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)

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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.

11
Oct

USA supporters steal the show at Sporting Park

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Sporting Park began to fill up an hour before the match started. Just before kickoff, hundreds of American flags were held up, waving magnificently in the breeze as the supporters chanted their admiration for the USA.

The national anthem was a thing to behold. More than 18,000 fans in the stands belted it out at the top of their lungs, holding their scarves in the air, setting a stunning scene for their boys in red, white and blue.

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USA fans before the match. (Image courtesy of USA Today Sports Images)

While the United States had already qualified for the 2014 World Cup, and their final two qualifiers are essentially meaningless, it didn’t feel that way on Friday night at Sporting Park when they took on Jamaica.

The atmosphere was electric from the get-go. Even before the match began, the American Outlaws and many other fans filled the stadium, chanting and getting hyped.

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Despite a pretty dull game for the first 80 minutes or so, the fans kept bringing the noise despite a lack of any interesting action on the pitch.

When hometown hero Graham Zusi finally broke the deadlock, the crowd at Sporting Park went absolutely bonkers. Not long after, Jozy Altidore kept the party going to score the USA’s second. The USA would go on to win 2-0, clinching first place in the Hex.

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Fans at Sporting Park. (Image courtesy of USA Today Sports Images)

After the match, most of the crowd stuck around as Jurgen Klinsmann and the team thanked them for making them feel at home. His players gave Klinsmann a nice cold Gatorade bath, following by the German pumping his fists in the air to Macklemore. It was a moment of pure joy that these fans shared with their team.

The thunderous roars, the chants, jumping up and down, and the sea of stars and stripes in Kansas City won’t soon be forgotten.

11
Oct

American Outlaws celebrate milestone in Kansas City

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Ever since the American Outlaws was founded in 2007, they have slowly but surely gained popularity among the US soccer fan base. On Thursday night in Kansas City, they hit a big milestone: Wichita became the 100th chapter of the Outlaws.

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It doesn’t take much to become an official chapter. To apply, the group must have 25 official members, and a bar that will show every single game, with audio, no matter what.

When this whole thing started in 2007, the idea was to bring fans together across the United States, to “unite and strengthen” the fan base and support US Soccer in one concerted effort.

"People were looking for the type of group that did something for every single game," Chris Donahoo, one of the founders, said in Kansas City on Thursday night before the USA qualifier against Jamaica. "Not just qualifiers, not just World Cup, not just Gold Cup, but friendlies. We needed to have something for everybody to go to every single game."

It’s taken six years to get here, but the Outlaws are showing no signs of slowing, with a presence at every single match.

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The Outlaws in Columbus were 9,000 strong. (Image courtesy of Getty)

"It started in 2007 from Lincoln, Nebraska, where we made the first chapter. Ever since then, we got two or three new chapters the first year, the second year we got 5-10 more, and then tonight here we are, 2013, getting ready to go to Brazil and we announced our 100th chapter and it’s really just been exponential,” Donahoo said.

And their plans for Brazil are quite impressive. The first organized Outlaws travel for a World Cup was in 2010, when 55 members went to South Africa. Now for 2014, the number of fans wanting to travel increased.

"Before we had even qualified, we sold three charter jets from Houston to Brazil. And, we have a 1,500 person wait list to get on the jets if those people can’t go," Donahoo said. "It’s not a credit to us, it’s not a credit to US Soccer it’s a credit to the people that are fans out there that believe in US Soccer, so I think that this is just the beginning."

It’s become clear that the American Outlaws are here to stay, helping bring fans across the country together one chapter at a time.