The first weekend of the MLS playoffs is all about the underdogs. Can they plant some seeds of doubt in the minds of the favorites? Better yet, can they deliver a knockout blow in the first leg from which the top dogs can't recover? For most of this year's first-round series, the answer to both questions was a resounding "no."
Chicago vs. New England (tied 0-0 after first leg)
If a slugfest is what you're after, then Thursday's tilt between the Fire and the Revolution is the match for you. With New England hobbled by injuries to their top three goal scorers, expect them to once again apply plenty of nasty to their longtime conference rivals. Kheli Dube and Kenny Mansally will try to fill the forward void for Steve Nicol's side, and while their pace could pose problems for Chicago's back line, the service from Mauricio Castro and Sainey Nyassi will need to be vastly improved for the Revs to make a breakthrough.
Mindful of New England's physical approach, Chicago has already started the psychological warfare with regard to how referee Jair Marrufo will call the game, hoping that an early yellow card or two will create more space for the likes of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Justin Mapp and Chris Rolfe. But the larger dimensions of Toyota Park may accomplish that without any help from the referee, and that may be enough for the Fire to end their three-year playoff losing streak against the Revs.
|MLS playoff schedule|
New England at Chicago
8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
Kansas City at Columbus
7:30 p.m. ET
RSL at Chivas USA
10:30 p.m. ET
New York at Houston
3 p.m. ET
Columbus vs. Kansas City (tied at 1-1)
Curse? What curse? That was the response from the Columbus Crew this past weekend after they dodged a gargantuan land mine in Kansas City courtesy of Steve Lenhart's stoppage-time goal. Now the Crew are that much closer to avoiding the kind of upset that has plagued the past four Supporters' Shield winners. Yet Columbus coach Sigi Schmid knows there is work still to be done, as witnessed by his calling out wide midfielders Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven to deliver better performances this weekend. Of course, Lenhart remains Schmid's not-so-secret weapon. The Crew's designated body-checker has scored three equalizers this year in the 87th minute or later.
As for Kansas City, it was a case of déjà vu all over again for much of the first leg. A Davy Arnaud goal and some stout defending looked set to put the Wizards in the same position as last year, when they dispatched Chivas USA 1-0 on aggregate. But then Columbus' Lenhart spoiled the party, and the whole tenor of the series changed.
Kansas City will now be drawn out of their shell a bit more, and they'll have to do it without the suspended Herculez Gomez. Whether Josh Wolff is fit enough to take Gomez's spot on the right flank is unclear, but the Wizards certainly can't expect to prevail by bunkering in for 90 minutes, especially given how Columbus peppered the Kansas City net during the second half of last week's match.
Chivas USA vs. Real Salt Lake (RSL leads 1-0)
For Chivas USA, 2008 is shaping up like a recurring nightmare. Last year, it was the Goats who flamed out in the first round after entering the Western half of the postseason in pole position. But the bigger issue for Chivas is: Can they score a playoff goal? Going back to the 2006 playoffs, Chivas have been shut out in four consecutive playoff games, and with forward Alecko Eskandarian hobbled, things don't look rosy for the red-and-white.
To hear Chivas tell it, once they get back on the wide-open spaces of the Home Depot Center, all will be well. If only it were that easy. Chivas will need monster games from Sacha Kljestan and Ante Razov, while center midfielders Paulo Nagamura and Jesse Marsch will have to turn the midfield tide in favor of the home side. Is the task doable? Most certainly, especially given how inconsistent RSL's defense has been this season. But Real will carry bags of confidence into the match, not only due to their one-goal lead but also because of a 1-0 triumph earlier this season against the Goats at the HDC. And with midfielder Javier Morales and forward Yura Movsisyan in sparkling form, Real may be this year's bracket buster.
Houston vs. New York (tied at 1-1)
The Red Bulls spent 84 minutes of Saturday's opener convincing themselves they were the better team. All it took was a mere toe-poke by Houston forward Kei Kamara to see that belief evaporate. Now that the Dynamo are back on home soil, their progression to the next round seems a formality. This team came back from two-goal deficits in each of the past two postseasons, and with the score now tied 1-1, Houston is way ahead of the game.
For the Red Bulls to win, they'll have to play an even better game than they did in the first leg, and that means finding a way to get wide players Dane Richards and Dave van den Bergh more involved. In the first leg, the quality of service to both players lacked imagination, and if the Red Bulls insist on sending long, floating balls into the Houston defense, things aren't likely to change.
Houston also will be eager to get some players to bounce back with better games. Defender Eddie Robinson's lapse in concentration allowed New York forward Juan Pablo Angel to open the scoring in the first leg, and Robinson will need to be sharper if he is to keep the Colombian in check on Sunday. Midfielders Brad Davis and Brian Mullan also will be expected to have a greater impact. If the two can supply Brian Ching with the service he needs, the game could get ugly for New York.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.