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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 8 hours ago
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Nov 3, 2008

Ten things to note, playoff edition

Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are 10 things I found lying around:

1. Precious goals. Whatever you think of Major League Soccer's odd-duck playoff structure, which doesn't provide much early reward for higher seeds, most of the favorites will indeed march into the back half of the home-and-away series with an edge.

Red Bull New York bunkered too early and paid dearly as Houston's late equalizer left the defending champs in dandy shape. Now it's back to Robertson, where the Orange is 26-7-13 with a plus-35 goal difference in three years. Advantage: Dynamo, big time.

This year, Dominic Kinnear's Dynamo have been especially good, at 10-1-4 and plus-16.

Supporters' Shield holder Columbus has matters more or less in hand. The men of yellow return to Crew Stadium, which is quite peppy these days, following a 1-1 draw in the Midwest. Sigi Schmid's Crew collected a league-best 35 of 45 possible points at home this year.

New England, injury- and suspension-bitten, will have to conjure up some way to score goals at Toyota Park. Without his top three scorers, manager Steve Nicol may order to "defend to the end" and hope for spot kicks. Advantage: Fire.

Real Salt Lake was a clear victor on the field, if not on the scoreboard. But Yura Movsisyan's added-time game-winner did give injury-nicked and higher seeded Chivas USA the toughest return-leg task; Preki's team must win. RSL needs just a draw at the Home Depot Center to advance.

2. Caution rules. Four first-round openers produced just five goals combined in three draws and a gripping one-goal victory. That's nothing unusual. In fact, 12 first-round playoff openers since 2005 have produced just one two-goal margin. All others were low-scoring draws or one-goal white-knucklers.

Even the home sides risked little over the weekend. Revolution fullbacks Chris Albright and Chris Tierney rarely ranged forward. Ditto for Red Bull outside backs Chris Leitch and Kevin Goldthwaite. (On the other side, Houston right back Richard Mulrooney did get forward frequently, helping to stifle offensive contributions from Red Bull midfielder Dave van den Bergh.)

Outside backs Chris Wingert and Ian Joy did add something to Real Salt Lake's attack -- the exception for the weekend rule.

3. Osorio in a nutshell. Here is a snapshot of Juan Carlos Osorio's days as Red Bull manager: He seemed to have the right plan against Houston, but didn't have the players who could execute -- which is his fault.

Osorio's plan in a 1-1 draw at home was all about getting speedy right midfielder Dane Richards matched one-on-one against left back Wade Barrett, who is steady but not particularly fast. Indeed, there seemed to be some danger there for Houston.

But the Red Bull midfield wasn't good enough to supply Richards with useful balls. Whipping 40- and 50-yard speculative efforts toward the slight youngster just wasn't going to work. The Red Bulls need a couple of midfielders better in passing and possession. Seth Stammler's season-ending surgery didn't help. But neither did Jorge Rojas and Juan Pietravallo being on the bench.

Those two, along with Gabriel Cichero, were among Osorio's hand-picked midseason reinforcements. Obviously, if they aren't starting in a playoff match, the manager blundered in these critical calculations.

Like they say: One, you might call a mistake. Two is starting to look like a trend. But three is a real problem.

4. Election year champs. For those into such things, the champion in every election year thoughout the short MLS history currently resides in the East. It was D.C. United in 1996, Kansas City in 2000 and United in 2004. Just so you know.

5. Joseph can still grow. Who can deny that Shalrie Joseph is a terrific holding midfielder? But he can still elevate his game, which should always be the goal for every athlete.

Joseph's emotions sometimes get the better of him, leading to needless yellow cards. Last Thursday, teammate Kenny Mansally cracked Chicago's Chris Rolfe from behind. It was a clear yellow card. But in charged Joseph to aggressively challenge referee Jorge Gonzalez, inserting himself somewhere he didn't need to be -- and opening himself to yellow card jeopardy.

The Revs are up against a wall heading to Chicago. They need Joseph to set a high bar in passion and desire, as he always does. But they need a leader, too, and that means keeping your head no matter what.

6. Weekend's best. Columbus and Kansas City concocted the weekend's best match, with both sides looking to attack. Robbie Rogers was the best man on the field, followed by MVP favorite Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Not far behind was Kansas City's hard-working Davy Arnaud, whose diving header goal was a beauty.

Classy center backs on either side, Chad Marshall and Jimmy Conrad, had nice matches, too, in the 1-1 draw.

7. Morales says, "Take that!" There wasn't a more egregious snub as an MLS awards finalist in the MVP vote than Javier Morales.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco, whose name is among the finalists, started OK. But he dipped to below average throughout the summer before rallying a bit over the last two weeks. He finished with 11 assists and seven goals, including three on penalty kicks.

Morales' totals: 15 assists and six goals, none on penalty kicks. And all for a cast that probably isn't as well-rounded as Chicago's. His crafty work against two Chivas USA defenders Saturday arranged Movsisyan's massive game-winner.

8. Real Salt Lake's next move. No matter when Real Salt Lake's season ends, the biggest need going forward at Rio Tinto is a difference-maker at forward.

RSL's roster is replete with forwards who are just OK. Clint Mathis has started alongside Movsisyan lately. But Mathis is without a goal or an assist in 12 matches now. Three words: not good enough.

Kenny Deuchar never adequately capitalized on his starts, and "Dr. Goals" has barely been seen in weeks. Robbie Findley's decision making and finishing still has lots of room to grow. Overall, the RSL forwards don't link particularly well with midfielders, make questionable decisions in the final third and just don't have that ruthless finisher's mentality in and around six.

Movsisyan is improving, at least. He always tried hard but could get his head up, which is why his career assist total (one in 55 matches) is comically awful.

9. Muted attendance figures. The weekend crowd counts weren't impressive, a meek 10,476 on average. RSL was the over-achiever with 14,719 in its new ground, while New England managed to show a weeknight, national TV audience just 5,221 in the stands.

10. The right moves. Sigi Schmid gets high marks for Steven Lenhart's late introduction in Saturday's 1-1 draw with the 'Zards. With Pat Noonan and dynamic young Emmanuel Ekpo available, Schmid made Lenhart the first sub. On a small field, in a physical match, Schmid reckoned he needed a bigger body and more of a scrapper. Sure enough, Lenhart finished a goal-mouth scramble in added time.

Similarly, second-half subs Kei Kamara and Stuart Holden combined, along with Wade Barrett, for Houston's late equalizer in New Jersey.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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