Thank god for god-awful defending.
Sometimes playoff soccer is a mesmerizing matrix of synergy and skill and speed, and sometimes it is ineptitude run rampant. And sometimes it takes on a cagey, cat-and-mouse persona common around the world, with the home team pushing the issue, and the away team sitting back.
All variations were on display in the first games of the MLS conference semifinals, which suggested that blame for dull play or credit for exciting fare has not much to do with the format utilized, but rather the teams themselves and the strategies they adopt.
Crew head coach Robert Warzycha benched Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno Saturday and deployed two holding midfielders -- Brian Carroll and Danny O'Rourke -- in an effort to stymie Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Crew attacked mostly through the headlong charges of Steven Lenhart, who nearly scored in the opening minutes, and soaked up pressure successfully until substitute Yura Movsisyan cut a ball to the near post in the 89th minute that Robbie Findley steered underneath keeper Will Hesmer for a 1-0 win. For the record, O'Rourke fired a shot just wide from distance with one of the Crew's very few scoring opportunities.
Warzycha is obviously banking on the home leg to carry his team into the conference finals, and had the games been spaced further apart, might have used Schelotto and/or Moreno, who both have been banged up in a busy season of domestic and international games. But only five days separate the first leg from the return game Thursday in Columbus, and Warzycha's pragmatic approach - steeped perhaps in his Easter European roots, Poland to be specific - is to be replaced by aggression and pressure from his strongest lineup. With RSL sporting a minus-15 goal differential in away games this year, who can blame him? Everbody outside of Salt Lake City will, of course, if it doesn't pan out.
New England hosted Chicago in the early game Sunday shorthanded, as usual, and surely going down early to a Chris Rolfe goal wasn't in the game plan. But once again in this injury-decimated season the Revs rebounded; Emmanuel Osei headed an equalizer from a free kick in first-half stoppage time for his first MLS goal, and Shalrie Joseph, who else, banged home a loose ball during a goalmouth scramble for the winner (2-1).
If the Fire is beset by a crisis of confidence going back home down by a goal after holding the lead it has only itself to blame. It has not played well at home (5-4-6) this season, though the Revs' 2-1 win increased the record of home teams in playoff meetings between these foes to 13-0-1. Chicago is in the same position as the Crew -- one goal down heading into the home leg -- but does it have the same confidence? It would not appear to be the case.
Chivas USA and the Galaxy betrayed the very concept of organized defensive play by their comedic displays Sunday at Home Depot Center Sunday afternoon. Atrocious mistakes lent a Keystone Kops flavor to the first Superclasico playoff match, which ended 2-2 and could have been 4-4 or 5-5 if all the defensive gaffes had been efficiently punished.
The nadir may have occurred when Landon Donovan tucked a roller through keeper Zach Thornton's legs after Maicon Santos, whose goal in the fourth minute opened up the game immeasurably, shanked a Paulo Nagamura clearance back into the goalmouth, and Donovan nipped between two opponents to tap the ball into the net.
I speak of Chivas USA-Galaxy in glowing terms not solely for its entertainment value but rather as a reminder as to the maddening ambiguity of playoff soccer, and indeed, soccer in general. Some strange force came into play at Home Depot Center and on the day after Halloween magic spells or trances spooked players into bad decisions, three of which became goals.
At Qwest Field in a memorable encounter Thursday, Houston and Seattle served up a frustrating yet fascinating 0-0 in which both teams deserved at least a goal, or perhaps two, by their crisp buildup play, quick strikes in transition, and efficient execution on set plays. It may have been the best-played game of the four first legs, and certainly conveyed the best atmosphere, yet it produced no goals.
All four games featured rookies or newcomers enduring their initial playoff tests; some faltered, others excelled. Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez erred on both Chivas USA goals, Revs counterparts Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston performed admirably. Some very experienced players committed atrocious errors, and the luck and bounces that generally even out over a seven-month season may not be neatly so squared up in a compressed time frame. So it goes when a season's worth of effort is boiled down to a few games.
The playoffs are flawed, but they work, and they're not going away. They ratchet up the intensity and pressure, they reward competence - most of the time -- and they punish inefficiency, on the field and in the stands. Seattle sold nearly 36,000 tickets for its home game, New England couldn't hit 7,500. Those discrepancies are functions of the teams and their markets, not the two-leg format or short lead time to sell tickets for the first legs.
Only New England and Real Salt Lake were able to win their home legs, and they won only by a goal. The other two series are tied. As is usually the case in the playoffs, after one game nothing is decided.
Can Columbus overturn a one-goal deficit and overcome a defeat incurred with two of its offensive stars on the bench, and can Crew management pump up the crowd to give its team something of a homefield edge? In three days we'll find out.