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Youngsters can shape playoff destinies
by Ridge Mahoney, November 14th, 2008 5:15PM

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Like many leagues around the world, MLS teams largely depend on foreign players to provide that touch of magic, that gift of craft, that moment of flair by which the game, or in some cases the season, is decided.

But also like most leagues, it is desperately dependent on its domestic products to shoulder much of the load, and given its strict financial parameters, its teams must rely on younger players to do their fair share.

Reliance on young players is a fickle process, for as the Galaxy showed this year, overloading talent and salaries in a few positions forces sacrifice in others. While Sean Franklin deservedly earned Rookie of the Year honors, it's not a stretch to say LA would have won a few more games if it wasn't so dependent on Ely Allen, Brandon McDonald, Troy Roberts, Mike Randolph and a few others who had their moments but were perhaps asked to do too much.

Injuries nearly decimated New England this season, and not far behind in the injury count was Chivas USA. Both reached the playoffs thanks in part to younger players stepping up but in the postseason some of those players wilted at critical moments. The Revs, deprived of Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman, couldn't manage a goal in its two games against Chicago, and after losing the first leg against Real Salt Lake, 1-0, Chivas USA could only tie the second leg at home, 2-2.

Sacha Kljestan, who represented the U.S. at the Olympic Games and had played several times for the senior team, is a gifted, talented attacker who has matured greatly in his three professional seasons but still doesn't demand the ball as a game-breaker should. Against Real Salt Lake in the playoffs, he converted a penalty in the second game to provide his team a 1-0 lead and tie the series, 1-1, on aggregate, but during the 180 minutes didn't exert nearly enough influence at either end of the field.

Before Javier Morales scored to tie the second leg, 1-1, he received the ball a few yards outside the penalty area with Kljestan nearest to him, but by the time Kljestan recognized the danger and slid over, Morales had moved the ball inside the penalty area. Even then, Kljestan could have won the ball or cut off the path to goal, but he held up, and Morales drilled home the equalizer.

A few of Kljestan's peers have seized responsibility in the playoffs, none more so than Eddie Gaven, who has been a cipher since coming into the league six years ago. Now 22, he's been tried at forward, second forward, attacking mid, and outside mid with varying success by the MetroStars and Columbus. "Talented, dangerous, but lazy and soft" might have read the scouting reports in past years.

This season, installed by Crew coach Sigi Schmid more or less permanently on the right flank with Robbie Rogers on the left and Brad Evans and Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the middle, Gaven has been up and down, as usual, but in the second leg against Chicago, played a monster games at both ends of the field.

Schmid devised a scheme by which Rogers and Gaven occasionally dropped behind outside backs Gino Padula and Frankie Hejduk to provide cover defensively yet pushed forward as well. That's a demanding workload in a do-or-die showdown against a good team, and in a few cases the scheme collapsed.

The Fire scored on a quick throw-in after Hejduk had been knocked down near the touchline, and Evans couldn't get over in time to close down Justin Mapp, whose cross produced a classic Brian McBride header. Chicago nearly tied the game late when Chris Rolfe got behind Padula but Columbus escaped without conceding a goal.

Early in the second half, Gaven won a free kick that Schelotto served to Chad Marshall - another American under-25 - to tie the game, and six minutes later Gaven collected a knockdown from Alejandro Moreno to score the eventual gamewinner. Only a fine reflex save from Jon Busch prevented Rogers from scoring a third goal. As Chicago pressed desperately for an equalizer in the final minutes, Gaven won several tackles in his own half of the field, and tracked back deep in his own penalty area to mark an opponent and head away a far-post cross. He came off in the 88th minute; his replacement, rookie defender Andy Iro, headed a ball out of the Crew penalty area in stoppage time.

The storybook Saturday showdown between Real Salt Lake and Red Bull New York will showcase an enticing international lineup, including Morales, Jamison Olave, Dane Richards, Dave van den Bergh and Juan Pablo Angel. There are veteran Americans as well in Clint Mathis, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, John Wolyniec, etc. One of those men might well decide the game, and indeed, that is what they are paid to do.

On the other hand, perhaps Yura Movsisyan, Will Johnson, Robbie Findley, Luke Sassano, Danny Cepero, or another young veteran in the mold of Gaven and Rogers, Mike Magee, is destined for the limelight.

 



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