New England coach Steve Nicol unexpectedly foreshadowed the unusual weekend about to unfold on Saturday morning.
After the Revolution completed its training session, I asked Nicol whether he could lean on the past to predict what would occur in the present as the Revs prepared to face the Fire for the fifth consecutive postseason.
Considering the almost universally tight nature of those playoff meetings and the two draws shared by the teams during the regular season, the forthcoming answer appeared fairly obvious. It wasn't.
“I think what we expect is to expect the unexpected,” Nicol said with a hint of a laugh. “It's the only thing we can expect.”
As the weekend progressed, the jest-tinged comment transformed into a prescient observation. From the litany of defensive errors in Los Angeles to a wide-open game at Gillette Stadium, the unexpected reigned during the three first-leg ties played over the weekend.
After a weekend filled with peculiarities, the logical place to start is in Utah, a place where the coach of the defending MLS Cup champions made sure the oddities started before the match did.
Warzycha's brave gamble nearly pays dividends
Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha apparently has the stomach to make difficult choices. Leaving Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno out of his starting XI for Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake certainly falls into that category.
The apparent fit of madness emanated from a series of events that made the move a logical one in Warzycha's eyes. Warzycha didn't like how the Crew offense (one goal in its final four regular season contests) performed with Barros Schelotto and Moreno combining up top as the regular season wound to a close. Instead of maintaining the status quo, the first-year coach dropped his two most experienced attackers and consigned both of them to 90 minutes on the bench.
“We didn’t score any goals the last five games when they were on the field, so I felt like maybe we should go with a different combination,” Warzycha told the assembled throng after Robbie Findley's 88th minute goal ensured an even healthier dose of second guessing.
Warzycha opted for the bruising combination of Steven Lenhart and Emilio Renteria as his front duo. From a neutral point of view, it's a gamble that makes some sense. Lenhart spent most of his time battering defenders and trying to goad Jamison Olave into doing something silly, while Renteria extracted his usual pound of flesh. Most importantly, both players contributed amply to the Crew's quest to keep it tight and restrict RSL going forward by starting the defensive effort on the front line.
For all of its earnestness, the duo didn't provide much of an improvement in the attacking third. Lenhart narrowly missed the far post after getting behind in the ninth minute and spurned an open header late in the first half, but that about comprised the sum total of substantive offensive opportunities for the pair.
“We had to occupy two defenders, which we did, but we didn’t create many chances,” Warzycha said.
The lack of cutting edge probably means Barros Schelotto will earn a recall in time for Thursday's second leg, though Moreno's place seems less certain with Lenhart's proclivity for pestering defenders and scoring timely goals. In the away leg, Warzycha probably deemed the 2008 MLS MVP an extravagance who might not fare well at altitude and wouldn't aid the defensive effort or enjoy the physical battering offered by the RSL defenders. Carrying a one goal deficit into the return leg, Warzycha will almost assuredly see Barros Schelotto as a necessity as the Crew attempts to spark its sputtering attack.
From this vantage point, Warzycha's move makes perfect sense on the white board and little sense in the practical world. In the playoffs, it's all about giving the other team your best shot in each match. Even with the tactical considerations and Barros Schelotto struggling for form, isn't the Crew a better and more dangerous side with the Argentine playmaker featuring in the starting XI rather than sitting on the bench? If the Crew doesn't turn the tie around on Thursday night, it's a question that will probably deserve deeper consideration.
Joseph saves the day again for New England
In a season where few have found fault with his considerable contribution to the Revolution cause, New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph subjected himself to some internal criticism prior to Sunday's 2-1 win over Chicago. In an observation that would probably raise a few eyebrows in Columbus, Joseph said he left last Sunday's playoff-clinching win at Crew Stadium wishing he had shown a bit more aggressiveness.
“I had one (opportunity) in Columbus where I thought I should have been a little bit more brave,” Joseph said. “I decided (today) that if there was anything between me and somebody else, I was going to get it. I just wanted to be aggressive and win every 50-50 ball.”
Joseph won the lion's share of those challenges against the Fire, including the one that mattered the most with a quarter of an hour to play. An almighty scrum in the penalty area presented Joseph with an opportunity to beat Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch to the ball. Joseph did just that and poked home from close range to notch his first playoff goal and give the Revs a crucial advantage in the series.
The goal capped off another renaissance performance for Joseph, who slogged away in midfield for 52 minutes before playing the remainder of the match at forward after Edgaras Jankauskas left the field with an illness and concluded the scoring in a lively match that included four interventions by the woodwork.
“Shalrie's been doing it all season,” Busch said. “He does whatever they need him to do. He's just another big, strong target guy and he brings a lot of balls down. He's scrappy in the box. He's on the end of everything. He's challenging for everything, whether it's against one of the defenders or against the goalkeeper. There were two or three times we got into collisions and he got into other guys (as well). It's the way he plays and we have to deal with it and move on.”
Mistakes mar first playoff SuperClasico
Many expected the first playoff derby between Los Angeles and Chivas USA to veer toward the boring end of the spectrum considering the conservative styles preferred by both sides. A series of defensive mistakes killed that hypothesis quickly as the Home Depot Center tenants shared the spoils in a 2-2 draw yesterday.
Of the four goals in the game, only Chivas USA's first goal – Maicon Santos' far-post finish after four minutes – wasn't directly attributable to a defensive error. And even Santos' tidy deposit benefited significantly from the extra space Omar Gonzalez permitted the Brazilian forward to line up his strike.
Shoddy wouldn't even begin to describe the manner in which the other three goals were conceded. Yamith Cuesta's dodgy attempt at clearing Landon Donovan's headed flick into the penalty area failed miserably and allowed Mike Magee a simple equalizer. David Beckham's corner kick late in the first half set the stage for a comedy of Chivas USA errors – Paulo Nagamura's half-baked hack out of danger after several previous attempts to do so by his teammates failed and Santos' woefully mishit clearance attempt back into his own penalty area ranked as the two worst – that allowed Donovan to poke the Galaxy in front before the break. To cap it all off early in the second half, Gonzalez scuffed an ill-advised back pass from along the right sideline and stunned his teammates into inaction as Maykel Galindo tucked home the gift.
The pundits tracking Beckham's every move back in England certainly could have worked the terms “pub class” and “schoolboy” into their descriptions of the defending on offer. Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena cited the mistakes in his post-match press conference, but also focused on the entertainment value of a match that wasn't expected to present much of it.
“(It was) certainly a good game for the fans and good for television,” Arena said. “I don’t know about for the coaches, but I thought it was a good game. We made a few mistakes that cost us and I am sure they would say the same.”
Conference Semifinals, First Leg – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers
Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Shalrie Joseph, MF/FW, New England
At this point, Joseph's back has to be sore. Joseph had more help than usual on Sunday, but the Revs' destiny still relies on how far he can carry them.
The Starting XI (plus a substitute)
Houston 0 – Seattle 0
1. Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad should know better than to lash out in a big game and give Fredy Montero a chance to simulate. A few readers chimed in after Friday's column and suggested that I handed Onstad a free pass for shoving Montero to the ground after 16 minutes. Onstad certainly didn't merit a free ride in that instance even though he felt Montero had fouled him moments earlier. The veteran Canadian stopper is far more intelligent than he showed on that play and deserved his booking. With that said, a dismissal would have been rather harsh indeed considering the stakes in play and Montero's disproportionate reaction.
2. After the crack New England public relations staff graciously printed off the 188-page MLS playoff media guide for me this weekend, I figured I'd put it to good use to figure out how many goals Houston has conceded from set pieces this season. The answer: six goals from corner kicks and two goals indirectly created from free kicks. I mention this stat because those numbers will almost certainly grow in the second leg next Sunday if the Dynamo doesn't do a considerably better of marking up in dead ball situations than it did on Thursday night.
3. Seattle defender Tyrone Marshall underwent a procedure on Friday to help heal the strained right knee ligament that kept him out of the first leg. “They’re probably going to put some of my blood into that area to help it heal faster,” Marshall told The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.). “I guess they have this new procedure where they spin your own blood in that area and it makes that area heal faster.” Marshall and Sounders FC will hope the timetable include next Sunday's second leg, though Patrick Ianni performed well as his deputy in the first leg.
Columbus 0 – Real Salt Lake 1
4. Top notch job by Brian Carroll and Danny O'Rourke in central midfield to constrict space and bother the RSL midfielders all night long. The best way to limit RSL going forward is to get into the feet of their midfielders to limit their time and space and the Crew central midfielders did just that. In fact, the entire side did a good job defensively from back to front except...
5. ...on the deciding goal. After Chad Marshall poked the ball away from Yura Movsisyan on the left wing, the Crew switched off. Crew captain Frankie Hedjuk permitted Movsisyan too much space in the corner and allowed Movsisyan to collect Will Johnson's astute quick throw-in without harassment. Movsisyan then whipped a ball into the near post and Findley beat Eric Brunner to the spot and deftly touched home the winner. As the Crew learned the hard way, one lax moment can ruin 90 minutes of toil.
6. Movsisyan toiled for just 25 minutes, but he did enough in his lively substitute appearance to earn strong consideration for a starting XI berth in Fabian Espindola's place in Thursday's second leg.
BONUS: RSL will fly to Columbus on Monday night and spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Ohio prior to the Thursday night showdown, according to the Columbus Dispatch. That's a decent chunk of change wisely spent from this pundit's angle.
Chicago 1 – New England 2
7. Poor Mike Banner. The Fire midfielder is probably fourth choice on the Chicago depth chart at left back, but injuries to Gonzalo Segares, Daniel Woolard and Wilman Conde have forced Banner to play as a flank defender in spells this season. Banner has certainly put forth the required effort in a tough spot, but his performances have run the gamut between acceptable and not-so-acceptable during his stint there. Unfortunately for Banner, the first leg against the Revolution fell into the latter category. His reluctance to clear in first-half stoppage time forced C.J. Brown to haul down Sainey Nyassi in a dangerous spot on the right wing. On the ensuing free kick, Banner lost Emmanuel Osei and the Ghanaian defender headed home the equalizer seconds before the halftime whistle. To compound those issues, Nyassi tormented Banner to the point that Fire coach Denis Hamlett sent Segares on for his first action since Aug. 9 in the 64th minute.
8. Joseph may earn most of the plaudits, but Jeff Larentowicz and substitute Pat Phelan quietly submitted a dogged and effective central midfield shift during the second half when Joseph ventured further up the field to harass Fire defenders instead of Fire midfielders.
9.“You have to, right,” Chicago defender Brandon Prideaux said about whether he believed the Fire could overturn the one-goal deficit on Saturday night at Toyota Park. “I think we played well (today). We gave up two restart goals. It's nothing to panic about. We played well enough to at least get a tie, but that's the way it goes sometimes. We feel confident going home. We're looking forward to it.”
Los Angeles 2 – Chivas USA 2
10. Sacha Kljestan may have steadily improved his form in the attacking third over the past couple of months, but his willingness to drop back and do the defensive work caught the eye on a couple of occasions against the Galaxy. Kljestan retreated all the way back to the edge of his own penalty area to snap up the remnants of a failed one-two between Landon Donovan and Mike Magee to set up his run. through midfield and well-weighted through ball for Santos' opener. In second half stoppage time, Kljestan tracked back into midfield, won the ball and slotted through for Galindo to dribble the feed away into nothing. U.S. coach Bob Bradley, a spectator on the day, may include Kljestan in his thoughts again if he continues with these sorts of all-action performances.
11. While Preki's constant tinkering prepares observers to expect the unexpected, Galindo's omission from the starting XI still provided a bit of a surprise given the opponent. The Cuban forward isn't the most well-rounded of players, but his pace unsettles defenses and Los Angeles, as shown once again yesterday, doesn't cope well with Galindo's penchant to play off the shoulder of the last defender. Given Galindo's effective performance as a second-half substitute (even aside from the fortunate goal), perhaps Preki will have reason to make a switch heading into the second leg.
12. Donovan may still be screaming for Alan Gordon to pick up his head after the Galaxy substitute squandered a two-versus-one with a quarter of an hour to play. David Beckham played a diagonal ball to release Gordon down the right side. Gordon latched onto the ball, kept his head down and created enough space to hit a low effort past the far post. If he had picked his head up, Gordon would have seen Donovan in enough space to take several touches before tucking the ball past Zach Thornton. While awareness may have made all of the difference in the Galaxy's two goals, Gordon's momentary lack of it cost the Galaxy a chance at an ill-deserved victory.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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