Five things we learned over two legs of the first round of the MLS playoffs:
But the other high seeds, well, they have a little explaining to do. Real Salt Lake, Columbus and New York were eliminated in upsets.
Real Salt Lake's loss to Dallas probably represents only a misdemeanor offense; the defending champs fell to a team that was a bugger to beat all year. But Columbus has issues, which Colorado expertly exploited. And the best DPs money can buy couldn't help New York overcome scrappy San Jose. The Red Bulls actually took a lead into Saturday's return leg in New Jersey but flopped big time.
The higher seeds' failures will add another talking point to owners' meetings coming up in Toronto, where the playoff structure will be up for inspection. The first-round, home-and-away format provides little advantage to teams that were superior through the entire regular season (i.e., the higher seeds).
At least the higher seeds get an edge now, as Los Angeles and Colorado will play host to this weekend's conference finals. Suggested MLS playoff motto if the league retains the current format: "Our high seeds get an advantage -- they just have to stick around for a while to enjoy it!"
The owners will also surely discuss the wacky geography of it all. Really, San Jose and Colorado playing this week for the,
Say what you will about a deeply flawed playoff structure, but it did provide pulsating theater, with three of the series wrapped in tension right down to the final kick.
Los Angeles was always in charge against Seattle, but the others where thrillers. San Jose-New York was in the balance all the way as Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski finally did for the Earthquakes what Thierry Henry couldn't for New York -- finish from in close at the moment of truth.
Colorado's classy Conor Casey-Omar Cummings combo hooked up yet again to send the Rapids-Columbus series into a mini-game and then into penalty kicks. And RSL, the defending champs, tried mightily but couldn't push one more past FC Dallas to extend that first-round affair.
Not because the Galaxy looked so well prepared and performed with purpose and precision. That's a product of wily veterans and a coach who has been there. Rather, it was Seattle's lack of fight and lack of response after last week's meek-as-a-mouse outing that was simply stunning.
Everyone around that club has questions to answer, including the coach. Sigi Schmid made no lineup changes after last week's humbling 1-0 loss at home. Alvaro Fernandez was brought on at halftime, and to good effect. But, truly, if a team's second DP (Fernandez) isn't starting in a do-or-die playoff contest, then someone did something wrong somewhere along the personnel chain.
And tactically, it was checkers versus chess out there! Any series in any sport is about response the next time out; it's about improving what needs attention. Then the other guy responds to your response, you counterpunch and so on. Only the Sounders didn't appear to change a thing, failing epically to get their speedy flank players into positions where they could exploit favorable matchups.
Schmid also doesn't look good with his postgame whining about L.A.'s first goal. He felt that "clever" ole David Beckham hoodwinked referee Baldomero Toledo by taking a telling corner kick from his preferred right side. But Toledo clearly pointed to the right -- which means Beckham did just as instructed. If the Sounders weren't paying attention, well, that's their problem.
But don't let a corner kick in question be a red herring. The Sounders simply got whupped by a team that rose to the occasion. L.A.'s commitment over 180 minutes exposed Seattle's personnel shortcomings. The Sounders' center backs weren't good enough; their fullbacks couldn't pose enough offensive thrust; passing through the midfield was muddled and slow; Fredy Montero continued to slump; Blaise Nkufo was always lurking too far from goal; and the outside midfielders, particularly Sanna Nyassi, just weren't shrewd enough to get the ball in good spots.
L.A. isn't perfect, but the Galaxy hid their deficiencies in a way Seattle never came close to doing.
"We played well and we're going to need more of that kind of effort next week against Dallas," Arena said.
Take the Earthquakes. You wouldn't be wrong to tab Bobby Convey as San Jose's Man of the Moment. The former U.S. international, now doing the right things on the field to resurrect an international career that has long been on ice, ruled the night at Red Bull Arena with two huge goals and an equally massive assist.
But another Earthquake has a good case, too. The Bay bunch wouldn't even have been in a position to make Convey's big night matter if not for Jon Busch. The American keeper's big saves a week earlier at Buck Shaw Stadium helped limit the damage as San Jose meekly acquiesced in that 1-0, opening-leg loss. Busch was big in the return leg, too, with timely saves and other important interventions near goal. (And kudos, once again, to manager Frank Yallop for shrewdly collecting Busch off the scrap heap after his surprising release from Chicago.)
For Dallas, there was big, brave defending by center backs Ugo Ihemelu and George John. There was goalkeeping by Kevin Hartman that was solid overall, sometimes superb and occasionally serendipitous. And there was gritty diligence from midfielder Dax McCarty, who also had the critical goal in Saturday's dramatic 1-1 draw, which was good enough to clinch the series.
But it was Dallas' David Ferreira who helped arrange all three FCD goals in the series, including McCarty's. A week earlier, the tightly packed Colombian creator zipped a pass into Jeff Cunningham for one goal. Later he used that low center of gravity to hold off three hardy RSL challenges, keeping possession before slipping the ball to Eric Avila for a game-winner.
But honestly, things weren't
And yet, change may be hard to avoid as the club crashed out in the first round of the playoffs once again. And fading down the stretch will always draw the harsher rebuke; if you start slowly, gain momentum and then crash out with a mighty fight, you get the benefit of the doubt because appearances say you're on the rise. The way Columbus has done it two years in a row -- not so much.
Saturday's second half was a microcosm of the entire season. Coach Robert Warzycha's team was large and in charge over the first 45, probably unlucky not to have a bigger lead than 1-0. But the team faded noticeably in the second half -- not unlike the way it looked (slow, haggard) over the last few weeks of the season.
But it's not like the team is that old. It may seem so because two prominent players are so far north of 30: Guillermo Barros Schelotto is 37, and Frankie Hejduk is 36. And neither was particularly impressive over two legs against Colorado's bunch of busy bees.
Otherwise, the bulk of Columbus' roster is fairly young. Look at the foursome that got the job done and then some Saturday: Eddie Gaven is 24, Emmanuel Ekpo is 22, Robbie Rogers is 23 and Chad Marshall is 26. (All four turned in strong performances in Saturday's return leg.) When someone who is 26 represents the old man of your engine block, you're doing something right.
So what gives?
One explanation for two first-round exits as favorites is a lack of a reliable striker to combine with and get the best from Schelotto. And haven't we played this broken record around Crew Stadium before?
Steven Lenhart, more a banger and brawler than a technician near goal, scored six times this year. That's just not enough for your first-choice striker. That actually represented an improvement over last year's top-choice striker, Alejandro Moreno, who hit just four times in 2009. Management simply must do better at identifying and securing someone with a better nose for goal.
As for Schelotto, he wants one more season in Ohio, but hardly helped his case with two ineffective playoff nights. Would he have looked better with an A-list striker playing in front of him? We may never know.
Either way, Warzycha seems likely to return -- even if the breathless, reactionary public sentiment is leaning elsewhere. The owner, Hunt Sports Group, is always fairly conservative on these matters. Remember, a lot of the same folks once wanted Schmid fired in Columbus a few years back -- until he brought a championship to Ohio, that is.
Angel, 35, feels unwanted, and team officials haven't exactly argued the point. It looks like a foregone conclusion that the talented, veteran Colombian won't return to New York for a fifth season.
But was Angel really that bad? Or was he merely inadequate for the DP price? After all, he did score the goal that appeared to put the Red Bulls back in the thick of things last Thursday. If only Henry could say the same -- the fab Frenchman blew it, launching his late, unchallenged header from point-blank range safely over the crossbar.
Angel still seems to have something to offer. He ranked sixth this season with 13 goals. And his target play would be perfect for some clubs -- including a couple still in the playoffs.
Dallas' 4-1-4-1 formation is ideal for a hold-up sort. One dirty little secret is that the Red Stripes are getting it done despite two strikers, Milton Rodriguez and Cunningham, who are completely ill suited for the role that such a system truly requires.
Elsewhere, San Jose's direct approach needs a target man, and Angel would definitely be an upgrade over Ryan Johnson. Johnson is strong and brave, but in terms of instinct, awareness and overall sophistication, there's no comparison with Angel.
Finally, Columbus could possibly use him. It might be tricky to pair him with Schelotto, as that would severely hamper the amount of pressure the two front-runners could provide. Then again, that could possibly be solved with the right midfield blend. There are plenty of worker bees available out there, some quite reasonably priced.