Monday, October 31, 2011

The MLS Grinder: One leg forward

Perk up, Jurgen.
Don't mean to be that guy, but I'd like to quickly revisit two of my outlandish postseason predictions and provide a brief update.

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

So far so good. Bunbury buried a pair Sunday, including a penalty kick to ice it, in a 2-0 win over defending champs Colorado. 

- 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.

This is a virtual 100 percent lock. Seattle was embarrassed in a 3-0 implosion at Rio Tinto on Saturday night and the Sounders need a miracle of biblical proportions to qualify for the conference final. Anyway, wanted to get that nasty business out of the way. Me being right happens so infrequently that I need to splash the gong when I hit a few on the nose.

The theme of the week has to be "road warriors," doesn't it? Home teams failed to hold serve on three of four occasions, with Sporting KC and the Galaxy both grabbing a significant edge in their series with road victories to take back home for this week's matchups. As (my) favorites to win their respective conference titles, those were necessary hurdles to clear. Meanwhile, RSL was the lone home team to protect the castle, violently thrashing Seattle with a beating that will leave the USOC champs wondering how exactly it is that you win in the postseason. Answers are not easily forthcoming. Let's break this down, shall we? And let's start with the real meaty one of the weekend. Call it your game of the week.

LA Galaxy 1, New York 0

Fascinating game. It had electricity, a tremendous amount of chances and vacillated between the edges of collapse for both sides in the second half. I predicted on Friday that LA would shred New York's back line if something didn't change from its blindingly mediocre performance against FCD. The outcome: kinda sorta. The conditions limited LA's ability to finish. Record snow blanketed the northeast last week and the field was worse for the wear, two distinct vehicle tracks evident on either side of the field that made slippages commonplace. But it also made for some interesting passages. Mike Magee's goal stood eventually, when he beat the offside trap and Carlos Mendes, Stephen Keel and Tim Ream were all caught watching, lazily covering back with their hands raised as Frank Rost (that's DP Frank Rost, by the by) gave minimal effort on a shot across his face. It was the kind of haphazard defending of which New York has been guilty for the past month or so, and it cost them an away goal in the aggregate.

For all the stick he's taken in the press over the years, David Beckham can no longer be labeled a disinterested sulker. Well, perhaps a sulker, but certainly not disinterested. His assist totals were paltry by his standards the last few years, but as the best right foot in the league (Brad Davis owns the league's best left) he finally looked world class consistently this season. If this is his last year in MLS, as it appears to be, he's helped his legacy. It's up for debate what that legacy will show. Grant Wahl's expose will never be far from the discussion, but I think his contract year was easily the best and most cohesive of his MLS career. I choose to believe that to be a coincidence. He did a fair bit of tracking back on Sunday, something he couldn't have been bothered to do much of in his early MLS days. I was impressed.

The last 10 minutes or so were easily the most entertaining. With a tremendous amount of pressure pouring down on New York, Rafa Marquez (who I'll get to in a sec) nearly sprung the release valve in the 91st minute on a hard drive that Josh Saunders got a right hand on to push away. Which brings us around to Saunders' heroic performance. Donovan Ricketts was healthy but Arena went with Saunders instead, electing not to bring a cold keeper off a lengthy injury stint and inject him right into the playoffs on the road. Smart move. Saunders saved LA's bacon numerous times, none of them more impressive than a pair of saves in the first five minutes of the second half to deny clear goal opportunities. The first, a one-on-one windmill save he parried away from Dane Richards with his right hand, produced gasps of exasperation from the Red Bulls Arena crowd. The second, an even closer point blank save with his other hand this time on Joel Lindpere's effort off a Richards cross, was plain batty. Saunders got my game ball. If I owned one.

Lastly, couldn't escape this without throwing another barb at Rafa Marquez, who once again proved his mental midgetry on Sunday. After the final whistle, he picked up the ball and tossed it at Donovan's legs, took a weak swing at Adam Cristman in the ensuing melee and dropped to the ground holding his face in mock pain at incidental contact in a crowd of angry but otherwise harmless soccer players. The sooner this cat leaves the league the better.

Sporting KC 2, Colorado 0
The main thing that struck me about this game was SKC's size advantage. Sporting is big. C.J. Sapong is 6-1. Teal Bunbury is 6-2. Kei Kamara is 6-3. That's your front three in the 4-3-3, and all three have speed to burn. Besler, Collin and Myers at the back are all at least six feet tall. It's no small wonder KC is the best team in the air in the league. They're also the biggest.

Colorado is strapped for bodies. The Rapids paid a steep cost for getting past Columbus in the wild card round when midfielder Jamie Smith tore his ACL. On Sunday, forward Caleb Folan landed awkwardly and had to be pulled before halftime. Defender Kosuke Kimura left Sunday's game with what the team fears is a fractured left foot. Defender Drew Moor, the heart of that defense, suffered a shoulder injury and only continued on pain killers before being yanked in the 60th minute. Don't forget either, Conor Casey and Pablo Mastroeni also missed the game, so the Rapids had a skeleton crew out there by the 90th. Tyrone Marshall's takedown of Bunbury in the box led to the second goal on a PK and Marshall was shown a straight red for his troubles. Stupid, stupid challenge. I'm not 100 percent convinced that it was that harsh, but you can't give the ref that kind of choice in the first place. I especially enjoyed the finger wag FSC captured from a disapproving Rapids fan in a sky box as Marshall ranted and raved his way past the man's glass window. Priceless.

Here's Bunbury's first slick goal. SKC did nothing to challenge my assertion that they are favorites to lay claim to the Eastern Conference title. As injured as Colorado is, taking care of business on the road in a conference semi is never easy.

Best of the rest

- Dom Kinnear is a fabulous coach. I've always admired the way he's gone about his business, and Sunday's pristine 2-1 result away at Philly drove that home. THIS is why I'll take Brad Davis over David Beckham on set pieces every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

But really... "Hainault, hey now?"

- I can say all I want about how RSL brutalized Seattle on Saturday night. How Seattle laid down and died with a meekness that even the shyest person on the planet would've found shocking. But why settle for words when Alvaro Saborio and Ned Grabavoy do things like this? RSL hadn't won in a month? Don't believe it for a minute.

- Will Parchman

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