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Nov 2, 2009

First legs littered with mistakes and strange decisions

Major League Soccer's opening playoff round began in desperate need of a goal, but finished in even more desperate need of adequate defending, as good sense went on holiday Sunday in the Chivas USA and L.A. Galaxy camps. Houston, New England and Columbus can feel OK heading into this week's second legs against Seattle, Chicago and Real Salt Lake, respectively, although things are far from decided. Meanwhile, the Home Depot Center derby is stuck at "stalemate." Here are five things we learned from the opening weekend:

MLS Cup playoffs
Thursday
Columbus vs. RSL
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

Sunday
L.A. vs. Chivas USA
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

1. Strange day at the HDC: What alien beings slipped inside the Home Depot Center and inhabited the bodies of Chivas USA and, particularly, the L.A. Galaxy players? That 2-2 draw was just plain bizarre. These two sides win games with a safety-first approach, always happy to let the other fellows make the mistake. So it was nothing less than shocking to see the poor choices and schoolboy defending in some parts. Omar Gonzalez, a rookie of the year favorite, seemed to gather up all his first-year mistake coupons and cash 'em in during his most important game yet. His early reaction and subsequent inaction on Maicon Santos' early goal for Chivas was awful. Later, Gonzalez's feeble, poorly selected back pass was gobbled up by Maykel Galindo, whose speed clearly bothered the Galaxy. L.A. goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts rescued his side on a couple of second-half instances following more shoddy, uncharacteristically poor defending. Of course, Chivas was guilty of jayvee defending, too. Good thing for the Galaxy, as Bruce Arena's team seemed oddly uninspired, especially after the break. I know the Galaxy haven't been in the playoffs since 2005 -- but they didn't forget how to approach the postseason, did they? Chivas center back Yamith Cuesta was too casual with one ball inside the 18. And Santos ... well, who knows what he could possibly have been thinking as he launched a ball back in front of his own goal. Mike Magee and Landon Donovan pounced opportunistically, although Donovan's 15th career playoff strike was assisted by an unseen handball. (Unseen by referee Kevin Stott, that is; several Chivas USA players sure got a good look at it.) "That's soccer sometimes," Beckham said. "There's certain games where there's no errors, but today both teams made them. ... It's entertaining for the public, it's not so entertaining for the managers and the players when mistakes happen and you don't play as well as you can. But that's life." 2. Tactical tinkering: The chess match did unfold nicely inside the Home Depot Center. Chivas manager Preki sacrificed rookie midfielder Michael Lahoud for the cause, man-marking Beckham for the first 20 minutes. He arranged a five-man midfield and gave Lahoud one task: stay close to Beckham. So Arena adjusted, bringing Beckham out wide, away from the central position he's occupied this year in Carson. It all seemed to disrupt the Galaxy attack as Beckham sometimes struggled to influence his first MLS playoff match. Flashes of fancy were seen from Landon Donovan and Beckham -- but far too infrequently. Once Beckham was out of his central role, Preki responded by realigning his own side into the more familiar 4-4-2. Beckham moved back into the middle for the game's final 20 minutes. Arena will surely need to devise better ways to cope in the, uh, "return leg" Sunday at the HDC. (Galaxy players and others insist it does matter which team is the "home" side. OK, if they say so.) 3. Playoff jitters: Mistakes were also being punished elsewhere. Columbus vet Frankie Hejduk was thinking about surfing or unicorns or something momentarily as two RSL attackers worked a quick throw-in late in Utah. With Hejduk nowhere close to Yura Movsisyan, the RSL striker had time to supply Robbie Findley with a pinpoint, driven cross for the game's only goal. The next afternoon, New England goalkeeper Matt Reis redirected a cross into a very bad place in front of his own goal and paid the price. At the other end, Chicago veteran defender C.J. Brown committed a foul in a bad spot just before the half and paid for it. Later, failure to clear a corner kick and goalkeeper Jon Busch's attempt to scoop a ball instead of throwing his body in front of it allowed Shalrie Joseph to slam in the game-winner. Joseph may or may not finally win an MVP that he probably deserves. But there can be little doubt that no one in the playoffs is more important to his side. His Revs are in decent shape going back to Chicago, where the Fire's meek 5-4-6 mark this year (and minus-1 goal difference) defies logic. And if Chicago continues to concede set-piece chances, the Revs are in great shape; so injury-depleted is New England's attack that exploiting set-piece opportunities really is the Revs' best chance. 4. Brother, can you spare a goal?: The best first-round match, ironically, was the 0-0 draw at Qwest. A fantastic backdrop, a supply of chances at either side and more kicking, pushing and other naughtiness provided lots to talk about. Managers will need to deal with this odd nine-day break between legs, but it looks like "advantage, Dynamo." That's because Houston's schedule has been packed lately. So returning to that tight field at Robertson Stadium with the benefit of some needed rest seems to favor Dominic Kinnear's Orange. On the other hand, no one in MLS is playing better lately than Seattle slasher Freddie Ljungberg, who had another bright night Thursday. Also, Ljungberg dealt better than usual with the kicking, tripping and hacking. Sadly, but necessarily, he seems resigned to it all now. New England and Chicago also put on a nice show, with good quality and a good end-to-end bounce at Gillette Stadium. Cuauhtemoc Blanco was terrific early for the Fire but faded, somewhat predictably. Brian McBride, Chris Rolfe and Marco Pappa were also on their games early, but they need better passing out of the back. They may just get it, as previously injured left back Gonzalo Segares returned to the field late Sunday. So expect to see him in Saturday's return leg. Same, perhaps for center back Wilman Conde. Something else to watch in that match: In a year when rookies were all the rage, there's a late entry in the 2009 parade of fine first-year pros. Chicago first-round draft pick Baggio Husidic, used sparingly for most of the season around Toyota Park, didn't look out of his element in a central midfield role. 5. Clever or too careful?: Did Columbus manager Robert Warzycha outsmart himself with the curious and perhaps overly cautious decision to leave Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno on the bench in Saturday's 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake? Reservists Steven Lenhart and Emilio Renteria started for the Crew as the champs' influential pair of forwards sat shivering on the bench, watching their side struggle to turn up good chances. The gamble nearly paid off, but Findley's late strike gives the men from Utah a huge psychological boost heading into Thursday's second leg. The choice may ultimately prove correct as RSL carries only the skinniest of one-goal leads against the Supporters Shield winners and East's No. 1 seed. After all, the Crew was 9-2-4 at home this year, and RSL's 2-11-2 away record is easily the worst among playoff teams. And there is a short turnaround to consider with just four days' rest between matches, so keeping Schelotto fresh may yet pay dividends. On the other hand, listen to what RSL manager Jason Kreis said about the pair's omission: "I was surprised, real surprised. But I don't know the inside of the Crew locker room and what's going on and all the information that goes into that decision. But yeah, we felt good about it when he wasn't in the lineup and that he didn't come in late in the game like I thought he would." Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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