Just When You Thought it was Safe to Open the Home Page

Look, I know it wasn't the most important, significant or noteworthy occurrence in the first round of the MLS Cup 2010 Playoffs.

In fact, in the overall scheme of things it had no import whatsoever. I get it. Really.

But please, for the love of Gaia would someone explain what the hell Blaise Nkufo was doing in the 93rd minute of his Sounders' 1-0 loss to Los Angeles last night when he got all up in Donovan Ricketts' grill (as the kids would say) as the Galaxy goalkeeper was trying to release the ball into play?

Nkufo acted like he was playing tag with Ricketts, chasing him hither and yon across the top of the penalty area until, finally, Ricketts makes a cutback move that would do Maurice Jones-Drew proud and thinks he has an opening where he can punt the ball downfield. As he's releasing it from his hand but before he can get his foot on it Nkufo kicks it, causing the ball to dribble back towards the goal.

Unfortunately for Nkufos' dreams of being carried from the stadium on the shoulders of thousands of electric-green-clad maniacs chanting his name and offering him their daughters, this is what is commonly understood to be a really blatant, obnoxious and obvious violation of the rules, something which every U10 player in the stands could have told him.

This rule seems to have escaped Nkufos' notice, since he seemed utterly befuddled when referee Alex Prus showed him a yellow card.

I thought this guy was a "Swiss International" of some repute. Now I grant you that that's something akin to being an Italian war hero but still.

On to the action:

Almost exactly a year ago, when Columbus had just been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, a wildly respected soccer blogger contacted me to do a "guest column" on his website, giving my interpretation as to why the Crew had crashed so badly.

I usually refuse to do that kind of thing for a lot of reasons, but this is a guy I greatly admire and I was flattered that he had asked.

So I thought long and hard and, after writing a brief review of various elements of the Crews' 2009 season, including what I sadly referred to as the shockingly sudden decline of Frankie Hejduk (a fact which apparently remains unnoticed by what the team laughingly refers to as their "brain trust, who traded away his understudy to DC United for a bag of magic beans a couple months ago) I opined that, after almost two years of riding an emotional high the team had simply "run out of gas".

The resulting response column made the MLS Rivalries forum resemble a reception at Buckingham Palace as various commenters explored the breadth and depth of the English language as a medium for insult in something of a contest to come up with the freshest and most imaginative synonyms for "dumbshit". Quite impressive, actually.

So it was with some bemusement that I read the comments of Crew coach Robert Warzycha this past month when he began commenting that his team had simly run out of gas after spending more time in airplanes than Chuck Yeager, crisscrossing the hemisphere from Mexico to Trinidad & Tobago to Guatemala, with jaunts to Seattle and Los Angeles tossed in for good measure.

But after spending the last month of the season looking like roadkill, they got an entire week between games for the first time since July and won their final regular season game as Warzycha credited "having two practices in the same week" as among the unique features of their preparation.

So of course MLS, in it's infinite wisdom, gave Columbus the short week and the four hour plane ride to Denver to open the playoffs and the resulting 1-0 loss seemed more than charitable given the long stretches of the match where Columbus did a remarkable imitation of those metal practice guys teams use to do DFK drills.

Colorado advances if: they can find a way to keep Columbus from getting a few nights' sleep

Columbus advances if: they find someone - anyone - who can score a goal.

But of course this is the MLS playoffs and the name of the game in the first round is to get a draw or, at worst, settle for a 1 goal loss. The visiting team, by little known league rule, isn't supposed to win.

Which means that Hans Backe is getting a nasty phone call from Dan Courtemanche this morning.

Let me say up front that I am a huge fan of San Joses' Chris Wondolowski. Unfortunately, one guy does not an offense make, particularly with the kind of rock-solid defense the RedBulls can put on the field.

And while I have no problem with the leagues announced MVP candidates - Buddle, Ferreira and Wondo - the guy who deserves it is Joel Lindpere, by a wide margin.

Sure les Taureaux Rouges have attacking options out the wazoo, more than any other team in the league and possibly more than any team in league history. But it's Lindpere that makes it work as, along with Mehdi Ballouchy, the Bulls play the kind of soccer that the most jaded soccer snob would wildly applaud if they were wearing uniforms from Inter Milan or Chelsea.

And as if they needed him, they trotted out 17 year old Academy grad Juan Agudelo, for whom the term "wildly talented" seems more than apt. In the interests of fairness NYRB ought to be forced to deal this kid to somebody else. Learning the ropes while playing in the cocoon of veteran talent that Backe can surround him with is going to make this a scary guy.

New York advances if: they decide to go ahead and play the game

San Jose advances if: they play the match in some kind of Bizarro World

Unfortunately for RSL, they ended up having to play Dallas, the team that scares the crap out of everybody.

Fortunately for everyone else, one of these two teams will be out next week.

Admit it: you spent the whole season saying to yourself: "Dallas; yeah right". At the beginning of the season Schellas Hyndman looked like the coach most likely to be gone by June. Now, if someone isn't careful, he may be the coach holding the Anschutz Trophy on a teeny-tiny stage in Toronto.

These guys are good.

What's more, they play with a confidence that makes absolutely no sense for the one original MLS side which has never played in a final. Opening the playoffs against the defending champions, and then going down a goal in just the fifth minutes should have been enough to crack their confidence, ad in any other year it probably would have.

But this outfit never looked flustered, never stopped taking it to the Royals and, when Eric Avila came in on 87 minutes and scored the game winner in the 88th it was Salt Lake who suddenly looked to be the team in trouble.

It's an old axiom of sports that while winning a championship is tough, repeating is by far the bigger challenge.

Unfortunately for Jason Kreis' team, the loss of Javier Morales to suspension is going to hurt them a lot more than the absence of Atiba Harris will bother Dallas - they might even be better without him - although you had to love Morales' complaint about the call on the second yellow, when he complained that Dax McCarty "ran into" his foot.

That's true, but only in the same sense that Polands' cavalry "ran into" Guderians' Panzers outside of Wizna. The Germans really shouldn't have been there in the first place.

RSL advances if: they are able to overcome the fact that all of the pressure is on them

Dallas advances if: there's a God in heaven

Which brings us to LA vs. Seattle.

I have to ask up front: when a team that plays on artificial turf - and artificial turf which everyone admits is a bit past its prime to begin with - waters down the field just prior to a soccer match, what are they hoping to accomplish?

It's a serious question - I am genuinely puzzled. And I'm assuming that the answer is not that they don't realize that it isn't actually going to grow if you keep it wet.

It seems to me that what you accomplish is not somehow increasing the natural advantage which the home team normally has due to their familiarity with the surface, but rather making the pitch equally unplayable for both sides.

Or maybe that's the point here: Seattle finally got around to being embarrassed about the crappy field they play on and decided that, to be fair to LA, they'd turn the whole damned thing into the next best thing to an ice rink.

However all that might be, this wasn't a particularly fun game to watch as the ball and the players slipped, skipped and slid their way around the place as 40,000 or 50,000 or 300,000 screaming Seattle fans were treated to a display of just what a Bruce Arena defense can do if his team isn't the least bit interested in scoring a goal.

And for good measure, Edson Buddle netted what is either the greatest pice of shooting skill we're likely to see in these playoffs or the wildest piece of dumb luck imaginable.

I'll leave it to you and Danny to hash that one out.

LA advances if: they play the next game in the Home Depot Center

Seattle advances if: forget it; they won't