By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
2008 MLS Playoffs Preview: Part One
MIAMI) — The 2008 MLS playoffs are underway. Here are the Eastern Conference teams staking their claim for a shot at MLS Cup 2008.
Columbus Crew (1))
The Tampa Bay Rays aren’t the only worst to first story in American sports this year. Though the Columbus Crew weren’t technically the worst MLS side 2007 (finishing 3 points out of a playoff spot) but I doubt anyone outside of Buckeye country foresaw the Crew race to the top of the Eastern Conference early in the season and hold on to capture the team’s second Supporter’s Shield.
|Barros Schelotto (CNN)|
The start of this transformation could most easily be tied to the arrival Guillermo Barros Schelotto. In 2007 the former Boca Juniors legend almost singlehandedly drove the Crew into last year’s playoffs and was named to MLS’ Best XI for his efforts.
This year his seven goals and nineteen assists have put a team that is devoid of major star talent to the top of the league and a heavy favorite of MVP honors. But he certainly didn’t do it alone. The steady progression of midfielder Robbie Rogers continues to cause fans to take notice.
Forward Alejandro Moreno continued to produce in front of goal with nine but Columbus’ varied attack means that the goals can come from anywhere. They finished second in the league in LA in goals scored.
What’s propelled them to the top has been the work on the defensive end, giving up eight less goals then a year ago, their 36 goals allowed was third best in the league. The defensive duo of Chad Marshall and Danny O’Rourke in front of GK William Hesmer (1.14 GAA) helped produce the largest goal differential in the league (14).
But as Professor X once said, “We’ve been here before.” Columbus strode to the top of the league in 2004 only to become a spectacular victim of the Supporter’s Shield curse and this team hadn’t seen the playoffs until this year.
How this relatively untested club reacts to the intensity of the playoffs remains to be seen. While I expect Sigi Schmid’s side to get past KC, a tough test awaits them in the form of either Chicago or New England.
Kansas City Wizards (4)
The Wizards wrapped up their second consecutive post-season but just barely. Their inability to find consistent scoring is redily apparent. After getting 15+ goals from Eddie Johnson last year and bringing Argentine Claudio Lopez for 2008, Davy Arnaud’s seven goals lead the team followed by six apiece from Lopez…and central defender Jimmy Conrad.
Additions such as Josh Wolff and Hercules Gomez haven’t panned out as expected (or maybe it has in some circles) and KC comes into the playoffs with a -2 goal differential…and they won their final regular season match 3-1.
This team won its only MLS title eight years ago on the strength of its defense. They can still defend, allowing only 39 goals this season and in Conrad and GK Kevin Hartman, they have experienced MLS players in the back as well as a solid performer in Michael Harrington.
Jack Jewsbury has been a hardworking professional in the midfield over the past couple of seasons and Curt Onalfo seems to be able to get top effort out of his players.
Still their offense isn’t going to scare Columbus. KC’s going to need some big time moments from Lopez who has the ability to turn matches with his vision and even then it will be a struggle.
|Shalrie Joseph (CNN)|
New England Revolution (3))
The Revolution have been one of MLS’ best post-season clubs over the past several seasons. Four time MLS Cup runners-up, including the last three, the post-season always seemed to bring the best out of the club sharing space with the Patriots.
However, the Revs enter this post-season in a tail spin it’s going to take a massive turn around for them to match the playoff runs of year’s past. The Revs have been ravaged by injuries since the summer and will be without key players such as Steve Ralston (broken leg) Alan Cristman and now Taylor Twellman (concussion).
Bermudan winger Khano Smith will miss the entire first round and the conference final (assuming New England gets that far…which I doubht they will) receiving a red card in the regular season finale for a mindless, two footed tackle on Heculez Gomez.
Their confidence also has to be at a low. Despite winning the SuperLiga over their MLS Cup tormentors, Houston Dynamo, couldn’t even qualify for the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League, being dominated by Joe Public.
They have two wins out of their last 13 matches (the last in September) and come in on a three match losing streak.
The Revolution are an experienced bunch, starting with Matt Reis in goal, Jay Heaps and Chris Albright in the back and of course Shalrie Joseph in midfield. Defensively, Michael Parkhurt is an up and coming star.
They’ve gotten solid contributions from newcomers like Kenny Mansally and Kheli Dube. But the Revs are tired and injured and will have a tough time making another deep MLS Cup Playoff run.
Chicago Fire (2)
|Fire coach Denis Hamlett (mlsnet.com)|
MLS’ lone remaining Black coach, Denis Hamlett has the Fire into the playoffs but needs to build on the 5-2 pasting they laid on RBNY (and former coach Juan Carlos Osorio) on the final matchday of the season. It was only their second win in five matches but it was good enough to secure the second seed in the East.
Chicago won MLS Cup ten years ago in their first year in the league and would love to come full circle and win it again with one of their originals, Diego Gutierrez, playing in his final playoffs. They’ll be relying on the aging but creative legs of Cuahteamoc Blanco whose eleven assists as a withdrawn striker led the team as well as Justin Mapp another part time National Team player who had eight.
The Fire is another side that got goal scoring contributions from multiple sources. Chris Rolfe may have led the way but Brian McBride has tallied five times since returning in the summer from England as had Chad Barrett. Defensively, Paris raised Bakary Soumare has entrenched himself in the back line alongside Brandon Prideaux.
Chicago have been eliminated from the playoffs by the Revs in each of the past three seasons. That should end this year and would set up showdown with Columbus to renew another of MLS’ fiercest rivalries. The Fire are never to be uderstestimated in the post-season as DC found out last year and this side will scrap to the final whistle.
The first round will be decided over two legs with the winners meeting in the Conference Final with a berth to MLS Cup, 2008 at stake.MLS Playoffs: Once again, it’s on…Still to come: the Western Conference.