Some Clear Underdogs, With Some Clear ChancesBy: Ben | November 16th, 2012
We’ve all seen games that pussyfoot. Either team plays the ball up and down the field waiting to strike, plays laterally back and forth ad nauseam, and eventually resorts to long lobs in a last-ditch attempt to make something happen. By the 90th minute, fans are left without much of a result, and, in the context of a home-and-away playoff format, find themselves dependent on the promise of the coming rematch.
Luckily, neither game of the first leg of the Conference Championships was one of these. LA mauled Seattle 3-0 and Houston rocked DC 3-1, leaving the two losers to pick up the pieces in this Sunday’s homecomings.
However, I don’t think either victorious side is guaranteed a spot in the final. Take LA; they’re like the kid who doesn’t write the paper until the last minute, but who somehow pulls out an A, much to his peers’ dismay. Despite boasting Donovan, Beckham, Keane, and Buddle (among a host of others), the Galaxy finished this year fourth in the Western standings with a 16-12-6 record. That included two losses to Seattle (2-0 and 4-0, respectively) and a measly 1-0 win against the Sounders in October. Meanwhile, Seattle was far more consistent than LA, notched a quarter fewer losses, and made it once again to the finals of the US Open Cup.
Granted, Seattle will have to score three times in their next game just to level the playing field. It won’t be easy. As Seattle’s middie Brad Evans said Thursday, “When you look at their team, they kind of shape their team around the counterattack. When they win the ball, Sean Franklin pushes forward as fast as he can, [Christian] Wilhelmsson tucks in a little bit and [David] Beckham gets the ball almost in a right back position right behind the halfway line.” That means the classic model for a team desperate for goals (that of throwing everything but the kitchen sink in with the offence) would play directly into LA’s strengths, leaving Seattle debilitated by their own strategy. This, though, is exactly what the Sounders faced in the first leg, and they’ve surely learned from it. I can guarantee you’ll see Sigi Schmid focus on slowing the pace of the game, letting LA finesse itself into nothing, and cashing in on counter-attacks. We often overlook that aspect of the Sounders; with Freddy Montero, Brad Evans, and Marc Burch, the club has a lot of potential for success from counters. With it’s signature home crew behind it, I could totally see Seattle making a hell of a run toward three goals. Will they do it? Who knows. Could they? I sure wouldn’t say they can’t.
Then there’s DC and Houston. The latter team enters the second leg with a lead of two goals, but that seems a whole lot less reassuring than LA’s three. Houston and DC went back and forth this year, with a 3-2 home win for DC, a 1-0 victory at Houston, and a 4-0 win for Houston. Those may not seem like such close matchups (especially considering the third game listed), but they definitely are closer than what we saw between the Galaxy and Seattle. Comparitively, these clubs have been neck and neck.
In the past round of the Playoffs, Sporting played directly into Houston’s strengths: they focused on crosses and long balls, while the Dynamo’s back line was able to dominate the air. DC is a completely different challenge. As we saw against New York, they emphasize through balls, poise in control, and direct attacks. This isn’t something Houston won’t necessarily be able to handle- hell, they may dominate- but it could mean trouble if not approached correctly. As Houston’s Will Bruin recently said, “We know how much D.C. is going to attack. This is the last attempt, the last game for them to throw numbers forward. We’ve got to be ready for it.” A 2-0 win isn’t something DC can’t pull out of the bag, and overtime always favors the home team.
Overall, I’d say that we’re going to see one upset. That’s my prediction. To be honest, I think it’ll be DC, who will sneak two by Houston toward the end of the match and glide to the Final on penalties. As for LA and Seattle, three goals really is a tough one to ask for, even if you have the best motivation in MLS (i.e., nearly 40k screaming fans). What do you think?