In watching the first round of the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs, each series took on a defining characteristic. In the Los Angeles Galaxy's triumph over the Seattle Sounders, we saw how a team with more intelligence and experience on the field can dictate the terms of how games go. FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, the two most attractive teams to watch over the course of the season, provided us with the two best games in terms of the quality of play (RSL fans might rue the slightly off-color performances from their side, but even with those off games they'd have gotten past just about anyone other than Dallas and LA). The Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew both controlled large portions of their home legs, but the Rapids managed to illustrate how vital having true goalscorers can be when push comes to shove.
The San Jose Earthquakes and New York Red Bulls served up something akin to a summer blockbuster: High on thrills and full of twists, the series was an entertaining crowd-pleaser. However, just as movies like "Avatar" wow people at first glance, upon further examination this was the lowest-quality series of the four because of the slipshod defending throughout. Both legs could have easily ended with comical scores because only one defender on either team - rookie of the year nominee Tim Ream - bothered to show up (and even Ream was beaten by Bobby Convey 1v1 on the second goal for the Quakes at Red Bull Arena).
There were two main reasons that this defensive dreck only resulted in a 3-2 aggregate scoreline. For San Jose, the issue was a lack of good finishing. Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, who scored the clinching goal in the series, was far more wasteful than normal while players like Geovanni, Ryan Johnson, and Eduardo also missed promising chances.
For the Red Bulls, however, the problem was Earthquakes goalkeeper Jon Busch, who was in sublime form in both legs. Goalkeepers are often asked to make the one big save that gives his team the chance to turn a loss into a tie or a tie into a win. By my count, Busch made four such saves, including two in the opening 11 minutes at Buck Shaw Stadium. If Busch had been on average form, NY would have rolled into the conference final and probably set a new MLS record for most goals in a two-legged series. Instead, the Red Bulls are wondering where it all went wrong (here's a couple of hints, fellas: Roy Miller and the inexcusably lazy play of Rafael Marquez) while the Quakes are dreaming of being the third straight #8 seed to go to the MLS Cup Final.
For his efforts, Busch gets to man the nets in the "Eastern" Conference final; he also gets the distinct honor of being my top player thus far in the playoffs. I'm sure he'll print this article out and frame it.
Read on for the field players that made my first round dream team:
Right-center back: A.J. DeLaGarza (Galaxy)
I'm going to cheat here and pick DeLaGarza in a position he can play, rather than the position he did play (which was the central role alongside Omar Gonzalez). I had to find a way to fit the former Maryland Terrapin in somewhere, because he was very strong over both legs. There was little flashy in DeLaGarza's play, but unfussy, effective play is exactly what you want from your defenders. DeLaGarza broke up countless plays for LA, especially in the second leg (where John Harkes found himself singing DeLaGarza's praises after virtually every repelled Sounders attack). At this point, he's a player LA has to protect in the upcoming expansion draft, because both John Spencer and Teitur Thordarson would jump at the chance to get someone who can play at this level in any defensive position.
Center back: Omar Gonzalez (Galaxy)
Yes, this blog is brought to you by two Maryland guys, but these picks are on merit. Gonzalez was immense, especially when you consider that his main foe (Seattle striker Blaise Nkufo) is remarkably mobile for a target man. Since Gregg Berhalter went down injured about midway through the season, this back four has become Gonzalez's to marshal. The proof is in the pudding, as the dynamic attack we normally see from the Sounders ended up looking quite mediocre. LA's win was a victory for organization, and Gonzalez was as responsible for that as any other in a Galaxy uniform. Oh, and he also scored the goal that took the wind out of Seattle's sails to boot. Consider his play here as more evidence that Gonzalez should be firmly within Bob Bradley's top four center backs whenever it's time to make national team call-ups.
Left-center back: Eddie Lewis (Galaxy)
Yes, it's an all Los Angeles back three. That's what happens when you take an offense like Seattle and pretty much put them in your pocket for 180 (well, 170...those last ten minutes in LA were probably not to Bruce Arena's liking) minutes. Despite being on the verge of retirement, Lewis came in and played left back - not his natural position by any stretch of the imagination - like someone in the prime of his career. Faced with shutting down the speedy and in-form Sanna Nyassi, Lewis used all of his accumulated years of wisdom to totally neutralize the Gambian winger's obvious pace advantage. Nyassi was subbed off for Alvaro Fernandez in both legs, and frankly I think Sigi Schmid waited too long both times to make the switch (yes, that even includes waiting until halftime in the second leg; Fernandez should have been in the moment he was warmed up, even if it was the 30th minute). With Nyassi off the field, Lewis did just as well against Fernandez - a World Cup semifinalist this past summer - as well as Fredy Montero in the late stages when the ineffective Colombian was stationed wide right to make room for Seattle's three-forward alignment of Nate Jaqua, Nkufo, and Steve Zakuani.
Right midfield: David Beckham (Galaxy)
I promise this is not just a list of Galaxy starters; trust me, it's painful enough just to praise this many of them. However, sometimes you just have to tip your hat to someone who has done well, and yet again we have another LA player who was in great form. Beckham's play in the first leg was all about defensive responsibility. How odd was it to see Beckham make as many defensive headers as he did crosses from the run of play? Arena asked Beckham and Landon Donovan to help double team Seattle's wingers defensively, and they both responded with selfless displays at Qwest Field.
If Beckham's play in the first leg was commendable but unspectacular, his dominance of the second leg more than made up for the lack of glitz. It wasn't just the set piece perfection he served up for Edson Buddle and Gonzalez to score from, it was his ability to play crossfield balls to Donovan and others that left Seattle unsettled throughout. Becks did a fine job of making himself available to his teammates, and made few if any dangerous turnovers despite having to quarterback his team from a nominally wide role. This was the caliber of play people expected from a player with Beckham's resume when he first arrived in MLS.
Defensive midfield: Jeff Larentowicz (Rapids)
Colorado won the battle in central midfield in both legs over Columbus, and the main reason for that was Larentowicz, who continues to make everyone around him better for the Rapids. Even if we ignore his howitzer of a shot (if that shot off the bar in Columbus had gone in, I think it would have been fair to just end the series right then and there), he'd take this spot. Larentowicz won more than his fair share of tackles for the Rapids, but just as important was what he did in cutting the supply line between the Columbus midfield and Guillermo Barros Schelotto. El Mellizo had to drop very deep to get his touches, which in turn meant that the Crew's leading goalscorer was thirty or forty yards away from goal. Schelotto's a gifted passer, but Gary Smith surely preferred seeing Andres Mendoza or Jason Garey shooting on Matt Pickens instead of the Boca Juniors legend. Larentowicz also helped the Rapids keep possession without having to play too many backwards passes, which is an underrated quality in any defensive midfielder.
Central midfield: Dax McCarty (Dallas)
As of only a few weeks ago, just about every article about FC Dallas on MLSsoccer.com mentioned McCarty's long bout with a pair of muscular injuries. McCarty had been passed fit, but was clearly feeling short of confidence; rookie Eric Alexander had seemingly locked down the linking midfield role that had previously been unquestionably McCarty's turf.
However, McCarty came on strong at the end of the season and took that fine form to new heights against RSL. Simply put, McCarty's play over these two legs was the best soccer I've ever seen him play. It wasn't just the non-stop running he did to help slow down RSL's top-notch midfield, or even the killer goal he scored early in the second leg. McCarty's movement for his teammates was stellar, and his ability to keep the ball moving was a big part of the platform for the fine play of Marvin Chavez (who barely missed making this list) and the brilliant David Ferreira.
Left midfield: Bobby Convey (Earthquakes)
Convey was one of the better San Jose players after the first leg, but that isn't saying much. His place on this list is entirely based on his tour-de-force performance in Harrison, NJ in the second leg. Convey's first goal was simply the result of reading a play and finishing sharply when an opportunity presented itself. Really, it was kind of simple once Marquez decided to stand around and do nothing as Convey jogged onto Johnson's knockdown, but doing the simple things right at this time of year is how you advance. Look at it from the other side: How does this series go if Marquez does the simple thing and just stick with his mark?
If the first goal was a display of fundamentals, Convey's second goal and his assist for Chris Wondolowski's series-clincher were both examples of match-winning quality. On the goal, Convey had come up from left back and sparked the combination that eventually allowed him to spin past Ream (who had otherwise been a one-man defense for NY) and fire over a flummoxed Bouna Coundoul. That's not a goal that very many MLS players are capable of scoring. Similarly, the only player in this league that can consistently serve up a perfectly weighted cross like the one Convey delivered to Wondolowski is Beckham, who is somewhat well-known for his crossing ability if you haven't heard. As a wide player in my young days, Convey's cross was the single piece of skill I had to see again and again from this round of the playoffs.
Attacking midfield: David Ferreira (Dallas)
I'll go ahead and say it: I think Ferreira is the best "#10" in MLS today. He's among the most skillful players in the league, of course, but what sets him apart is that he may be the best player off the ball in the entire league. RSL found this out the hard way, as Ferreira caused them trouble from all over their defensive third. Despite having a record-setting back four and a tight, well-drilled midfield that would seemingly be the ideal group to negate Ferreira's unpredictable ways, RSL spent long stretches of both games on the back foot. Watching RSL try to contain Ferreira was almost like watching someone try to catch a ghost.
Unsurprisingly, Ferreira was heavily involved with every goal Dallas scored in this series. Jeff Cunningham's scrappy finish in the first leg came from Ferreira's entry pass that provoked a chaotic deflection, which in turn caused the round of pinball that ended with Cunningham slipping the ball past Nick Rimando.
If that one took took a bit of good fortune, the next two were all skill. Eric Avila's superb winner in the first leg came after Ferreira muscled off the far larger Jean Alexandre for possession, then drew attention from Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wingert, and the big Haitian before laying the ball off for Avila to do the rest. It was a play that summed up Ferreira as a player: Tougher than he looks, faster than he looks, bags of skill, and the soccer IQ to put all of those tools to work at once. Finally, it was also Ferreira's cross from deep on the right that Brek Shea adroitly chested into McCarty's path for what turned out to be the series-winning goal.
Forward: Edson Buddle (Galaxy)
Buddle's goal in the first leg, which was a glorious example of a confident player doing something audacious while fully expecting it to work out, was the one piece of skill LA needed to turn a workmanlike, professional 0-0 away draw into a priceless 1-0 road win. It was the goal of the playoffs thus far, and given some of the other candidates (Avila's pinpoint shot for Dallas in the first leg, Wondolowski's header from Convey's world-class cross) that's saying something.
It's not just that goal, or his more run-of-the-mill second (when you score as often as Buddle does, the mere act of heading in a Beckham corner kick is almost prosaic). Buddle's hold-up play in both legs was excellent; with Beckham and Donovan having to play deep to help out defensively, the support took longer than usual to arrive. LA's ability to possess the ball and mount attacks required Buddle to keep the ball long enough for the architects of their offense to arrive on the scene, and he did the job despite near-constant attention from Patrick Ianni. It's this side of Buddle's game that establishes him as MLS's top out-and-out striker.
Forward: Omar Cummings (Rapids)
It must be said: Cummings did not bring his shooting boots to this series. The Jamaican striker had been in deadly form over the last half of the season, but against Columbus he had a few uncharacteristically poor attempts; in particular, his scuffed attempt at a volley in the first leg from 13 yards out was a chance that he normally smashes into the upper corner. However, Cummings showed that a good player finds a way to impact the game in a positive manner for his team even when his normal bag of tricks isn't working. Cummings may have been misfiring, but the Rapids won't worry too much if he continues being their chief creative force. Cummings created both of Colorado's goals by drifting wide to exploit the disconnect between rookie left back Shaun Francis and the rest of the Crew back four. This was a tough call between Cummings and his strike partner Casey, who scored the late goal that forced extra time in Columbus and also wisely dummied the ball on for Pablo Mastroeni's goal at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, but ultimately I'm going with the guy who had to dig deep when Plan A wasn't necessarily working for him.
Kevin Hartman (Dallas) - Stood on his head at Rio Tinto in the second leg.
Sean Franklin (Galaxy) - With Beckham's help, mostly bottled up Zakuani, which is obviously no easy task.
Tim Ream (New York) - Put out a nearly endless series of fires as his fellow defenders (and Marquez, too) were atrocious in both legs.
Andy Williams (RSL) - His mid-range passes were the single most troublesome thing Dallas encountered over the two legs.
Marvin Chavez (Dallas) - Did well enough on the left in the first leg, then terrorized Tony Beltran throughout the second.
Juan Agudelo (New York) - Some poor decisions, but San Jose found him almost unplayable when he faced up to dribble at people 1v1; lovely assist to Angel in the second leg.
Conor Casey (Rapids) - Battled big center backs in both legs, yet came up with a goal and a crucial dummy.