Friday, October 30, 2009

MLS Playoffs Start with a Winner of a Game

Look, I know the score was 0-0, but it was a very, very entertaining nil-nil draw last night. The MLS Playoffs started with a bang as two teams, Seattle and Houston, the 3rd and 2nd seeds in the Western Conference respectively, faced off to open up the 2009 post season.

I know a lot of soccer purists, including me, don't really like the playoffs thinking it yet another unnecessary americanization of the game, but if all playoff games were like last nights, I could lend tepid support to the idea. The two teams, the expansion Sounders and the two time-MLS Cup winning Houston were a magnificent study in American soccer. Almost identical in every facet. Take a look:

The Coaches: Seattle's Sigi Schmid won the MLS Cup last year with Columbus and has another on his mantle with L.A. Houston's Dominic Kinnear has won the cup twice. These are two of the best coaches in the MLS (along with Bruce Arena and Steve Nichol). Tactically, these coaches know how to pick apart an opposition and that makes for a great coaches chess game.

The Team Personnel: Both teams boast a solid collection of veterans playing well mixed with brilliant youngsters and cemeted with quality journeymen. The teams are led by the old guys--the two oldest goal keepers in the league--Kasey Keller (39) and Pat Onstad (41), each of whom is a legitimate contender for goalkeeper of the year (I think Chivas USA's Zack Thorton will win it though). Each team boasts a legitimate Defender of the Year Contender (Seattles Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Houston's Geoff Cameron). Seattle boasts an outside contender for Rookie of the Year (Steve Zakuani) and Newcomer of the year (Freddy Montero). Houston's midfield is led by two U.S. National team regular selectees Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. Seattle's midfield engine is Freddie Ljunberg, the designated player/underwear model, who has enjoyed a fantastic season after starting the year on the injured list, but Ljudberg fits in with the team, rather than standing too far above it. Plus there is a fair amount of crossover in these teams. Seattle defender Patrick Ianni wore the Dynamo orange as did midfielder/striker Nate Jacqua.

Finally, both teams, while they have had their injury problems, have enough depth and stylistic consistency that allows for bench players to step and fill in for injured players without disrupting the squad too much. Case in point, Patrick Ianni was a last minute replacement for Seattle's strong central defender Tyrone Marshall. Ianni is my vote for man of the match.

The Tactics: Both squads build from the back, with a solid back line in front of great keepers. The result is the two teams with the lowest goals against this year (29). A low scoring match-up seemed inevitable and was delivered. But both teams are solid counter-attacking teams, which gave great end to end action last night, with quick counters that lit up the field. Seattle has allowed just one set-piece goal this year and Houston not many more than that. Both teams boast quick strikers in Freddie Montero and Dominic Oduro. In addition to the great end to end action, the field was kept wide with lost of touchline to touchline movement. I think Houston was better off the ball in general, but Seattle showed great movement and vision as well.

The Chances: Patrick Ianni has to feel robbed. The last minute starter had to great headed chances off set pieces. The first, a back post header on a corner kick was quite literally cleared off the line by Houston's Brian Mullen after Ianni's strong header beat Onstad. A few minutes later, on a free kick from the left, Ljundberg found Ianni again, only to see Ianni's header find the crossbar. Playing against his former team, Ianni was literally inches away from being the hero of the Sounders fans and the goat of his former team. But Houston was not without its opportunities either, with Canadian international Andrew Hainnault just missing on a set peice header. Both Keller and Onstad had some quality saves to keep a clean sheet.

The Atmosphere. I have said it before and I will say it again. I have GOT TO GET to Seattle to see a match. Qwest Field was rocking with 36,000+ screaming, singing, chanting, energetic, emotional fans on a THRUSDAY. It was a sea of rave green and it was loud, it was kinetic and it was a crowd that enjoyed the game beyond belief. You could feel the atmosphere through the TV. It was so loud that you couldn't hear a whistle that called a Nate Jacqua goal back. You could barely hear the final whistle. The Seattle Sounders FC and their supporters are clearly one of the best stories of the year and it is great to see them in the post season.

The Next Game: The teams will travel to Houston to play in Robertson Stadium on a pitch marked with throwball lines. I hope Houston can pack their stadium with a sea of Orange. I hope Seattle travels with some fans. It will be a cagy affair and it looks like the team that makes the first mistake will lose. A single goal will likely decide this match-up. Seattle have proven that they can win on the road. Seattle went 5-5-5 on the road this year, but Houton are 8-1-6 at home. But Houston's weather advantage is blunted a bit since it is not July/August hot and humid in Texas right now.

The only thing that really sucks, the return leg will not be broadcast on ESPN, but on Telefutura.

Great game and a great 0-0 draw.

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