After the first legs, the Eastern Conference semifinals are both wide open. The Houston Dynamo's inspired fightback - or is that the farcical collapse by the New York Red Bulls? - in the second half at BBVA Compass and MLS's allergy to the away goals rule means that the second leg at Red Bull
Dumpster Arena is a winner-take-all affair. The other tie sees the New England Revolution, a team no one is giving much of a chance to represent the East, in the best spot of anyone. Sure they're on the road against Sporting Kansas City, but they're also sitting on a 2-1 lead against the Sporks, who have only scored six goals in their last six games.
From a D.C. United perspective, it's fairly obvious what needs to happen: Houston needs to win in some sort of comical or brutally cruel way over the Metros, and hopefully the other game provides more entertainment than it seems reasonable to expect. Let's take a look at how things should shake out:
New York Red Bulls vs. Houston Dynamo
The first leg was a tale of two halves, with both teams sharing responsibility for the 180 this game did at halftime. In the first half, Houston did a poor job of managing the game, letting NYRB play the counter-attacking style they prefer away from home. It didn't help that Tim Cahill got away with two elbows to the head of Eric Brunner, each coming a few minutes before he factored into a goal (scoring the opener and assisting on the other), but the bigger problem for the Dynamo was sloppy possession and big gaps through the midfield.
It could be a consequence of Houston's packed schedule recently. When this second leg is done, the Dynamo will have played six games in eighteen days, including a trip to Panama to play on turf. Dominic Kinnear has usually been very confident in his team's ability to play on short rest, but other than that game at Arabe Unido in the CONCACAF Champions league, he's been rolling out his best eleven over and over again. The tired legs may have explained the poor start and the slowness of thought that created those gaps.
However, that problem might be preferable to the one facing the Red Bulls. Jamison Olave's brain-dead challenge on Omar Cummings got him a deserved red card, leaving him suspended in a must-win game. The Red Bulls have not done well playing without the hulking Colombian, as Andrew Wiebe covered yesterday on MLSsoccer.com. Any time you see a team lose their most athletic center back going against a team capable of firing in a lot of crosses like Houston in, it's a problem. When that team's other center back (Ibrahim Sekagya) seemed to struggle with quickness from both Bruin and Cummings as the game wore on.
For the Red Bulls, the way to win this game is to spread the field out and string together long passing sequences. That'll be easier on the larger RBA surface - you know, the one a year ago that the Red Bulls left uncovered for hours during a giant storm that everyone knew was coming - and it will help them at both ends. Controlling the game and forcing the Dynamo onto the back foot should result in chances for NYRB thanks to the skill everyone in their front six has on the ball, but just as vital is that it will force the Dynamo to get narrow to defend. The more narrow Houston is in their own end, the more running they'll have to do to spread the field and fire in some crosses towards Bruin.
Houston's interests will mainly be focused on muddying up the midfield and making the game choppy. NYRB has some scrappers in their squad, but Houston's entire gameday squad (bar possibly Alex Lopez) is the more battle-ready. If this game is more about who can provide the better soccer, the Dynamo will struggle. If it's more of a Thunderdome battle to the death, Houston will like their chances.
However, Houston can't hope to simply fight their way to a win; they're going to have to find a way to switch the point of attack. The Red Bulls are a mess at both right and left back, and the best method of attack in this game for the Dynamo will be crosses aimed at Bruin and Barnes. With Brandon Barklage being a bit slow and not having the best mastery of angles on the right and David Carney making enough mistakes that Roy Miller is being thought of as a potential member of the gameday squad, Houston needs to get down the wings. Mike Petke seemed very concerned with using Cahill and others to prevent Corey Ashe from overlapping, so Houston will need to either get Kofi Sarkodie involved or find some way to distract NYRB from making Ashe play an overly conservative game.
Probable lineups (R-to-L because I'm not some crude barbarian):
Houston (4132): Hall; Sarkodie, Boswell, Brunner, Ashe; Creavalle; Garcia, Clark, Davis; Barnes, Bruin
NYRB (442): Robles; Barklage, Holgersson, Sekagya, Carney; Alexander, McCarty, Luyindula, Steele; Henry, Cahill
Houston's team is pretty much a sure thing, unless Warren Creavalle's lackluster showing in Houston sees him dropped for Servando Carrasco.
The Red Bulls are a little less certain. Eric Alexander could be dropped for the more attack-minded Lloyd Sam, and NYRB sometimes looks like they're in a 4132. It's a variable based mostly on whether Dax McCarty wants to drop underneath or play alongside Peguy Luyindula. They can make this flexible formation work thanks to the smarts they have in the center of the park. There's also a tiny chance that Luyindula is dropped, Cahill is moved to central midfield, and Bradley Wright-Phillips starts, but Luyindula has looked very good since being moved from the front line.
Prediction: Houston wins 4-3 on aggregate, likely scoring a goal via some preposterous NYRB mistake. The ghosts of MetroBull past showed up in the second half in Houston, and without Olave I think they lack the belief in the back to get the job done against a Houston team that is, as per usual, a tough out in the playoffs.
Sporting Kansas City vs. New England Revolution
This was probably the least entertaining game of the semifinal round. Football lines, turf, a home team focused on playing on the counter, and a visitor playing only one of their truly skillful players. When players like Lee Nguyen are doing a ton of sacrificial running, you know you're not about to watch a wonderful display of skill.
And so, for the third year running, this is what it comes down to for KC: A home, must-win playoff game at the end of the first week in November. In 2011, it was a one-off conference final on the 6th, and last year it was a second leg that began with a 2-0 deficit on the 7th.
What's different this time? For one thing, KC has to be happy that they're not up against the Dynamo. The Revs can't replicate the Dynamo's physicality, and Jay Heaps doesn't have Kinnear's long history of getting the tactics right in the playoffs.
However, maybe Heaps just hasn't had time to establish that history. In the first leg, the smartest thing either coach did was when the Revs swapped Juan Agudelo and Dimitry Imbongo. Agudelo moved out to the wing, and Imbongo moved up into the lone forward position. This brought New England's ability in the midfield up to a high enough level that they could actually mount attacks, while Imbongo was more suited to the physical battle that is matching up against Aurelien Collin. It didn't turn the Revs into world-beaters, but it made them good enough to put two goals past a fairly weak KC side.
The Sporks will have to play a lot better in the second leg. If they find themselves in yet another playoff game where their only solution to their problems is to press even harder and lump even more crosses into the box, they will be eliminated tonight. It's funny: For all the talk about how great Peter Vermes is, he seems no better prepared for this scenario than he has been the past two years.
KC would be smart to bring in Benny Feilhaber and push Graham Zusi into a faux-winger role, as they did in the past. Adding another technical player is probably a better plan than simply trying to bash their way to victory. Sometimes you need a scalpel rather than a hammer, and if there's a weak spot in the likely Revs team, it's Andy Dorman. Sporting has to keep the ball - and their players without it - moving, because they'll be able to exploit Dorman's lack of mobility. It can't just be about getting the ball into the box over and over again.
The Revs did well on the break, especially with Agudelo able to combine with Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe. The formations leave space for Agudelo and Diego Fagundez on either flank, and the Sporks will be sending their fullbacks up the field regularly. If they can exploit those spaces when they counter rather than getting jammed up in the middle, they have the skill to create real chances. Rowe was particularly good in the first leg, and he could be the main man again in Kansas.
Sporting (433): Nielsen; Myers, Collin, Besler, Sinovic; Rosell, Zusi, Olum; Sapong, ???, Saad
Revs (4141): Reis; Farrell, Soares, Goncalves, Barnes; Dorman; Agudelo, Rowe, Nguyen, Fagundez; Imbongo
The Sporks are a bit difficult to predict this time around. With their offensive problems, the likely conservative approach from the Revs, and the need for multiple goals to win outright, they could easily drop Lawrence Olum for Benny Feilhaber and play Oriol Rosell in an anchor role rather than play two defensive midfielders behind Zusi. Even less certain is at center forward, where Dom Dwyer and Teal Bunbury don't offer the class of Claudio Bieler, but then Bieler hasn't scored since July (nice little nugget from Charles Gooch of the Kansas City Star). One of those three will get the start, but the decision to use Bunbury over Dwyer in a playoff game has made it tough to call.
For the Revs, it's a lot easier to predict what we'll see. Darrius Barnes should continue at left back because a) Chris Tierney and Kevin Alston are still dealing with injuries and b) Barnes is the better player for this situation anyway. KC is going to end up pumping a lot of aerial balls into the box, and Barnes is a tall ex-center back. Dorman will continue at defensive midfield, and the effective switch of pushing Agudelo to the right wing and putting Imbongo up top will continue unless Heaps has no idea what he's doing.
Prediction: I don't have confidence in KC's ability to play a different way, and I saw enough from the Revs to think they can get a goal somehow. The crowd at Sporting Park tends to get very nervous very quickly, and the Sporks can get caught up in being over-emotional when the pressure goes up. Give me a 1-1 draw and, somehow, New England in the conference final.
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