Maybe it was the Halloween festivities taking place or the alignment of the planets, but the first weekend of the MLS playoffs was bizarre enough to warrant an investigation by the FBI's Fringe Division.
In terms of playoff peculiarities, one need look no further than what transpired this past weekend in suburban Salt Lake City, where Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha opted to leave reigning league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the bench. Granted, the Crew have struggled for goals lately -- they are currently mired in a 324-minute goalless streak -- and the four-day turnaround would have meant a less-than-normal recovery time for the 36-year-old midfielder. But sitting the team's most creative player for the entire match seemed a case of conservative overkill. And Warzycha's approach backfired to a degree, as Real Salt Lake claimed a 1-0 win courtesy of Robbie Findley's late tally.
As of Monday, Warzycha still wouldn't say categorically that the Argentine would play Thursday, telling the team's official Web site that, "If the team needs [Schelotto], he is going to play."
Given how the Crew struggled to free up midfielders Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven on Saturday, Columbus needs Schelotto like Barcelona needs Lionel Messi. Real coach Jason Kreis is certainly alert to the danger that the former Boca Juniors player poses. "We have to have one or two guys aware of [Schelotto] at all times, even when we have the ball," Kreis said.
But a bigger concern for the RSL manager will be banishing the demons that have resulted in a 2-11-2 road mark this season. Real have tried all manner of Jedi mind tricks to change their away fortunes. They've arrived late, they've arrived early, changed their practice routine and so forth. In this instance, the second of the two tactics will be used.
Yet when it comes to Thursday's match in Columbus, Kreis intends to rally his troops with an additional approach, namely a little selective recall. So far, the similarities to the 2008 postseason have been borderline uncanny for RSL. Last season against Chivas USA, Real took a 1-0 lead into the second leg, and despite a road record almost as wretched as this year's, they snagged a 2-2 draw that saw them prevail 3-2 on aggregate. In the meantime, this year's road woes are conveniently ignored.
"We talk about what we did last year in this exact same scenario," Kreis said. "We talk about our last road match against Toronto, where I thought we did fantastically well. I'm a guy that looks at things in a positive mind frame."
Kreis' mental gymnastics aside, things do seem to be breaking Real's way once again. With the Crew obligated to carry the game to the visitors, RSL seems well positioned to use the pace of Findley, Yura Movsisyan and Fabian Espindola on the break. And defensively, Real looked pretty comfortable in the first leg.
Schelotto's return should provide a different kind of test, however, with the ball spending much more time on the ground than in the air. And given his time on the sideline, he should be even more motivated than usual, as will forward Alejandro Moreno, who also was a spectator during the first leg. Warzycha is banking that their inclusion will be enough to send the defending champs to the next round. Otherwise, he'll have plenty of explaining to do in the winter.
Chicago Fire versus New England Revolution (N.E. leads 2-1)
Every so often, a player wills his team to heights that didn't seem attainable. Landon Donovan has done this several times during the postseason, most recently in 2005, when he led a decidedly mediocre L.A. squad to the title.
In 2009, all signs are pointing to Shalrie Joseph to be the Revs' savior, even as players such as defender Darrius Barnes and midfielder Kenny Mansally grow with each game. Joseph's scrappy winning tally on Sunday was just the latest in long line of clutch goals for New England this season, and his defensive work in midfield alongside Jeff Larentowicz remains top-notch. All it takes now is another grit-your-teeth defensive effort on Saturday, and the Revs will prove once again that they're tougher to kill than Rasputin.
But for the Fire, the task is more complicated than simply limiting Joseph's effectiveness. The Revs scored both of their goals in the first leg from set pieces, and the Fire will need to hold opposition free kicks to a minimum. In attack, Chicago will need to break down a Revs side that will be more than willing to soak up pressure, thus limiting the wide spaces that Marco Pappa and Chris Rolfe exploited at times in the first leg.
Adding to the Fire's difficulties is the fact that defender Gonzalo Segares has been ruled out of the second leg with a recurrence of a knee injury. That means that Mike Banner, who was victimized on New England's equalizer, will once again man the left-back spot. It had been hoped that Segares' possible inclusion would give the Fire an attacking option out of the back that might unsettle New England's defense. However, his absence means that the spark of creativity will have to come from the usual suspects, namely Cuauhtémoc Blanco, although the possible return of John Thorrington could ease that burden somewhat.
Some more sharpness in front of goal, most notably from forward Brian McBride, also will be needed to quell the Revolution. Otherwise, Joseph will continue his Superman impression and carry the Revs into the conference final.
Los Angeles Galaxy versus Chivas USA (series tied 2-2)
The holiday season arrived early at the Home Depot Center this past weekend, as L.A. and Chivas spent the better part of 90 minutes gifting each other opportunities. And goals. Whether that was because of nerves, inexperience or both, each team will be desperately trying to regain its defensive identity ahead of Sunday's second leg.
For L.A., that will mean putting more immediate pressure on Chivas' Sacha Kljestan. The Goats midfielder was especially dangerous as he broke out of his defensive third in possession of the ball, and Galaxy midfielder Dema Kovalenko will need to apply his physical brand of "special attention" to Kljestan. This will prevent central defenders Omar Gonzalez and Gregg Berhalter from being isolated against the Chivas forwards, a situation that occurred far too often for the Galaxy.
In attack, L.A. might be better served from having Eddie Lewis on from the start, assuming the apparent groin injury he sustained seconds after entering Sunday's match isn't too serious. The former U.S. international served in some dangerous crosses during his 27-minute stint, and his presence could create additional space for Donovan underneath.
As for Chivas, the best defense, aside from taking more of a safety-first approach to clearances, might be to go with the offense that started the second half, one that includes forward Maykel Galindo. Although Galindo duly scored from one of L.A.'s defensive gaffes, he also did plenty to threaten the Galaxy on his own, stretching the opposition defense not only vertically but horizontally as well. The trick now is for the former Cuban international to carry that form from game to game, something he's struggled to do during much of the current campaign.
"I think [Galindo] was ready to play, and it was really good to see him coming on the field and having that confidence," Chivas USA coach Preki said. "That was what he had a few years ago when he was one of the best forwards in the league. Hopefully he's getting that now at a good time and at the right time."
Houston Dynamo versus Seattle Sounders FC (series tied 0-0)
Normally, a home draw in the first leg of a playoff series would be cause for concern, especially when the away leg involves traveling to Houston's Robertson Stadium, one of the tougher venues in MLS.
Yet Seattle Sounders FC have every reason to feel confident heading into Sunday's match. The Sounders were one of three teams in MLS this year to have a .500 or better road record. And back on Aug. 23, Seattle delivered one of its more impressive away outings of the year, tying the Dynamo 1-1 in a match the Sounders very easily could have won.
Although most teams find the smaller dimensions of Robertson to be claustrophobia-inducing, the Sounders' skill on the ball through Freddie Ljungberg and Fredy Montero allows them to battle Houston on more level terms than other sides.
"You want to get the ball moving a little quicker because you don't have as much time on the ball [playing at Robertson]," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. "Houston likes to get tight, so we need to get the ball off our feet a little sooner, and get the ball played into our strikers a little faster."
Although the Dynamo were encouraged by their display in Seattle, the memory of last year's playoff flameout to New York -- one that saw them lose the home leg 3-0 -- will no doubt put them on their guard.
The nine days between games should allow players from both sides to heal up, but Houston could be the bigger beneficiary. Not only will midfielder Ricardo Clark and forward Luis Angel Landin be closer to full strength, but according to Houston coach Dominic Kinnear, midfielder Corey Ashe practiced on Tuesday for the first time since injuring his knee in a friendly against Mexican side Monterrey on Oct. 11, and he could play a part in Sunday's match.
Yet just like the opening encounter, Houston's goal will be to use the flanks while stifling the Sounders' transition game. And set pieces, on which each team looked dangerous in the first leg, could very well spell the difference on Sunday.
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.
|MLS Cup playoffs
Columbus vs. RSL
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
L.A. vs. Chivas USA
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com