Winner and Losers of the First Round of the 2012 Playoffs
As you may have noticed when you excitedly opened your podcast app this morning, we were unable to record a post-Thursday episode of the MLS Talk podcast due to a variety of conflicts. However, after a wild and crazy first round/conference semi-final round, I wanted to approach a wrap-up from a different perspective. After elections, many political blogs have a winners and losers column, which goes beyond simply who won the elections and digs down into which people and groups are the long-term winners. In that vein, while we know that DC, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle were the winners this weekend, there are a number of other people/entities that also came out of the series looking better than they did going in. Conversely, there were people/entities that came out of the first round looking worse than they did going in.
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Winners from the conference semifinals
Mark Geiger: The much maligned referee took a tough task in the New York/DC second leg and handled the insanity perfectly. He got the Hamid red card right as well as the subsequent infringement infraction that led to Kenny Cooper’s saved penalty. A game that could have spiraled out of control was kept in line by well-timed free kicks and cards. Just ask Jair Marrufo how hard it is to manage this type of game; Geiger kept a potentially controversial game fair.
Nick Rimando/Tally Hall: When pundits discuss the U.S. national team keepers of the future, Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid are always discussed as the next big thing. But as both struggled again in the most high profile of matches, Nick Rimando and Tally Hall came up big when needed. Rimando essentially gave Real Salt Lake life in the first leg of their series against Seattle and almost rescued them again in the second, only to be undone by a punchless offense. Tally Hall was also excellent, marshaling a defense that stymied high-flying Kansas City and serving as a calming presence in net. Jurgen Klinsmann would be well served to give both of these players serious consideration for the hexagonal roster (or, in Rimando’s case, a chance to compete for the #2 spot).
Ben Olsen: DC United fans have always loved Olsen as a player, but questions cropped up about his managerial style as the team struggled mid-season. Olsen has silenced those concerns through excellent tactical and motivational coaching. Faced with rescheduled games and an uncertain playoff schedule, Olsen rallied his team and came across as the more confident coach in his series. MLS saw him as a coach of the future when he was given the reigns of the MLS All Star team and the fiery manager has shown why in this series.
Robbie Keane: The third DP for the Galaxy has a tendency to almost be the forgotten superstar, as Beckham and Donovan are seen as the keys to the Galaxy’s success. But with his two goal performance on Wednesday night, as well as his disruptive presence up front, Keane reminded the country that LA needs their Irish international to help drive their offense. Even with Mike Magee.
NBC Sports Network: With snow falling on the pitch of Red Bull Arena and both teams standing around waiting to see what would happen, the NBC Sports crew of Russ Thaler, Arlo White, and Kyle Martino did a superb job going off script to grab compelling interviews and filling the hour-long delay. After the cancellation, NBC seamlessly switched on the exciting Kansas City v. Houston second game which had to make soccer fans happy. Their overall coverage of the playoffs has been excellent, turning some low-scoring affairs into must see TV.
Sigi Schmidt, tactician: Have some injuries on a team that is struggling to score? Give a forward his first MLS start in a must win game. He doesn’t score in the first seventy minutes? Keep him on the pitch and see what happens. Schmidt was a steady hand in guiding Seattle to their first MLS playoff series win even when seemingly Nick Rimando gave RSL the advantage in their series. Now he has to exorcise the Los Angeles demons to continue the Sounder’s march to history.
Losers from the conference semifinals
Andy Najar: No matter how mad you are, you don’t throw the ball at the official. Why? Because not only do you miss the next leg against your archrival, you now miss the entire next round against a team where you would have excelled running down the wings. Najar’s mistake could cost his team with a major loss of speed on the edges, giving up a tactical advantage, and ending a season where the young Honduran struggled at times but may have found a niche as a fullback.
Possession soccer: 71%, 60%, 54%, 65%. Those were the four possession percentages in the second game of the four teams that lost their series this week (in order, Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, New York, and San Jose). Some of that can be attributed to desperation and the need to have the ball to score equalizing goals, but it shows that in the MLS playoffs a stout defense can upend the prettiest passing game.
Rafa Marquez: Undoubtedly the man has had an incredible career and in these playoffs, he at least had a chance to end his MLS career on a positive. Instead, he commits two stupid fouls that were carded (in addition to a forearm to Chris Pontius’s head that should have been a card) and instantly removes his team’s advantage in a tied game. Marquez’s departure should be the new Red Bull’s management’s first order of business, which is unfortunate considering the opportunity he had to contribute to New York’s first trophy.
C.J. Sapong: Your team loses their best striker and, as a young player, you have a great opportunity to establish yourself as a starter for not just the rest of the year, but maybe for years after. Instead, Sapong failed to make a mark for his team in their playoff series, especially missing a few good chances in their do-or-die second game against Houston. While he wasn’t the only one (paging Mr. Kamara), the center forward in the Sporting line-up needs to contribute and create scoring chances. He did not.
The Real Salt Lake dynasty: What will be the legacy of this team? Granted they won an MLS Cup in 2009 but since then Real Salt Lake has failed to win any other trophies, including a CONCACAF title when they had an advantage. While they may not have had the flashiest line-up year to year, they certainly had one of the most talented and most balanced. But their punchless offensive performance against a struggling Seattle team highlighted many of the weaknesses of this team. With the core aging, and the rumors swirling of a retooling, fans may be wondering in the future why a team with so much potential could never fulfill it, even when given an advantage.