Both Chivas USA and the Houston Dynamo have forged reputations this season as Major League Soccer's lords of discipline. Both teams keep it tight in the back and possess some potent attacking weapons. But the first weekend of the playoffs revealed some cracks in the granite. Chivas finds itself down 1-0 to Kansas City in the aggregate goals series, while Houston trails Dallas by an identical score. With the Goats and the Dynamo hosting the return legs this weekend, the onus will be on each team to maintain its tactical self-control.
Urged on by the home crowd, the impulse will be to throw caution to the wind and send numbers forward in the hope of burying the opposition. On the other hand, if a team takes an overly cautious approach, it risks giving the visiting side the requisite confidence to close out the series. The trick is to find that delicate balance between the two methods.
"It's just one goal, just one bit of magic, one bit of good play ... and we're right back in it," said Houston coach Dominic Kinnear. "There's no need to start chasing the game from the first minute where we're attacking with five or six guys the whole time."
Peril exists for the visitors, as well, but it's more of the psychological variety. Both Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo and Dallas coach Steve Morrow have indicated their intention is to win their respective games outright, the better to counteract the viral complacency that comes from knowing a draw will be enough to see them advance.
Of course, other circumstances can complicate even the best-laid plans, especially if you're Chivas USA head coach Preki and the forward pair you've relied on all season for goals is unavailable. Ante Razov, still nursing a knee sprain, is out. His usual running mate, Maykel Galindo, may also be unavailable due to a sports hernia that has robbed him of some speed and explosiveness.
Into the breach have stepped Laurent Merlin and John Cunliffe, but the results have been uninspiring. The Goats showed glimpses of their sharp possession game in their first-leg loss in Kansas City, especially in the second half. But there was little imagination in the attacking third, and such is Preki's plight that he is considering moving left back Jonathan Bornstein up top to add more pace to his attack. Personnel issues aside, Preki acknowledged that all his players need to raise their games.
"I don't think our movement was as sharp as it should be in a playoff game," Preki said. "We did have different bodies and different people in there, but at the same time, even with different bodies and different people, I expect us to be even better."
For Kansas City, reprising its defensive effort from the first leg will be paramount, but the Wizards also need to possess the ball more than they did at home. They began the match brightly enough, but once Davy Arnaud's 35th-minute free kick put the home side in front, they seemed content to let Chivas hold the ball, and Kansas City sidestepped a land mine when Cunliffe hit the crossbar from close range late in the match.
The irony for the Wizards is that the wider expanses of the Home Depot Center may suit their game better than their home, Arrowhead Stadium, which according to Onalfo has been reconfigured into smaller dimensions now that the NFL season has begun. In particular, the increased space should benefit speedier players like Wizards forward Eddie Johnson.
"We were one of the few teams this year to go into the Home Depot Center against Chivas and dictate the rhythm of the game," Onalfo said. "Unfortunately, we lost the game in the 93rd minute, but we were the superior team for good stretches of that game, so we go in confidently."
Confidence is also the byword in the other Western Conference series, where Houston will be trying to turn the tables on a newly resilient Dallas side. After struggling defensively for most of the season, the past few weeks saw Morrow revamp Dallas' spine, with Clarence Goodson and Drew Moor paired in the center of defense, and stay-at-home types Pablo Ricchetti and Adrian Serioux manning the center of midfield. The result has been an improved transition defense and an increased ability to win second balls, both of which will come in handy in the tighter confines of Houston's Robertson Stadium.
But in the first leg, Dallas' defensive improvement was almost too much of a good thing, with players like Arturo Alvarez and Carlos Ruiz starved of service. Morrow said that combating this problem will require Ricchetti and Serioux to be a bit more adventurous.
"We dropped too deep in the second half," Morrow said of Game 1. "When you do that, you're giving the ball away and the forwards aren't holding it, and you can never quite get your whole team up the field."
Still, it is Houston that has more work to do. The fact that the Dynamo came back at each stage of last year's playoffs will give them plenty of confidence, but that alone won't bring them the desired result. Houston will need to get improved play out of several attacking players, including Brian Mullan, who was effectively neutralized by Dallas defender Chris Gbandi. On the opposite wing, Stuart Holden also struggled, and a switch to Brad Davis from the start could add a bit more precision to Houston's attack. This in turn may free up more space for Dwayne De Rosario, whose impact in the first leg increased as the game went on.
The Dynamo will also need to up the tempo against a Dallas team whose increased defensive commitment saw them apply a steady supply of tactical fouls.
Kinnear added, "If we move the ball quicker, that will help the wide play."
The hope is that such adjustments will patch over the team's cracks. Dallas, meanwhile, will be hoping to turn those fissures into a chasm.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|MLS Cup playoffs second leg
|Houston vs. Dallas,
Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas
8.30 p.m. ET
Chivas USA vs. Kansas City,
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
10:30 p.m. ET