Monday, October 24, 2011

The MLS Grinder: Handicapping the playoffs

The very definition of "strange alchemy"
We've arrived at the doorstep. After weeks of conjecture and jockeying, we're banging on the door. So consider this your MLS playoff primer, where the Grinder will launch you into the postseason stratosphere with an explosive quality that DeRo's boot can't even match. This being the Grinder, looks down the road only come insofar as the weekend that was. With that in mind, we'll tackle the games that mattered over the weekend; specifically why they mattered and what they mean. So if you were looking for snappy analysis of that cracking TFC-Revs draw, I'll have to direct you elsewhere.

Finally, I'll come through with a few playoff predictions, some outlandish, some not so much. Let's snap to it, eh?

Houston 3, LA Galaxy 1
Result: The Dynamo had to be licking their chops at this fixture. Not only was the game in Houston, but LA's regular season effectively ended last week. Having already secured the Supporters Shield and homefield throughout the playoffs, Sunday's result was immaterial for those western warriors who have scythed through MLS with such impunity. The final tally was reflective. Jack McBean, a 16-year-old striker from Newport Beach, Calif., played the full 90 (next to former UEFA Champions League goalscorer Jovan Kirovski) and got his first MLS goal well before his first whisker. A further two Galaxy pine-surfers got their first career starts, two more LA players made their season debuts and Sean Franklin played for the first time in a month and a half. With the field tilted, the Dynamo bossed play and held a sturdy 3-0 lead on goals from Bobby Boswell, Carlo Costly and Adam Moffat before McBean struck two minutes from time.

What it means: This was a throwaway game for the Galaxy, but for Houston, it was a game freighted with meaning. By playing on Sunday night, the Dynamo knew they couldn't win the East, but by beating LA they would assure themselves second place. With the rest of the dominoes falling as they did, Houston clinched homefield on the second leg for a big conference semifinal series with Philly, which starts on Sunday.

In other news, Brad Davis' cross to free up Carlo Costly's goal pushed him ahead of Becks for 16 assists on the year to lead the league. Dude is shutting down the Rob like a pro.

Sporting KC 1, DC United 0
Result: A part of me could have excused DC for packing it in for their season finale after botching their stretch run for a playoff spot. They were in it until they were suddenly and violently treading water despite Dwayne De Rosario's magic touch (that's Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario to you). But Saturday's result was in doubt for portions late in the first half, when a few dangerous exchanges in front of Jimmy Nielsen's area threatened SKC's bid. Matt Besler's unassisted goal in the 54th minute put a stop to those thoughts, and Kei Kamara's continued pressure burst DC's spoiler hopes.

What it means: SKC held the only key to the lock that opened the heavy door leading to the Eastern Conference title. Win and the East is yours, and homefield advantage along with it. It was a mantle Besler was all too happy to sling onto his shoulders. Besler, as the linked video notes, was named SKC's defender of the year for 2011. Normally a team accolade like this wouldn't necessarily warrant much attention, but consider that two of his mates on the back line - Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers - are in the top five in the Castrol Index.

San Jose 4, FC Dallas 2 / RSL 1, Portland 1
Results: We twine these two together for several reasons, but none more important than because RSL and FCD were scoreboard watching this weekend. In addition to their matches, the West's final automatic spot was up for grabs. While RSL did just enough, hanging on for a draw after a late equalizer from Futty Danso, FCD crashed into a twisted, molten heap. FCD's back line was missing Ugo Ihemelu and Zach Loyd, and San Jose shredded the replacements. The Quakes scored four times in the space of 12 minutes in the first half for a shock 4-0 lead in a game the Hoops' needed desperately. Goals from Ruben Luna and a stoppage time consolation header from George John did nothing to ease the sting of a mighty big game that went horribly awry.

What it means: Two of the West's three automatic qualifiers had already been decided by the weekend. The third only belonged to RSL by virtue of goal differential. RSL's draw earlier Saturday laid out the map for FCD: with the goal differential beyond hope, a win was the only course. By fatally missing missing the ledge, the Hoops are on interesting ground. While they may have given RSL the bye and possibly a CONCACAF Champions League spot if Seattle or LA make the MLS Cup final, Dallas is thrown into the softer Eastern Conference playoff pool. By losing, Dallas avoids RSL, Seattle and LA until the final. If there's such a thing as a savvy loss, here it is.

New York 1, Philadelphia 0
Result: This midweek tilt was an enormous one for both clubs, but only the Red Bulls took points. Fireball winger Dane Richards got to a header in the 7th minute and that was all she wrote. Philly almost equalized when Carlos Valdez nodded in a Sebastian Le Toux free kick in the 70th minute, but offside wiped the call off the board. Otherwise, the back four of Solli, Keel, Ream and Miller was an effective one.

What it means: We discussed last week that New York's playoff formula was painfully simple: win and you're in. They avoided the dreaded mathematical scenario pit by taking care of Philly and in the process taking the Union's playoff fate out of their hands. The win was a straight clincher, and the Union had stockpiled enough points to ride out the storm for an automatic bid and a bye. Philly would've loved a shot at the title, but for a franchise making its first foray into the playoffs, there can be few complaints.

Now it's prediction time. Some of these limbs are rather weak, so bear with me.

- David Ferreira and Javier Morales will both get on the stat sheet in the 2011 playoffs after being saddled with brutal ankle injuries earlier this year.

The Morales pick isn't such a stretch. He returned from his horrific ankle snap on Sept. 28 and is returning to form. Ferreira though? The defending MVP still hasn't totally recuperated from his April ankle injury, and reports state he won't return for FCD unless the Hoops voyage deep into the playoffs. So here's to that. And here's this.

- The Sounders will lose at Rio Tinto and won't be able to make up the aggregate at home, thus falling yet again in the playoffs despite USOC success.

- SKC's Teal Bunbury will be the leading scorer in the playoffs.

- The MLS will continue to ignore calls for a single playoff bracket and the abolition of this strange post-wild card seeding. Considering Seattle and RSL, teams with the second- and third-best records in the league, have a forced meeting in the conference semis, the furor will be louder than ever. And it will be summarily ignored because, "This is American soccer and we don't conform and yadda yadda, same crap every year."

- SKC will traipse through the East, LA will murder its opponents in the West, and the Galaxy will win the final in a shootout after a thrilling 2-2 draw through regulation and extra time. Donovan will score the winning goal, sprint to the stands and engage in an epic makeout session with inamorata Bianca. Count it.

- Will Parchman


jon said...

Is it a requirement to use "The MLS" when engaging in a eurosnob rant?
Snark aside, do you think the more widespread playoff derision (for which, I admit, I am party to) will fade when MLS goes unbalanced (ugh) next year and hopefully drops the wild-card crossover?

Greg Seltzer said...

I always chuckle when someone utters the term "Euro-snob" as it is essentially what can be supposed as the purest act of an "MLS-snob". :D

Will Parchman said...

Something will have to change. You can't do the same with 19 that you did with 18. That being said, this convoluted wild card system is a toxic mix with the playoff conference split. I can see MLS simply modifying it to squeeze in another team instead of overhauling it as they will if Miami's franchise is rebooted or (gasp) the Cosmos come back for #20.

The bottom line is that MLS is married to this playoff format and are throwing myriad kitchen sinks at it to make it viable. The playoff system as a whole isn't going anywhere. That I don't necessarily have a problem with. This isn't Europe and conformity for the sake of it isn't necessary. BUT, MLS can't lean on that like a crutch when critics rightly point out that the current bracket system is horribly broken.

Jay said...

The current bracket system is only horribly broken because the eastern conference isn't holding up their end of the bargain. As in: they're stinking it up.

Playoff format won't change next season at all. Ten teams in, nine teams out.

In the end, MLS is married to this playoff format because they are married to the idea of two conferences. If you go to a single playoff table, there's no merit AT ALL to having conferences. And they are sold on conferences because they really want, one day, to have a 40-team league. It's like MLB in reverse.

Finally, Miami's franchise isn't coming back until the city can get more then 9k to a USMNT match.

Will Parchman said...

MLS needs to use the playoffs as a guide to what they decide the regular season format should be. Based on the return, that would indicate eliminating conferences altogether and picking playoff teams out of one pool. The last two years, a Western team won the Eastern Conference. Three years ago, an Eastern team won the West. It's nonsensical.

Yes, the East is weaker, and thus that side of the bracket is clearer. But it's crooked that the system rewards successful teams by lumping them into a tougher field and gives weaker teams a pass. What's the reward/point of finishing second in a 34-game regular season if Seattle has to play the third-best team out of 10 that qualified? Placing them all in a single jumble eliminates these issues. But then they'd have to look at the conference system, and who know when that happens, if ever.

jon said...

Aside from Garber's vague interview bits, the league hasn't issued a statement about scheduling/conferences for next year. But all the teams are promoting 17 game season ticket packages for next year, do the math.