Dane Richards of the New York Red Bulls could end up being the player that dominates the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It's very odd to be writing a playoff preview for MLS's Eastern Conference, considering the fact that two of the four teams in said conference are from Colorado and California, respectively. Since adopting the odd current playoff format (seriously MLS, what's wrong with 1v8, 2v7, etc?), MLS has seen the New York Red Bulls represent the Western Conference in 2008 and Real Salt Lake do the same for the East in 2009.
The odds of such a thing happening this season are stronger than ever. It's not just about there being only two true Eastern teams in the playoffs; it's also the relative strength of the teams coming from the West to fill out the bracket. Normally 46 points is a total that might even get you home-field advantage (such as it is) in the first round; this year, it means you're the two weakest teams remaining in the playoff field.
Normally MLS produces three or four quality teams, three or four truly poor teams, and everyone else is a middle class that more or less ends up in a given position due to a couple odd bounces or calls going for or against them. This season, that's not the case; the top eight are clearly much stronger than even the best of the teams that missed out. In a league where parity should reign, this was probably not the intended result.
Beyond the jump, we'll take a look at the match ups, likely formations, and the keys to victory for all four teams gunning for the "Eastern" Conference's spot in the 2010 MLS Cup Final.#1 New York Red Bulls vs. #4 San Jose Earthquakes
First Leg (at San Jose) - Saturday 10/30, 10pm (Telefutura)
Second Leg (at New York) - Thursday 11/4, 8pm (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes)
The Red Bulls won the Eastern Conference for the second time ever, and their reward is a first-round match up against the San Jose Earthquakes, who appear to be the weakest team in the field. That's not to say that the Quakes are some kind of pushover; on the contrary, any team featuring the MLS Golden Boot winner (Chris Wondolowski, who is on the mother of all hot streaks) and players like Geovanni and Bobby Convey in the midfield is a real threat.
Here are the likely formations in the first leg for both clubs:
Hans Backe has been left with a decision to make now that Thierry Henry is doubtful with a knee injury. Backe's preference is to play this exact 4411, but with Henry in place of Juan Pablo Angel. While much has been made about how Angel and Henry take up a lot of the same positions on the field and are not particularly compatible, less has been said about how Henry's quickness and mobility are arguably the key to making this system work. Angel, who is a less mobile forward, is more dangerous with an actual partner. This was recently made plain after halftime of their 2-1 loss to Philadelphia; the 4411 was getting nowhere, so Backe took off Tony Tchani, slid Mehdi Ballouchy back to central midfield, and brought on Salou Ibrahim to lead the line. The Red Bulls looked like a completely different team as a result.
So why do I expect Backe to go back to the 4411? Backe's something of a pragmatist, and with San Jose deploying Geovanni somewhere between midfield and the front line, there is a real prospect of the Quakes looking to outnumber anyone playing a straight 442 in central midfield. There's also the fact that Backe doesn't appear to rate Ibrahim all that highly; I think when it comes down to it, he'd rather keep both Tchani and Ballouchy on the field instead of benching one to bring in the Ghanaian striker.
San Jose's team is a bit more straightforward. Ryan Johnson will continue to lead the line for the Quakes, where his strength, aggression, and speed make him a handful for opposing defenses. It seems odd that Wondolowski has been out on the wing scoring all these goals, but with the flexibility this set up allows him (both Johnson and Geovanni are capable of drifting wide and swapping positions with Wondo) makes it work.
The big issue for San Jose is in the back, where the return of Ramiro Corrales from injury has given Frank Yallop something to think about. While he could choose Corrales at left back and play either Tim Ward or Chris Leitch at right back, I think Yallop will go with the four above. Corrales hasn't had many minutes after a long lay-off, and the last thing you would want to do against the Red Bulls is play someone who is not completely match-fit against Richards. There's also the fact that Ward is quicker than Corrales, which against Richards is a very big asset to have.
Why New York will win: San Jose may have peaked too early. A 5-1-1 stretch from mid-August to late September has been followed by a more tepid 2-1-3 run (during which they were shut out four times). Wondolowski has scored his club's last ten goals, which is impressive for him as an individual but is not at all a good sign for the rest of the squad. The last Quake to score other than Wondo was Geovanni, back on September 5th.
Where New York has a real advantage is in the midfield. Centrally, Marquez's intelligence and skill (particularly with his mid- and long-range passing) and the all-action style of Tchani should be too good of a combination for Sam Cronin and Khari Stephenson to deal with, especially with Ballouchy coming from his higher role to help out. On the wings, Joel Lindpere is responsible and savvy enough to help Roy Miller keep track of Wondolowski's runs, while Richards will probably end up being a big distraction to Convey on the opposite side. Even if NY struggles to create a high volume of chances, I think they can control both legs thanks to their midfield superiority and their sturdy, comfortable back four.
Why San Jose will win: The individual match up that the Quakes will try to force all day long will be Wondolowski against Miller. Miller is the weakest player NY starts, and Wondolowski has been ghosting away from better left backs throughout the latter stages of the season. If Geovanni can find the gaps between the Red Bull defense and midfield, and if Convey can evade former teammate Chris Albright, then Wondolowski's supply chain will be uninterrupted. Stopping San Jose's offense means being tuned in for all 90 minutes, because even one free back post run for Wondolowski at this point will mean you're down a goal.
At the other end, NY's offense has stagnated without Henry, and if the Quakes can anticipate well enough to prevent being exposed by early balls to Richards down the right, they should be able to keep the Red Bulls in front of them. That means shutting down Marquez early and forcing someone else to play those passes. Look for San Jose to apply defensive pressure high up the field in order to contain the threat of Richards.
What's going to happen: I see this one being fairly low-scoring. Both offenses appear to be overly reliant at the moment on one player (the right midfielder in both cases). I think NY's ability to win the midfield will tilt things slightly in their favor, especially in the second leg when Henry is likely to be healthy to play. Look for either a 1-0 Quakes or a 0-0/1-1 draw in the first leg, and for NY to take the series with a 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.
First Leg (at Colorado) - Thursday 10/28, 9pm (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes)
Second Leg (at Columbus) - Saturday 11/6, 4pm (Telefutura)
What might appear to be a bland playoff match up between two teams with little back history has already gotten off to a contentious start. Columbus will enter the series having advanced from their CONCACAF Champions League group comfortably, but I can't shake the thought that Matt Pickens may have been right. Columbus has looked tired since the All-Star break, and when the Rapids are on they can play with anyone in MLS.
Sticking with the above format, here are the likely formations:
Robert Warzycha has a lot of things to figure out here. Will he go with the much more athletic Shaun Francis at left back, or the more experienced Gino Padula? Given the fact that Omar Cummings likes to drift to the flanks from time to time to find space, and Padula's indifferent form all season long, I'm guessing Francis starts.
The midfield also has some question marks. Centrally, the linking role has been a problem all season. Adam Moffat has struggled to make an impact, while Kevin Burns isn't quite ready for the job full-time. Warzycha would probably prefer to use Eddie Gaven on the wing, but ultimately Emmanuel Ekpo is a better right midfielder than Moffat and Burns are central midfielders. In Columbus I fully expect Gaven to line up centrally, but in Colorado we could see Burns or Moffat centrally, as both are more solid defensively than Gaven.
There are issues up front as well. It appears Warzycha won't repeat last year's infamous decision to bench Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but the question of who will partner the Crew's best player in attack looms large. Emilio Renteria had emerged as the favorite in the past week, but a knee injury will keep the Venezuelan out of the first leg. I think we'll see Andres Mendoza get the start, but it seems like Warzycha isn't sold on him, Steven Lenhart, or Jason Garey at this point.
Oh, and goalkeeper Will Hesmer broke his shoulder with only a few minutes remaining in the regular season, so Andy Gruenebaum will step in between the sticks. Needless to say, this amount of confusion and upheaval is not ideal, even if all of these players have played significant minutes (that includes Gruenebaum, who played in every one of the Crew's CCL and US Open Cup matches).
Colorado offers a stark contrast to the undecided nature of the Columbus starting eleven. What changes Gary Smith may make to the above lineup would be tactical choices; Warzycha, on the other hand, is having issues forced upon him by injury and poor form.
In the back, burly French center back Julien Baudet is fit to play. Normally you wouldn't expect the Rapids to break up what has been a decent back four, but the Crew's options at striker are all big, physical types. Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor have been solid, but they might struggle against, say, the abrasive style of Lenhart. Smith will have the option of bringing Baudet in, in which case we could see Moor at left back for Anthony Wallace, Wynne at right back for Kosuke Kimura, or Wynne on the right and Kimura on the left with Baudet and Moor centrally.
The wide midfield positions also offer Smith some choices to make. Jamie Smith is their best creator from the midfield, but in Columbus the Rapids may opt for the more defensively sound Wells Thompson on the left instead. Thompson may also step in for Brian Mullan at right midfield, as the former Houston Dynamo man has looked like he still has some adjusting to do with his new club.
Why Columbus will win: Columbus has gone far in every competition they've been in this season, which includes a US Open Cup final appearance and advancing from their CCL group in style. They may not always play the best soccer, but the Crew have mastered the art of stopping their opponents from playing anything approaching an attractive style. This Columbus squad will fancy their chances in a scrappy game against just about anyone due to the battling nature of their squad and their outstanding ability to score on set pieces. They will also have a chip on their shoulder after last year's playoff disaster.
Why Colorado will win: The Crew's schedule included ten competitive games beyond their league matches, all of which were mid-week games that took place after July. Columbus is flat-out tired, and it has shown. Colorado, meanwhile, has had just 32 competitive fixtures, and they look fresh and energetic. Given their advantage at home in the thin Colorado air and their high-paced playing style, that discrepancy in energy is a huge advantage.
What's going to happen: Smith will have his side play at a high tempo in the first leg, and from here it doesn't look like Columbus will be able to keep up. In particular, I see the Crew struggling mightily to cope with Omar Cummings, while the central midfield pairing of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni should be able to win the battle for the middle. I see Colorado winning the first leg by two or three goals.
In Columbus, I think the Rapids can again rely on their strength in central midfield to suffocate the Crew midfield, and their ability to counter should get them a goal at some point. Columbus will get a 2-1 win, but that won't be enough to overcome what could end up being a rout in Commerce City.