1. Bet against the Galaxy. Um … maybe
We’d all probably be foolish with a capital “F” to bet against Bruce Arena and the Galaxy as the playoffs begin. The glamour guys from the StubHub Center have won three of the last four MLS Cups, after all. And that’s no accident; there’s a reason.
Arena, surely dean of all U.S. managers, is a big part of the reason. So is Robbie Keane, a.k.a. MLS's answer to Mr. October. So is the team’s tremendous sense of self-belief. I’ve written several times about the club’s sense of entitlement. That may be an unappealing element from the outside, but it speaks to the team’s collective, can’t-be-beat spirit. The players don’t believe they ever “deserve” to lose a game because they honestly believe they are, without question, the league’s best club by a long way.
So, yes, the Galaxy may parlay unmatched MLS playoff experience with its difference makers (especially Keane) and its massive belief for another MLS Cup run.
On the other hand … not all is well n’ swell in the normally placid Bruce Arena Valley.
They have a Steven Gerrard problem. And they have a Giovani dos Santos problem.
The midfield is bit of a mess, in all honesty, and all the evidence you need comes here: the team marches into the playoffs with one win in seven matches. Just one! (Especially compared to the club they meet Wednesday, which has been a bit up and down lately and has its own issues, but is unbeaten in its most recent eight.)
Arena still hasn’t sorted out the elusive balance between Gerrard and Juninho, which one “sits” deeper in protection of the back line and which one has license to go-go-go forward. They’ve tried it both ways, and neither has been anything close to a spectacular success.
Part of the reason is Gerrard’s fitness. He’s 35, and he’s got a lot of miles on those Liverpudlian tires. So it’s really no surprise that he was wildly ineffective in the final half hour of Sunday’s finale, a loss at Sporting KC. This piece says from the 66th to the 84th minute, Gerrard had just one touch, and called it a poor one. One touch? How is that even possible over more than 15 minutes for a central midfielder? (Much less central midfielder with his resume, one paid so handsomely to be a driving midfield MLS force?)
Now consider that Gerrard must travel and then play in a knockout match (on Seattle’s artificial turf no less) just three days later. And if the team comes through Wednesday, he’ll travel again and play four nights later. It all adds up to one thing: Arena has some difficult choices ahead.
Could he even consider benching Gerrard? That seems unlikely; the compromise may be in limiting the England legend to 60 minutes.
What’s more, the “Gerrard question” is exacerbated by the “Dos Santos question.” It’s a different one, but equally vexing. (Read on … )
2. The Dos Santos question … it’s a lulu, too
On the attack, Dos Santos likes to play a similar role as Keane; they both prefer to find spaces between the line of defenders and line of midfielders, collecting passes there to run at the back line, creating chaos that opens space for teammates (or opportunities for themselves to shoot.)
When they play as a striking tandem, they can get in each other’s way. And defensively, it doesn’t work at all. The easy solution is deploying dos Santos on the wing, right?
Well, no. Because he doesn’t defend well enough to play wide in the Galaxy’s 4-4-2. And given Gerrard’s inability to cover much ground, well, you see how these problems converge. The “Gerrard problem” marries the “dos Santos problem” to create one monster of a headache for Arena.
Keane, Gerrard, Dos Santos, Juninho, Omar Gonzalez and (to some extent) Gyasi Zardes are talented players and difference makers who understand about rising to the moment. They might yet prevail. But in October of 2015, it’s not looking like a great bet that they will.
3. Bit of trouble down in Dynamo land
So much focus right now is on playoff teams, but here are a couple of quick notes on one that didn’t, the Houston Dynamo.
First, anybody else raise a curious brow about Brad Davis, who wasn’t on the team’s final road trip? No explanation was provided, but it’s worth noting that his contract is up this year.
Davis is 33, and while his production isn’t what it was from 2009-2012 (he averaged 13 assists for those years), the longtime Dynamo lefty has been fairly consistent in the years since. He had 10 assists this year, which isn’t bad for a team with good forwards, but no outstanding ones.
Club officials thought they had a star striker in Erick “Cubo” Torres. I did, too. I loved this signing last winter, and was sure a guy who could score (previously) at poor ol’ Chivas USA could make things happen in front of goal at BBVA Compass Stadium. But he didn’t – and how! In the team’s final home game, with playoff hopes hanging by the slenderest of orange thread and Houston ever so desperate to score, Torres remained stuck on the bench. He wasn’t even summoned as a sub, and that says so much about how mightily he must be struggling.
The legal cloud hanging over the young man’s head is surely affecting him.
4. Re-thinking the opening playoff round
More and more I’m wondering if Major League Soccer should try “inverting” dates for the opening playoff round?
The current set-up has the first playoff contests (the first matches in the “play-in round,” if you will, the single-game elimination contests) happening three nights after the regular season concludes. And that creates its own set of unique issues.
First, it’s a TV nightmare. There are some exceptional first-round matches, notably the Galaxy-Sounders clash and the all-Canada clash, Toronto-Montreal. All four opening round matchups have wonderful story lines and intrigue. What they don’t have is national, English language TV! And that is a real shame, one that is annually seized upon by critics. Book it: the same will happen this year. Check social media on Wednesday.
Also, for four teams, their entire “playoff run” will last exactly three days. That’s it! If you care about the growth of Major League Soccer, you’ll understand the issues here: no time to build useful momentum, limited time for media exposure, precious little time for fans to enjoy the moment.
Also, there are ticket sales and fan convenience to consider. Consider the hosts Wednesday and Thursday: Selling a match in three or four days in Portland or Seattle might not be ideal, but they’ll probably be OK. Elsewhere, it’s difficult. And if they win, they turn around and host another match in three or four days.
That’s asking a lot of your fans, to rearrange schedules and go buy tickets for two matches in seven days.
So what if they waited a few more days? What if MLS put the “play-in,” first round knockout games in those usual national TV time slots on Sunday, a week after DecisionDay? That would probably mean starting the next round (the conference semifinals) on the following Wednesday and then finishing it with the second leg four days later on Sunday.
Yes, that would remove some of the benefit of finishing top two, as the hardship of finishing in places 3-6 would be slightly diminished (because they would get a week to prep and travel rather than three days).
But maybe it’s worth a try? Neither scenario is perfect, clearly. But sometimes, as we know, it’s not about which way is more right; it’s about which way is less wrong.
5. The Little Five
5a. Great job by SI.com’s Brian Straus of illuminating the fact via Twitter that 7 of the top 10 MLS men in key passes are Argentines. When you think about it, that makes sense, because most of the list is made up of “No. 10s,” the playmakers. So perhaps the question to be asked is this: What are they doing in Argentina to create the kind of players you want as a creator, the kind of player who can orchestrate and execute these keys passes?
5b. One of the best stats this week: We all know that the Galaxy hates playing on artificial turf, right? And we know how tough a place Seattle’s CenturyLink is to play, right? Welp, the Galaxy is 3-3-3 in Seattle.
5c. Can’t take credit for this one; that goes to FC Dallas’ TV analyst Daniel Robertson. But it’s a great point: The two teams that played for Supporters Shield on Sunday, both with plenty of talented Americans, combined for just one U.S. cap between them. (That, by the way, was in a late appearance in a January friendly for Dallas’ Matt Hedges). That’s it. Not sure what it says … but it sure says something.
5d. Prediction (related to the above note): At some point, Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty (age 28) will be next “Kyle Beckerman,” in that he’ll turn into a national team player at a later point in his career. Fingers crossed, that will happen.
5e. Now that Real Salt Lake failed to make the playoffs, Seattle and Los Angeles share the longest current streak of playoff appearances at seven years. Which is why Stefan Frei’s comments during an MLS Extra Time podcast interview resonate; he said he thought Seattle’s fans were a little spoiled, and that he hoped they understood what they had in the organization, with its ongoing playoff streak, four U.S. Open Cup crowns in the last seven years and regular habit of landing in CONCACAF Champions League.