It was hardly a shining example of the Beautiful Game, but man, was it good to see MLS teams back in action in a meaningful match this past Tuesday.
That game, the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal between Columbus and Real Salt Lake, was played in offseason conditions (wintry) and preseason form (spotty), but it officially kicked off the 2011 season for those two teams, and it spearheaded another busy week as MLS hurtles toward First Kick, now just two weeks away.
In addition to the CCL scrap, Week 14 featured two big names returning to the MLS fold, the introduction of a new playoff format and a range of preseason action, including the final of the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando, Fla.
Let’s play it back.
Scoreless in Columbus
If you put an ‘h’ and an ‘i’ in the middle of the score line for Tuesday’s CCL quarterfinal, you could spell the name of the state in which it was held: o-h-i-o.
Yes, we got a scoreless draw to launch the first competitive action of 2011 involving MLS teams. And Real Salt Lake, the consensus favorite heading into the game, didn’t even threaten to score, producing zero shots on goal and no corner kicks in the game.
It didn’t help that the Crew Stadium field was frosted with snow, or that RSL played most of the second half a man down after defender Tony Beltran was sent off for picking up his second yellow in the 53rd minute. (Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers and Columbus striker Emilio Renteria got into a tussle later in the game and were also both sent off. All three players will miss the return leg.)
Given all that, RSL have to be pleased with the away result. At the same time, Columbus are probably pleased with their performance. The Crew were the livelier side, despite missing several regulars (Chad Marshall, Shaun Francis, Dilly Duka) and starting a third-string ‘keeper who’d never played for them before (Ray Burse).
But heading into Tuesday’s second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium, we’d say RSL are still the favorites—even if they’re missing half of their first-choice defense: Salt Lake have not lost at home since May 2009.
That’s a streak RSL would love to maintain until the 2011 postseason, which will have a revamped format, the league announced on Wednesday.
There will be 10 teams in the 2011 postseason, up from eight in previous years, and the new structure places the top three teams in each conference into the playoffs. It then pits the next four best teams—regardless of conference—against one another in wild-card play-in games.
The wild-card teams will be seeded seven through 10, with the seventh seed hosting the 10th and the eighth seed hosting the ninth. The lowest-seeded winner to emerge from the play-in games will meet the Supporters’ Shield winner, while the second wild-card winner will meet the other conference champion in the Conference Semifinals.
From there, the format is the same as in recent years: Conference Semifinals are home-and-away aggregate series, while both the Conference Championships and MLS Cup 2011 will be single games. (The location of MLS Cup 2011 will be announced later.)
Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president of competition and game operations, said the change is designed to bring “added intensity to the playoff chase,” and make the race for the postseason “last longer through the regular season.”
With 10 spots up for grabs, and a postseason advantage at stake in each placing, the new format should accomplish both goals. It will also genuinely reward the Supporters’ Shield winners, something that was not always guaranteed in previous formats.
The Philadelphia Union may have boosted their playoff chances this past Tuesday with the acquisition of 31-year-old Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who played in MLS from 2002 to 2008.
Ruiz, who suited up for the LA Galaxy (in two stints), FC Dallas and Toronto in his first tour of MLS, joins the Union on a free transfer from Greek club Aris.
If he can recapture just a glimmer of his 2002 form—when he scored 24 goals in 26 regular-season games and then added a record eight more in the playoffs while leading Los Angeles to the MLS Cup—Philly will get good value from the acquisition as well as a potentially lethal attacking corps. “El Pescadito,” as Ruiz is known, joins Sebastien Le Toux (14 goals, 11 assists in 2010) and 2010 Rookie of the Year nominee Danny Mwanga (seven goals in 24 appearances) in the Union offense.
Reporting for Duty
Another familiar face returned to MLS as David Beckham’s offseason saga mercifully came to a close last Thursday. Amidst relatively little fanfare, the league’s most famous player turned up at the Home Depot Center for preseason training with Los Angeles.
Sporting a Galaxy knit ski cap, Beckham told the assembled media that even though he missed the opening of LA’s training camp, along with the team’s 10-day trip to Arizona, his main objective during the entire offseason episode had been “to get fit for the Galaxy and for the MLS season.”
You know what? Let’s just move on.
And now that he’s back, here’s hoping Beckham can deliver something he hasn’t been able to provide since signing with the league back in 2007: a full season with the Galaxy.
[inline_node:329489]Going to Disney World
Leading the week’s preseason results was FC Dallas’s 5-3 penalty-kick shootout win over Houston in the final of the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic on Saturday night in Orlando.
The Dynamo had dramatically tied the game in the 88th minute on academy product Francisco Navas Cobo’s upper-90 scorcher, but Lovel Palmer’s opening miss proved to be the difference in the shootout. Dallas converted all five of their penalties, with Brek Shea burying the decisive one.
Toronto FC fell 1-0 to third-tier side Orlando City in the Disney third-place game. (Props to Orlando for an excellent February; they beat two MLS teams and narrowly lost to MLS Cup finalists Dallas on Thursday.)
In other preseason games of note, Chivas USA—who are trialing former MLS Golden Boot winner Stern John—tied Charlie Davies and D.C. United 0-0, while the Red Bulls downed NASL side Ft. Lauderdale Strikers 2-0. Thierry Henry and Mehdi Ballouchy found the net for New York.
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