Whatever happens next in the MLS playoffs, this season has shown the importance of bringing outside influences into the league. It is not only the foreign players who have brought attention and upped the competitive level, coaches such as Steve Nicol (New England) and Juan Carlos Osorio (Chicago) have brought in a fresh look tactically.
The domestic talent level has reached an all-time high. But, partly because the young players have improved so rapidly, U.S. coaches have struggled to keep pace. Being a foreign coach does not guarantee success, or even competence. But some of the newer coaches are bringing different perspectives and helping to change the dynamics of the league. I include New York's Bruce Arena in this group, plus Preki, who has continued the work of Bob Bradley at Chivas USA, and Dominic Kinnear, who has continued in Houston what Frank Yallop started in San Jose.
Osorio's ability to align the Fire correctly has allowed the team to fulfill some of its potential. Placing Calen Carr on the wing and Wilman Conde in a wing back spot were keys to the Fire's success against D.C. United in Game 2 Thursday night. Carr played a part in both Chicago goals as the Fire took a 3-2 aggregate victory. When the Fire went into counterattack mode, Carr earned what should have been ruled a penalty kick. Referee Jair Marrufo nearly spoiled what was an otherwise well-officiated contest by awarding a free kick outside the penalty area.
This was Chicago's most important game of the season. Going by textbook coaching, Osorio would have gone with as many veterans as possible. Instead, he started Carr, who has basically been viewed as a bundle of raw athleticism and potential. And Carr played in front of Dasan Robinson, another bundle of inexperienced physicality.
But Osorio correctly figured that Chicago would fail if it tried to match D.C. technically. The secret was to combine power and youthful enthusiasm in the right places with a few technical players, plus Chris Armas holding things together in midfield and Cuauhtemoc Blanco the point of reference in attack. Osorio had the right instincts in setting up the Fire and in bringing in late substitutes, though he might have gone on the defensive a little too early. It is probably not complete coincidence that a late Chicago sub (John Thorrington) scored in injury time in the final regular-season game against Los Angeles and another (Floyd Franks) nearly did so against United in Game 2.
Nor is this to say other MLS coaches are inadequate. Much of an MLS coach's fate depends on management's support and ability to deliver players. But, once a team advances to the playoffs, the difference, along with injuries, is going to be coaches employing the right tactics.
MLS teams play each other so often, they present very few surprises. Unless, that is, a team can shake things up, possibly even reinvent itself and somehow find an edge.
New England appears to be on the way to doing something like that with Steve Ralston moving to a playmaking position and Wells Thompson starting on the right wing. Teams such as the Revolution and Houston Dynamo are not going to be dealt many new cards, so it is a matter of playing the right ones in the right places at the right times.
The Revolution went defensive in their playoff opener, tying New York, 0-0. Now, the Revolution will be returning to their high-pressure, all-out attack strategy in Game 2. Will Arena react by having the Red Bulls absorb pressure and counterattack, or should he stick with a three-forward alignment and try to defeat the Revolution at their own game?
Both Kansas City (vs. Chivas USA) and FC Dallas (vs. Houston) take one-goal leads into their second-game visits. Will the Wizards and Dallas be able to duplicate Chicago's ability to extend the advantage and hold on? The Wizards' Curt Onalfo and Dallas' Steve Morrow have had plenty of talent to work with this season and this is their biggest test of the season.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.
|MLS Cup playoffs second leg
|New England vs. New York
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
7:30 p.m. ET
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