MLS 2011 In (Disappointed) Review, Plus Handicapping the Wild Card

Posted on October 25, 2011 7:07 am

(I buried the programming notes for once. Check at the bottom if you care to. Look for this *.)

I haven’t cracked a dictionary to confirm, but the third or fourth definition of desperation might say something about checking your cable providers’ channel line-up to look for a channel you know you don’t get. Say, TSN2. So, let’s start this by flipping Major League Soccer a big ol’ bird (perhaps with hair on the knuckles) for pulling coverage on the MLS MatchDay Live right before the first ball gets kicked for post-season 2011. They’ll have to answer to still another crowd for hating on the Spanish-language channels…(hmm, the site lists Galavision, but I don’t see them in this announcement).

The “pisser quotient” only grows when one considers these same honchos invited what seemed like everyone to the post-season party – over half the league, as it happens, and with only half of that bunch really deserving to make it. This, admittedly, reeks of a hoary old gripe: too many teams in the playoffs, too many of them mediocre. But it’s the last piece of that – e.g. the sense of mediocrity – that feels different this year. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but enough clubs backed into the 2011 post-season that the whole affair feels like a demolition derby with cars that only drive in reverse.

Well, not all of them: there’s the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders, the likeliest favorites and two clubs driving very much in forward gears. But they’re exceptions and that reality gets clearer with each passing week.

Whatever will be will be, obviously, but this post is as much about looking backward as forward…especially seeing how I’m going to struggle with that whole looking forward thing (stupid lack of access). I don’t know what accounts for this 2011, this season of such bewilderingly slippery form for so many clubs. Is it more clubs and the resulting dilution of talent? The over-supply of games grinding down last year’s winners into this year’s gasping also-rans? A need for larger rosters? A need for a more selective playoff format? Eh, maybe. Or, more honestly, got me.

I’ll get into bullet points somewhere in here, I’m sure, but I intend to paint this narrative with a broad-brush. This story of an entire season attempts to answer the question of why only two teams really look the part out of a field of ten. Seeing as I’ve got to start somewhere, it may as well be out West because just about all the teams out there started hot.

Real Salt Lake came out flying and damn-near won the regional club crown – legitimately at that; my personal, and serial, dubbing of FC Dallas as the team I’d least like to play; LA very quietly coming close to breaking the all-time, single-season points total just last night: throw in the Colorado Rapids if you’re so inclined (I’m not), but the West Conference jumped far ahead enough of the Eastern that most people I read (small crowd) raised the question of why the East bothered at least once this season. Seattle, while never far out of the picture, was the only club that well and truly surged late – and damn did they surge! Anyone’s money looked safe on a six-four West/East split for post-season spots; at the right time in the season, even a 7-3 split might have found some takers.

Now, all these clubs – LA, Seattle, RSL, Colorado, and Dallas – ultimately held on, even allowing for the final 5-5, even-Stevens split. Taking away LA and Seattle for the moment, the question at hand – and especially over the playoff’s first round – boils down to what happened with the other three clubs. Dallas seems simplest: fatigue swallowed them so totally that, in the last two months of the season, as weird loses stacked up – a skunking at home to Toronto? A loss to that Houston club at home? 2011’s New England?! – they simply lost their capacity to surprise. RSL, the team that seemed poised to produce the truly magical combination of style and results, stumbled through the middle of the year riding games in hand that their reputation promised to make good. Only it, and they never did, or at least not really. It’s totally fair to claim injuries – they bit hard and deep, along with the absences – but the issues never resolved. Javier Morales’ returned, but the team has yet to settle into rhythm. More to the point, RSL’s hunger for points has them inching the effort envelope to thug territory. It’s not just Kyle Beckerman’s proverbial moment of madness, here, but an overall “hard” approach I’ve caught glimpses of that makes me think this team is struggling to regain what made it work.

Those are the surprises. As for Colorado, well, the know-it-all in me wants to write that I never really bought it. And there’s a case for this in terms of total points: weigh things one way and they’re at the points equivalent of the muddled mix atop the East. I’ll only say this: Colorado attempted upgrades in the right places – Caleb Folan at forward, for example – but the fact they’re essentially fielding last year’s championship team minus Conor Casey gets at why they never really hit top gear this season.

That proximity – which as alluded to above, is a late phenomenon – gets back to that ugly demolition derby theme. Line up the teams, less Seattle and LA, and consider their point totals:

Real Salt Lake: 53 points, +8 goal differential
FC Dallas: 52 points, +3
Sporting KC: 51 points, +10
Houston Dynamo: 49 points, +4
Colorado: 49 points, +3
Philadelphia Union: 48 points, +8
Columbus Crew: 47 points, -1 (!)
New York Red Bulls: 46 points, +6

Finally turning to the East, count Sporting KC the only team that comes out of that bunch looking good. No one else has the excuse of kicking off the season with an interminable, punishing road trip and – can you dig it? – they’ve got the best goal differential of this mob to boot. It takes the perspective, really, of the fall of key Western clubs to get out just how thoroughly screwed up most of the East was this year. New York sucked bad enough for a local writer to more or less write them off; Columbus played like old drunks – i.e. they had fine days when they had the wherewithal to step over the pink elephants; even as I loathe them for failing to beat New York, I cut Philly some slack as a second year team, especially one that had to wait most of the season for their talisman (Sebastian Le Toux) to get with the magic.

Before closing the book on the East, however, it’s worth pausing to give credit where it’s due. That 5-5 East/West split didn’t happen by accident, but came instead on the back of solid months, whatever their providence, by clubs like Houston (13 points in their last five) and New York (10 points). By way of perspective, the red-hot Seattle Sounders picked up one point less than Houston; providing perspective from the other direction, Houston’s victories generally came over the weak and limping and, yes, the Chicago Fire also matched Seattle’s output. Still, getting results when you need them gets you in the playoffs. And maybe that’s a sign of things to come.

Still, there’s that, an argument that we set out the fine china, pulled the good stuff out of the cellar, even put a tablecloth on the damn table, and…this…this rabble, this gaggle of Philistines shows up for the big party. Like I said way up at the top, LA and Seattle definitely deserve it, add Sporting KC for their second half, maybe Philly on pity…maybe RSL and Colorado for old time’s sake…and, OK, Houston for their stellar home form and late run – I mean, anything less and they could be huddled on Granville Street with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The point is, one runs out of strong arguments to add this or that team to the invitation list pretty damn quickly. I’m sure there are nuances in there I’m glossing over (with extreme carelessness) attributes that make this club or that more worthy, but form doesn’t tell too many lies. And too many of these clubs crashing the post-season party know consistency only by rumor.

But here’s the fucked up thing (excuse my French,but it is when you think about what playoffs should be): all this mediocrity makes for a more interesting post-season (and do note I said “interesting” as opposed to “riveting,” or “inspiring,” or “killer,” or even “pretty.” By that I mean, I have no friggin’ idea what’s going to happen Wednesday and Thursday, never mind this weekend when the playoffs begin in earnest. Hell, if RSL gets randy, even Seattle might crash out. And to close with a truly positive spin: I saw some of the best games all year over the past weekend (DC v. Portland and Columbus v. Chicago), games – no, events – just pulsing with energy and action, beautiful, heart-stopping end-to-end madness that positively forbade a body from a trip to the bathroom. If you excuse the lack of grace, even allow for clumsiness, these can be great games. Here’s to hoping that the actual playoff atmosphere doesn’t stifle the fun.

Think what you like, but that’s how I’m going to remember 2011. It’s kind of like Andrew Jackson’s inaugural, only without everyone going nuts over the issue of a national bank. And so, with that grand (exceedingly loose) narrative in the rearview, let us proceed to handicapping the matchups – if only for the midweek wild-card affairs. I promised bullet points and I can’t think of a better way to introduce them. The weekend games are another subject for a later date; as you’ll see with the programming notes below, the newly-adopted theme for this space is “FOCUS.”

Whatever happens, enjoy it. And, though I’d be happier if my bunch made the trip to Dallas, good luck to the participants.

FC Dallas v. New York Red Bulls
Why Dallas Will Win: OK, here’s the thing: Dallas can win when they have to – see late-season victories over Vancouver and Chicago (and ignore hand-shaped red mark left by that spanking by Toronto). They still possess good speed in multiple places – Jackson, Marvin Chavez, Jair Benitez, etc. – plus they rested a bunch of starters (Brek Shea, Daniel Hernandez, Ricardo Villar…assuming he makes it) to make one think they might have taken the right steps.
Why New York Will Win: Well, they did it for one, and not all that long ago. More to the point, since joining the gritty Stephen Keel with the cerebral (Adlai Stevenson?) Tim Ream, New York’s defense has improved; it only helps that Dallas has Maicon Santos leading the line. Rafa Marquez’s less hectic distributing role, where he only needs to read the game and clog lanes, seems to suit him (though he’s still passing some dogs out there). Add in an ‘ealthy Thierry Henry, Dane Richards, and at least 50% of Luke Rodgers, they can get a goal – and that could be enough.
Who Wins: I’m seeing one of those ugly, 1-0 playoff scraps, where one team scores early and shuts it down. So I’m saying New York, with another early Dane Richards goal and gritty defense to ride it out.

Colorado Rapids v. Columbus Crew
Why Colorado Will Win: God knows. OK, in all honesty, I haven’t watched enough of Colorado – typically doesn’t reward the viewer – to say for sure what makes them good beyond the generic. They’re solid (they have a core like a yoga master) and just enough threat up top to beat anyone on their day. In other words, the D and midfield is set, but, as much as I like the Omar Cummings/ Sanna Nyassi combo, I’d try a big/small Caleb Folan/Nyassi set against Columbus.
Why Columbus Will Win: God knows. On a more serious level, Columbus has some sincerely dangerous players – guys like Andres Mendoza, Emanuel Ekpo, and Eddie Gaven, who combine pretty well to create opportunities. And they’re tough enough all over, at least generally, that Colorado will have to be pretty amped to win this one.
Who Wins: OK, again, God knows. My head says Colorado, my heart Columbus. Being an emotional sort of guy, I’m going with Columbus.

That’s it. A big, hearty “you’re welcome” to both the teams I picked to lose…because my predictions mean you’re going to win!

* So, what’s going to happen, at least during the 2012 season (assuming sanity/no freakouts) is a weekly post on exactly one topic, ideally something not terribly long. I’ll augment this with a repeating “Best of___” collection that will, ideally, capture more obvious day-to-day micro-trends. I don’t yet have a plan for the off-season, but suspect it will be something weekly and, as with the regular season, something that trucks in exactly one topic. Here’s to hoping it works…

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