25
Nov

Breakdown of the MLS Conference Finals

imageKansas City earned home field for MLS Cup 2013 (Image: USA Today)

Nineteen teams clubs started the season with a dream of lifting MLS Cup. Only two teams can fulfill that objective when the final takes place on Dec. 7.

Both of them earned their spots in that one-off encounter with their displays this season and their performances this weekend. Sporting Kansas City earned the right to host the league’s showpiece fixture by dispatching its playoff demons against Houston on Saturday. Real Salt Lake secured its trip to Sporting Park on Sunday with a professional victory at Portland.

The holiday-enforced interlude provides plenty of time for both sides to recover from their exertions at the weekend and start their preparations for the task ahead. The end is in sight after a long campaign. Now it is just a matter of determining which side can write the perfect conclusion.

Sporting Kansas City 2 – Houston 1 (Sporting wins series 2-1 on aggregate)

Midfield balance shifted in Sporting’s favor: Houston entered the second leg at Sporting Park without the injured Ricardo Clark (left knee sprain) to cover his usual ground in central midfield. Clark’s absence forced Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear to alter his usual shape to inject an extra man into central midfield. The adjustment could not stop Sporting from exploiting the spaces usually covered by Clark, though. Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi carved out openings with their incessant movement and eventually found a way to use that space profitably. Feilhaber’s work on the winner – including a free run through midfield and a neat clip through the line for Dom Dwyer – highlighted the Dynamo’s limitations on the night and sent Sporting through to MLS Cup on home soil.

Portland 0 – Real Salt Lake 1 (RSL wins series 5-2 on aggregate)

Real Salt Lake dictates terms, quells Timbers: RSL submitted a ruthlessly professional performance by forcing the home side into difficult areas and funneling the play into areas where it could thrive. Portland sent cross after cross – the high, hanging kind, not the low, tempting sort usually preferred – for Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler to clear dutifully because it could not suss out room for its usual combination play in and through the line. It found itself exposed at the back by RSL’s willingness to employ the width of the field on the break to avoid the Timbers’ usually influential midfield three. The emphasis on stretching the play horizontally (plus a poor turnover) created the game’s only goal. RSL saw out the game and the tie from there by adhering to its strengths and showing Portland how to march through a playoff match on home soil.

imageRSL are headed to their second-ever MLS Cup after winning in 2009.

11
Nov

What we learned: MLS conference championships, 1st legs

Images: USA Today

Philosophical differences rose to the forefront as the Eastern and Western Conference championships kicked off this weekend. Pragmatism ruled in Houston. Idealism triumphed in Sandy. And the two matches adhered to those principles as they unfolded.

Houston and Sporting Kansas City leaned on the experience gained in their recent playoff meetings to guide them through this tricky first leg tie. They knew an error or two in the first leg could prove costly given the tattered state of play. And they pursued the match accordingly.

Real Salt Lake and Portland adopted a more ambitious deportment and chased after a result ardently. The endeavor ultimately benefited the home side and left the Timbers with considerable work ahead to turn the tie around in the second leg.

The two disparate approaches ensured some difference in the ties without settling either of them. There is work still left to do for all four teams. And now it is up to all four teams to devise the approach required to advance to MLS Cup in two weeks’ time.

Houston 0 – Sporting Kansas City 0 (second leg: Nov. 23 in Kansas City, Kan.)

Both teams scrap for level pegging: The previous two playoff encounters and the exhaustive toil in midweek inspired a note of caution ahead of the first leg. Both teams entered the tie willing enough to muddle through to keep their chances alive in the second leg. It showed in the approach (rugged as usual from both sides) and the execution (neither team topped 65 percent passing accuracy, according to Opta statistics) during this ugly affair. The final result left both sides relatively satisfied. Now the onus will fall upon both of them to recover over the next two weeks and stump up a bit more incisiveness ahead of the return match.

Real Salt Lake 4 – Portland 2 (second leg: Nov. 24 in Portland, Ore.)

RSL uses tempo and width to tear apart the Timbers: Credit the Claret-and-Cobalt for assessing the landscape in this test against the fatigued visitors and tailoring its game plan accordingly. The usually narrow and tidy work through midfield transformed into a more expansive gambit using the wide areas consistently. RSL bombarded the Timbers penalty area with crosses (14 in the first half, according to Opta statistics) and tried to play behind the line early and often (see: Devon Sandoval’s sweeping third on the counter shortly after halftime) with Robbie Findley a constant menace. Portland buckled under the pressure and succumbed to RSL’s sharp work in every department. The job isn’t done yet, but RSL’s astute work at home – and, most importantly, its assured and furious response to Will Johnson’s opener – offers a firm foothold ahead of the difficult second leg at JELD-WEN Field in a fortnight.

9
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: Previewing the Conference finals

imageAfter squeaking past New England, a date with the Dynamo beckons for Sporting KC (Images: USA Today)

The achievement of advancing to the MLS conference championship comes with a significant caveat: there isn’t any time to relish it.

MLS found itself bound by an awkwardly placed FIFA date in the middle of November when it compiled its playoff schedule. Those strictures – complete with potential international duties for for some players next weekend – forced the league to compress the schedule to play the second leg of the conference semifinals in midweek and the first leg of the conference championships at the weekend.

The rather peculiar nature of this tie – compressed time frame at the start, yet two weeks between the first leg and the second leg – could naturally prompt some caution by all four sides still involved. Three of these four sides enter this fray after playing 120 minutes just a few days ago. Houston, in particular, must figure out a way to manage its fifth match in two weeks against a Sporting side capable of exerting high pressure from the start.

At this stage, the fundamental objective involves keeping the tie in play after the first leg to benefit from the fortnight off to recover. Other priorities – including the key questions outlined below and the prospect of taking a commanding first leg lead – fall a bit lower in the pecking order with a MLS Cup berth on the line during the third weekend in November.

Houston – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 2:30p.m. ET)

image

Is there a way for Sporting to exploit Corey Ashe’s absence?: Ashe received a one-match ban for caution accumulation when he picked up his second yellow card of the postseason at New York on Wednesday. His absence leaves Houston short on the left side (Mike Chabala offers the most likely replacement in a straight swap) and offers Sporting with a potential avenue to exploit. Sporting prefers to focus on its defensive duties away from home (and Ashe’s missing influence on the overlap with Brad Davis certainly helps here), but Ashe’s omission could entice some adjustments in Sporting’s midfield. Look for the industrious Graham Zusi to drift over to that side of the field to probe for space and use that channel to create room through the middle and provide service into the penalty area.

One other point worth noting with Ashe out: the onus will fall on Boniek Garcia and Kofi Sarkodie to bear most of the attacking burden on the right side. Garcia’s ability to tuck inside with Sarkodie on the overlap – plus Davis’ willingness to pinch on the far side when he does so – creates structural issues for Sporting defensively. If the Honduran international can locate the ball on a regular basis without suffering the inevitable foul in the middle third, then he could present significant problems for the normally resolute Sporting rearguard.

Real Salt Lake – Portland (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET)

imageCan Robbie Findley pull apart the Timbers’ defensive shape?: Findley must fill the role once inhabited by former RSL forward Fabián Espíndola and use his time on the field to create operating room for others. Findley’s ability to dart behind the line and peel off into wider areas poses matchup problems for a Timbers side with a dearth of pace and tactical discipline in central defense and a desire to push its fullbacks forward to support the attack. Javier Morales will do his part by sliding out to the left to avoid Diego Chara and Will Johnson, but Findley must provide similar runs on the right to break apart the Timbers’ rearguard. It is then down to the supporting cast to deliver service into the penalty area with the Timbers stretched and Álvaro Saborío (if recovered from the hip flexor knock aggravated on Thursday night) or a midfield runner or two (see: Sebastián Velásquez’s opener against LA Galaxy) to benefit from the chaos created.

8
Nov

Swarm of bees delays Copa Peru playoff match

Sometimes, Mother Earth likes to remind us humans that we’re really just entitled freeloaders who feel we can do what we want on her land.

Case in point: A swarm of bees wreaking havoc before a Copa Peru playoff match between CNI and Union Huaral.

Fans poured from the stands in an attempt to flee as the bees launched their attack (Pro tip: Try not to flail your arms if you find yourself under siege by bees. They’re attracted to movement!).

It appears no serious injuries occurred, although match referee Miguel Santivanez did get a sting that needed attention. He, and the match, carried on following the delay. CNI would go on to win, but Union Huaral advanced on aggregate.

Unfortunately for CNI, their attempt to “Tommy Boy” the opposition into fleeing altogether fell just short.

(h/t 101GreatGoals)

6
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs Preview: Conference semifinals 2nd legs

image

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – New England coach Jay Heaps captured the fraught nature of the toil ahead over the next two days as he assessed the Revolution’s situation ahead of the season-defining visit to Sporting Kansas City tonight.

“There’s a lot of work (ahead),” Heaps said earlier this week after his side claimed a 2-1 victory in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal tie on Saturday. “These are playoff scenarios in MLS: you have to be ready for halftime, basically. It’s just a long halftime. It’s a tough task. We have a couple of days to prepare. We’ll go in there ready.”

The entire season for eight teams boils down to the second half of a two-game, aggregate goals series. Each of the four semifinals – yes, even Portland up 2-1 heading into a second leg at JELD-WEN Field – hangs firmly in the balance after the first half. The job isn’t done yet, though. And the way these teams see out the second half will determine the composition of the final four when the last of these conference semifinal ties winds to a close on Friday morning.

New York – Houston (Wednesday, 8:00p.m. – tied 2-2 on aggregate)

How – if at all – will Houston adjust to Jamison Olave’s absence?
New York must take the field without its defensive leader after he procured a red card for his rash lunge on Omar Cummings during the first leg.  The corresponding alterations – Markus Holgersson into the middle, Brandon Barklage to fill the void at right back – appear relatively straightforward from the Red Bulls’ point of view. Houston’s amended approach remains a bit more uncertain, though. The most straightforward play involves dropping Giles Barnes or Will Bruin and injecting a bit of pace, but the Dynamo – tried and true in the postseason – could find other ways to exploit the deficiencies without altering its personnel group.

New England – Sporting Kansas City (Wednesday, 9:00p.m. – New England leads 2-1 on aggregate)

Can Sporting Kansas City muster the necessary sharpness in front of goal?
The question isn’t whether Sporting will produce the chance or two required to pull this tie level. The home side will enjoy enough of the ball and send enough numbers forward to threaten at some point. Whether this group can finally break through when presented with the requisite opportunity remains uncertain. If Sporting fails to find its equalizer in due course, then its ambition could prove its undoing with the Revs more than capable of absorbing the pressure with its stout defensive shape and exploiting the resulting space with tidy work on the counter.

Real Salt Lake – LA Galaxy (Thursday, 9:00p.m. – LA Galaxy leads 1-0 on aggregate)

Will Real Salt Lake find a way to translate its possession into goals?
Big matches at Rio Tinto Stadium often unfold along the same, frustrating lines for the home side: plenty of the ball, not enough incisiveness. The infuriating recent history provides further incentive to start well and place the Galaxy under the sword from the outset. The desire to rectify past ills comes with a caveat, though: RSL must carefully monitor where it concedes possession in order to prevent the visitors from dashing through midfield or exploiting the additional space ceded on the edge by penalty area with the return to the 4-4-2 diamond setup.

Portland – Seattle (Thursday, 11:00p.m. – Portland leads 2-1 on aggregate)

How often will Seattle place Clint Dempsey in a position to change this series?
Dempsey posed a constant threat in the first leg without converting in front of goal. Any improbable revival effort – and it is decidedly against the odds given Portland’s formidable home record and its ability to see out these sorts of matches with its work in possession – hinges on whether Dempsey can turn those openings into a more tangible end product. Seattle paid Dempsey handsomely to deliver in these sorts of spots. The formation and the team selection must provide him with the latitude to do so.

30
Oct

MLS Playoffs Preview: Knockout Round

image

The quest for MLS Cup commences in Seattle Wednesday night. Ten teams will embark upon this perilous journey with a single objective in mind. Two of them will drop out of the reckoning entirely by the end of Thursday night.

It is rather harsh justice to risk a season’s worth of toil with one game on short rest, but four teams find themselves in that predicament over the next two days. The binary nature of the process leaves no room for interpretation: advance with a win, exit with a defeat.

The outcome in both matches – Colorado’s trip to Seattle tonight, Montréal’s excursion to Houston tomorrow – rests upon finding a way to solve the inherent problems created by this difficult situation and snag the desired result. The answers to a few pressing questions along the way could determine the identity of the last two entrants into the final eight over the next few days:

Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids (Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET)

image

Is it time for the Sounders to make an MLS Cup final? (Action Images)

1. Can Seattle put its house in order?: Sounders coach Sigi Schmid faces considerable pressure to turn his talented squad around after a poor conclusion to the campaign squandered a direct berth into the Western Conference semifinals. Clint Dempsey’s first Seattle goal on Sunday night provides some hope of an uptick in his game, but Dempsey can’t solve all of the problems. Schmid must find a way to establish the necessary cohesiveness and rhythm in short order to avoid a disappointing – and yet entirely plausible – result on home turf and a vibrant offseason debate about his job status.

2. How will injuries influence team selection?: Schmid will likely omit Obafemi Martins (groin) from his plans. Colorado coach Oscar Pareja will probably cope without Dillon Powers (concussion) and ponder whether Vicente Sanchez (shoulder) is fit enough to feature from the outset. The potential absence of those three players will necessitate some adjustments, though Seattle has ample experience without Martins and Colorado possesses some options in midfield.

Read More

17
Oct

All to play for as race to MLS playoffs heats up

image

Image courtesy of Getty.

There are few certainties in the MLS playoff race heading into the final two weekends of the season. New York and Sporting Kansas City will take part. Several other teams will join them. A few more will miss out entirely.

Further verdicts remain difficult to draw. The compressed standings in both conferences create the possibility of widespread upheaval with one result going either way. There are likelihoods in play, but no firm guidelines to set forth with just a fortnight remaining.

At this stage of the campaign, favors fall upon teams willing to dispatch their business accordingly. There are few guarantees on the table right now, but this one is etched in stone: a pair of victories will improve your position substantially heading into the postseason.

New York, Sporting Kansas City, Houston jostle for top three seeds in the East

image

Remaining fixtures

RBNY: at Houston, vs. Chicago

SKC: vs. D.C. United, at Philadelphia

HOU: vs. New York, at D.C. United

New York holds a slim advantage in the race for top spot heading into the final two weeks, but a defeat in Houston on Sunday could break the race wide open. Sporting Kansas City could apply further pressure with a straightforward home victory over D.C. United on Friday. A couple of extra goals would help the cause: Sporting currently sits one goal behind the Red Bulls in the goals scored category, the second tiebreaker.

If Houston collect maximum points over the Red Bulls on Sunday, the Dynamo can maintain touching distance with the top two. The third seed — barring an outright collapse by either New York or Sporting — looks more likely given the Dynamo’s current points deficit and its disadvantage in both total wins (first tiebreaker) and goals scored.

Chicago, Montréal hold narrow edges in five-way battle for fourth and fifth spot

image

Remaining fixtures

MTL: vs. Philadelphia, at Toronto FC

CHI: vs. Toronto FC, at New York

PHL: at Montréal, vs. Sporting Kansas City

NE: vs. Columbus, at Columbus

CLB: at New England, vs. New England

The calculus for all five of these teams is fairly simple: win two games, then see what happens. If four of these five teams embark on a season ending tear (quite unlikely, indeed), then Montréal and Chicago will stand atop the heap.

It is difficult to envision Montréal rattling off two wins in a row at this stage given its recent form (see: the reserve-laden 1-0 defeat at LA Galaxy on Wednesday), but a favorable schedule – a home match against the goal-shy Union and a visit to TFC on the final day – and a strong position on tiebreakers at least gives the Impact a fighting chance. One win might even do it. Chicago fattened up on D.C. United and FC Dallas over the past couple of weeks to move into a promising position. Another victory over Toronto FC this weekend – combined with its superior wins total – leaves the Fire in reasonable stead.

Philadelphia likely needs a minimum of four points (and likely six) from its pair of difficult assignments to have a chance. New England essentially needs six points against the Crew given the state of play, though it could edge out the Fire or the Union on goals scored if four points somehow suffices for a fifth-place tie. Columbus needs two wins against the Revs and a whole lot of losses by everyone else to have a prayer.

Four teams in the mix for top three seeds out and one nasty door prize out West

image

Remaining fixtures

PDX: vs. Real Salt Lake, at Chivas USA

RSL: at Portland, vs. Chivas USA

LAG: vs. San Jose, at Seattle

SEA: at FC Dallas, vs. LA Galaxy

The top two sides in the Western Conference tangle at JELD-WEN Field on Saturday with an opportunity to stake a claim to the top seed. A draw should suffice for Portland with a visit to Chivas USA on the docket to end the season, but the Timbers’ iffy road form and their wins deficit provides plenty of incentive to take care of business at home and remove all doubt. RSL remains in good shape for the second seed even with a defeat: Jason Kreis’ side closes the season at home to Chivas USA in midweek (a likely victory) and possesses an edge on goals scored over the other two contenders if Portland finishes first.

LA Galaxy and Seattle look likely to qualify for the playoffs absent a total meltdown (and the Sounders sure are trying). Their ultimate playoff fate – two v. three in some order or four vs. five – hinges on the meeting at CenturyLink Park to conclude their respective seasons. Seattle will need to finish with more points (or wins) than any of its counterparts to avoid the goals scored tiebreaker. Any type of setback in Frisco on Saturday places Seattle in a must-win spot to avoid the fourth (or even fifth) seed heading into the final weekend of the season.

Colorado, Vancouver duel to the death as San Jose hopes for a chance to pounce

 image

Remaining fixtures

COL: vs. Vancouver, at Vancouver

SJ: at LA Galaxy, vs. FC Dallas

VAN: at Colorado, vs. Colorado

Colorado scuffed away a chance to essentially secure its playoff destiny in the 1-0 defeat at San Jose last week. Now the Rapids confront a tricky home-and-home test with a Vancouver side in line to hop over them with four points over the two matches (based on the goals scored tiebreaker). The good news for Colorado: one victory would eliminate the Whitecaps, require the Earthquakes to win both games to qualify (due to San Jose’s vastly inferior goals scored record).

San Jose needs considerable help from the Whitecaps to claim the final playoff spot due to tiebreakers. One victory in two matches would suffice if Vancouver picks up exactly four points. More than likely, the Earthquakes will need at least four (if both Colorado-Vancouver matches in draws) and probably six (in a bid to edge out a Colorado side with four points gained or a Vancouver outfit with two wins) points to snatch an improbable postseason place.

10
Nov

Five Things to Watch: Western Conference Championship 1st Leg


By Kyle McCarthy
 
Seattle travels to Los Angeles to open the Western Conference championship on Sunday night. Here are five points to watch ahead of the enticing first leg encounter at the Home Depot Center:
 
1. Will Mauro Rosales feature?: Seattle coach Sigi Schmid all but ruled out his creative lynchpin after the 1-0 victory at Real Salt Lake on Thursday night. If Rosales isn’t able to shake off his hamstring knock in time for the first leg, then the Sounders must find some alternative way to create opportunities for Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero.
 
2. It is time for Christian Tiffert to shine: The German midfielder assumed Rosales’ station on the right flank without contributing his usual influence on the game. Tiffert possesses the ability and the pedigree to turn the match at this level. Now would mark a pretty good time to start doing it with a decent ball or two from the right side.

Read More

10
Nov

Five Things to Watch: Eastern Conference Championship 1st Leg

By: Kyle McCarthy

D.C. United travels to Houston to kick off the two-legged Eastern Conference championship on Sunday afternoon. Here are five points to watch as the two sides prepare to duel at BBVA Compass Stadium:

1. Mitigating the damage: United suffered two defeats in the Oven this season. Ben Olsen and his players would probably take a repeat of the stadium-opening 1-0 setback on May 12, but they simply cannot afford another 4-0 thumping as they did on July 15 if they want to secure a berth in MLS Cup.

2. Maintaining the necessary energy: In order to avoid a repeat of that July debacle, United must somehow find a way to avoid the common second-half fade most teams suffer in Houston. This gritty group won’t back down (as evidenced by the ridiculousness in Harrison on Thursday night), but it must find some way to grind through a match that will prove even more difficult as it enters the late stages.

Read More

1
Nov

FOX Soccer caught up with Vancouver Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit ahead of their playoff clash with the LA Galaxy on Thursday night. Vancouver is the first Canadian team to make the MLS playoffs, and they must face the reigning MLS Cup champions in a one-off knockout match away at the Home Depot Center.

"With our backs against the wall as an underdog, you go in there and just fight," DeMerit said.

Check out this video to hear more from DeMerit on what it means for him to have reached this milestone, and his hopes for the future of the club.