Monday, November 7, 2011

The MLS Grinder: An Orange Creamsicle Galaxy

First off, big ups this week to J-Klinger, who correctly predicted Houston drowning out KC 2-0 - even had a set piece goal right - and was only a goal off but hit the result dead on in LA's 3-1 triumph over RSL. Dude came quick with it in our Friday Five. I'll getcha next time, bud.

Face it. The Galaxy are supposed to be here. They have the pedigree, the spendthrift backing ownership and The Donovan. That cheshire cat grin Landon is flashing in the above picture is one he's been practicing in front of mirrors without an outlet since 2005, amazingly the last time he's won anything of any substance in the league. It has been a puzzling drought, one made especially more confusing considering the roll call of talent around him at times. But there is Beckham, there is Keano, there is Arena and there are expectations. This is LA after all, and FC Hollywood can't take a step without being dogged by echoing refrains of their big dog role as MLS Cup favorites. So the Galaxy riding Donovan, Keane and Magee goals to a final that they host is one of the least surprising results these MLS playoffs could've dished out.

But across the way, wind of a different ilk blew. The sharp whip of the MLS pendulum brings us nose-to-nose with Houston, a stepchild in this final if ever one existed. Even in a weakened Eastern Conference, Houston did little to stand out as title contenders for much of 2011. It was five games into the season before Houston won its first game. In the dog-day months of June, July and August, a period that defines seasons, the Dynamo were an appropriately average 5-5-5. But something happened to this group after an embarrassing 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Aug. 27, something tangible and immensely positive. In all competitions, including a 3-0 win over defending CL champs Monterrey in a friendly, Houston closed the regular season 5-2-1 in the months of September and October, and only results elsewhere conspired to keep the Dynamo from the East's No. 1 seed. Not to be overlooked in that span was a 1-0 win at Pizza Hut Park and a 2-0 win at daunting Jeld-Wen.

Until Sept. 24, nearly a month before the close of the regular season, Houston hadn't won a road game. They shared that honor at the time with Vancouver, which became historically one of the worst road teams in league history this year. How could Houston be expected to make the MLS Cup contenders lists if they couldn't win away from Robertson? They finished that streak by beating rival FCD in their home, planting the orange flag in Portland, firing past Philly in Philly and then kicking SKC to the curb at the StrongBox. Houston began the year 0-6-9 on the road. They are 4-0-0 in their last four. Two of those were high-pressure playoff games. Perhaps we should have reevaluated SKC's chances on Sunday, or lack thereof I should say.

It's not that SKC played particularly poorly on Sunday, and certainly Sporting's record-breaking crowd couldn't have been expected to play a bigger part. Further, force-of-nature Brad Davis hit the ground writhing while Graham Zusi spit some venom toward Davis after what he viewed as a weak challenge. Instead, Davis stayed down. Dom Kinnear paced nervously. Houston essentially got to this point on Davis' set piece setups, and his league-leading 16 assists illuminated his irreplaceable quality as the league's most accurate left foot. Davis might even have a better claim to the league MVP award than anyone else. And now you're saying he's gone? In a scoreless game in the midst of the conference championship? Of course I'm picking KC. So go figure that it was a set piece that changed the game. Adam Moffat, with his Brad Davis beard and all, calmly stepped over a free kick and found Andre Hainault at the far post. Pandemonium.

The next one, a matter of time with SKC emptying the basket to pour forward, put the finishing flourish on a game decided without Davis. Unreal.

The game was over by the time LA and RSL kicked off. The Galaxy had their own fight to reclaim a spot in the final, but it always felt preordained to me. Even when Alvaro Saborio did this to level terms, I never felt the Galaxy panicked. They merely did what they always do at home; dropped their head and leveled the boom. The second half was chance after Galaxy chance until Beckham popped up in that shoulder area around the box where he's so deadly, leaving Mike Magee with a training ground header.

This, then, only confirmed what we already knew. We preordained them kings. Now they are only inches away from the crown. Although, John Harkes, I don't think Keano was ever knocking on the doorstep. That might smart.

So it comes to this. A ludicrously long two-week break - an idea borrowed from the NFL's Super Bowl run-up for reasons unknown - before we sort out this Creamsicle Galaxy situation. You know my pick. Even though this is supposed to be a "neutral venue" event, the Galaxy are still undefeated at home this year. Until then, we'll have plenty to look forward, including another Friday Five this week. After another long year, only (about) 90 minutes left.

- Will Parchman


jon said...

Hey now, my favorite part of the run-up to the SuperBowl are the FIFA dates in between the conference championships and the SuperBowl itself...

The 3 previous years (that's all i bothered to go back and check) the MLS Cup final was 7 or 8 days after the semis. But yes, it would be nice if MLS had figured out a way to finish the season a week earlier because a 2 week break in which star players are flying across the world in the meantime is pretty stupid.

Will Parchman said...

It's funny reading English takes on the playoff system. I thought this conclusion in Steve Busfield's conference final preview in the Guardian was particularly funny.

Could someone please explain the sense in this playoff system? Single leg wildcards followed by home-and-home (let's not get into why "home-and-away" makes more sense) ties, followed by a single game for the Conference championship. And after all of these games have been packed into 12 days, a two week wait for the MLS Cup final.

Still, if you want to see something even more surreal than the playoff schedule, then check out the way that the MLS Save of the Season competition is organised. (