-2 description; it’s sure to infuriate those around you.

 One final note as a bonus: Avoid the New England-Kansas City series.  I mean, really.  If someone presses you, you can talk about how New England will need Matt Reis to put in another Man of the Match performance to hold on to their one-goal edge going into KC, and worry about whether his injured knee will hamper him; or you can talk about how much Sporting KC miss Kei Kamara (which is probably true, though I haven’t really watched them since his early September departure–on the upside, it will allow you to acknowledge his move to Championship side Middlesbrough, which is surely worth something).  Mainly, though, just change the subject.  That’s what most neutral MLS fans would do too.

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