Injuries mar MLS playoff landscape
There was a funny moment on the national broadcast of Thursday's MLS playoff opener (a
Nope. Probably not. Because when it comes to injury distress in MLS, there's a lot of that going around. Several standouts are ailing, and how teams deal with the losses will influence these first-round, two-leg, total goals series.
Hesmer's loss had looked like one of the toughest gut punches. It didn't prove too meaningful, however, in the first leg of the Crew's faceoff with Colorado's potent offense. The Rapids pressed Columbus for about 75 minutes Thursday but just couldn't direct enough shots on goal to truly test backup Andy Gruenebaum.
So for one night at least, Hesmer's injury for Robert Warzycha's team wasn't an issue. (On the other hand, that overmatched midfield and ineffective pair of starting forwards were problems that need to be addressed.)
The Red Bulls will be without designated player Thierry Henry, important rookie midfielder Tony Tchani and striker Salou Ibrahim for Saturday's away leg against San Jose. Henry, of course, is the most high-profile playoff absence. But the true hit to coach Hans Backe's Red Bulls may be a little less meaningful as Henry has generally been more of a threat than actual menace.
(By the way: Henry is a finalist as Newcomer of the Year? The man played 11 matches. He scored two goals -- about $2.75 million a goal, which is good work if you can get it. There's something wrong with a process that lumps a two-goal scorer into the trio of Newcomer of the Year finalists. The only saving grace is that Henry has virtually no chance against a pair of far more deserving candidates, workhorse teammate Joel Lindpere and highly effective Real Salt Lake target striker Alvaro Saborio.)
Backe has been a big Mehdi Ballouchy advocate since his Red Bulls faced the technically gifted attacker last spring. Now the former Colorado Rapids man, a Red Bulls late-season pickup via trade, gets a shot in the spotlight. He seems sure to start with Henry and Ibrahim ruled out for the opening leg.
Even if Henry hasn't been all that just yet, Backe would surely like him around. Such a presence can fills teammates with confidence and distract the opposition in big matches. But none of that will happen as Henry continues to train on his own in New York while the team travels west.
"We'll try again with the ball next week," Backe said this week. "It'll still be day by day."
The Red Bulls will get no sympathy from FC Dallas, which possibly has more serious problems than New York, starting with its goalkeeper. Kevin Hartman, who was en route to a record-setting season, hasn't played since Henry clobbered a ball idling at the goalkeeper's right foot after a goal on Sept.16.
Hartman, who suffered an MCL sprain that night, has returned to training but Schellas Hyndman has yet to declare a starter. Dallas' chances of upsetting reigning league champion Real Salt Lake fall dramatically if Hartman can't start; backup Dario Sala has allowed at least one soft goal pretty much every game in net lately.
Captain Daniel Hernandez has played just once since that Sept. 16 match against the Red Bulls, when he suffered a hamstring pull. He says he's fit and ready -- but he doesn't exactly sound like a guy who completely believes it. Center back Ugo Ihemelu and George John recently returned from injury layoffs, so neither could possibly be in tip-top form.
And now this: U.S. international Heath Pearce suffered a hamstring injury working out on his own while the team was away. (He was serving a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.) The team has listed its starting right back as questionable, but an appearance seems highly unlikely. Pearce, one of the vital elements of the side's vastly improved defense in 2010, hasn't trained at all this week.
One of his possible replacements, versatile Brazilian Jackson, also has a hamstring strain, one picked up last weekend against Los Angeles. Rookie Zach Loyd, who has filled in impressively at right back and center back this year, seems the most likely choice.
Hernandez and Hartman are vital since they are among the few players on Hyndman's roster with MLS playoff experience. Hyndman said Hernandez has been a terrific captain whose ability to calm the locker room before kickoff and hold players accountable afterward is important. Same for Hartman. In the goalkeeper's case, it's not just the superior shot stopping. "His communication really helps us," Hyndman said Thursday. "He helps players before they get themselves in dire straits."
Real Salt Lake might be able to better exploit Loyd's inexperience -- except that its own hardworking man along that side is hurt. Indefatigable Canadian midfielder Will Johnson is listed as questionable after straining a hamstring in practice Tuesday. Saborio is also hampered and missed time this week, although he is expected to play.
The Los Angeles-Seattle series is less affected by injuries. The Sounders do have several players out because of long-term injuries, including valuable starting center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. But coach Sigi Schmid has plugged the gaps with able players, and the Sounders were the better team of the two over the last two months.
One explanation for L.A.'s recent dip in form was Gregg Berhalter's absence. The veteran center back, who has been a perfect complement to Defender of the Year finalist Omar Gonzalez, got back on the field two weeks ago. He was rested for the season finale but has been practicing full speed lately and team officials say he's available for selection.
That means coach Bruce Arena has a choice to make. A.J. DeLaGarza lined up at center back in the season finale and could get the call again. Arena has choices elsewhere, as all 24 Galaxy players trained on Thursday (although backup center back Leonardo had to step out with a minor injury later). Would that a few other managers could say the same about their last practices before the postseason.