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.

4
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: What we learned from Conference Semifinal 1st legs

imageImages: USA Today

LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena summed up the tenuous state of the MLS Conference Semifinal ties in his typically succinct way on Sunday night.

“I’d rather be the team ahead,” Arena told reporters after his side claimed a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in Carson, Calif. “These are always difficult matches. All the games in the league are all competitive going into the second game. It’s going to be difficult. Obviously, having the one goal is a real plus, but it’s going to take a heck of an effort in the next 90 minutes.”

It took plenty of energy to even reach the halfway point in these series, truth be told. All eight teams enter midweek with genuine hopes of booking a place in the final four, but they must heed the lessons learned from a nervy weekend in order to claim it:

New England 2 – Sporting Kansas City 1

Precision provides Revolution with a foothold: New England ceded possession by design (38 percent accrued on the night, according to Opta statistics) in this first leg in a bid to draw Sporting out and exploit the ensuing space. Sporting, for the most part, resisted those urges and retained its shape superbly, but two lapses – one iffy clearance, one instance of poor closing through midfield – invited the Revs to attack swiftly. The tidiness displayed in those sequences – particularly the sumptuous second rounded off by Kelyn Rowe’s outside of the foot finish – punished Sporting for its modest letdowns. If the Revs can produce similarly neat combination play as Sporting eventually commits numbers into the attack on Wednesday night, then they could book a place in the Eastern Conference championship.

image

Read More

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

19
Jul

Houston Dynamo honor fallen firefighters, support local community

image

Photo: Houston Dynamo

Soccer teams are often considered the backbone of their communities, but the Houston Dynamo went above the call of duty earlier this week

Less than two months ago, four Houston-area firefighters were lost in a blaze while searching for victims of an early morning fire. The deadliest day in the Houston Fire Department’s (HFD) history, the local community, including the Dynamo, immediately embraced the families of the fallen heroes, raising more than $20,000 for the families of recently fallen firefighters.

While the team visited the stations in which the lost firefighters were based, players wore a special HFD patch during their match against Toronto FC in June. The Dynamo also made sure to help the families in a functional way, organizing a special ticketing promotion as well as raising funds outside of the team’s BBVA Compass Stadium prior to the match:

During an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear emphasized the importance of professional athletes supporting their local communities:

"When the players can use sport to help other causes, it’s doing more than just being a professional athlete, it’s being a part of the community and using their talents to help out others. I think it just shows that the organization has the right mind and the players always do. I think the city of Houston is lucky to have the HFD and also lucky to have the Houston Dynamo."

Here’s to the Houston Dynamo, setting an example for clubs across the nation and around the world.