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Real Salt Lake, done and dusted? Uh, no!
by Ridge Mahoney, November 6th, 2009 7:05PM
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[MLS CONFIDENTIAL] If there's one aspect to the maddening incongruity of soccer that one must accept, it is the dichotomy that bad soccer can be very good soccer, in the sense of entertainment, as long as it's the defenders and not the attackers who are bad.

The Chivas USA-Galaxy first leg produced a few good attacking moves but each of the goals came from defensive errors ranging from casual to catastrophic. In Seattle, Houston and the Sounders zipped up and down the field for much of the game, yet most of the prime opportunities came off set plays and none of them were exploited.

Good defending can trigger good offense, if a ball swept up in the middle third or taken from an attacker at the edge of the penalty area is used smartly as a conduit to using possession and getting players forward, either in a buildup of combination play or swift counterattack.

Games in which neither team takes the iniatiative, when both are content to pass the ball around and play safe, are all too common in leagues where weaker teams fear relegation. It's not a lack of talent, but rather ambition, that mars games where neither team wants to risk anything.

Such is not the case in MLS, yet the American league has its own issues with sterile, unimaginative play. It also is plagued by tactical and positional mistakes, as the defending champion Crew so vigorously demonstrated when it conceded three goals to RSL Thursday night after it had taken a 2-0 lead, which put Columbus up, 2-1, on aggregate. Done and dusted, right?

Uh, no. That old bugaboo about the two-goal lead reared up again. Less than two minutes after Guillermo Barros Schelotto's second goal, half of the Crew players were ball-watching as Kyle Beckerman found Javier Morales wide-open in the box. Shots a foot or two off the keeper's ankles can be tough to handle, as they are hard to kick-save and awkward to parry, and keeper Will Hesmer didn't get his left glove down in time. Then a blatant take-down by the experienced and playoff-tested Frankie Hedjuk in first-half stoppage time provided a penalty kick and goal No. 2.

Let's set aside the arguments for and against playoff format, scheduling, etc. In any scenario, a team that blows a good lead at home is asking to get knocked out. After squandering a chance and having two penalty claims denied early in the second half, the Crew allowed Andy Williams to collect a throw-in and reach the edge of the penalty area to steer a low shot through a bustle of bodies past a distracted Hesmer.

Bad attacking, on the other hand, throttles the game before it takes a real breath. If the attacking is bad, the defending doesn't need to be all that good, since so difficult and intricate can be the task of creating and finishing good scoring chances that a flubbed first touch, stumble over the ball, mis-hit cross, or shanked shot will kill the opportunity anyway.

The Crew pushed forward enough to score two goals and create enough opportunities for one or two more. The decision to start Emmanuel Ekpo instead of Robbie Rogers can be questioned, yet Ekpo combined with Schelotto to set up the second Crew goal. Rogers replaced Ekpo in the 64th minute but the few flurries that were generated were snuffed by RSL goalie Nick Rimando, who recorded eight saves, and his teammates.

Rimando suffered the indignity of letting Schelotto's first goal bounce past him from more than 40 yards out. An onrushing charge of players distracted the goalie as Schelotto's free kick swerved through the goalmouth; but in any other situation, the goalie's primary job is to follow the ball and ignore everything else.

Why do goalies like Rimando and Hesmer, both solid pros with proven track records, concede goals in situations that otherwise they'd probably handle? Are these cases of bad defending, in the sense of goalkeeping glitches, or shrewd attacking play that forces opponents into mistakes? In a tight game, or series, moments like these decide the outcome.

I see no great injustice that RSL knocked off the top seed; the teams split their record season meetings with a victory apiece, and RSL outscored the Crew in those two games, 5-4. I also have no issues with RSL beating the Eastern Conference regular-season champion to reach the Eastern Conference final; as one of three teams to finish with 40 points, it had attained the cutoff plateau: 10 teams were bunched within nine points, top to bottom.

Had an Eastern team, say D.C. United, compiled one more point during the regular season it would have taken fourth place in the conference as well as the eighth overall slot.

Had Toronto FC won its final game, as did RSL, instead of being blown out by New York, 5-0, it would have tied New England with 42 points, with the only tiebreaker necessary the one used to separate them into seventh and eighth place.

With teams so closely matched facing off in elimination play, conservatism might have reigned. Yet only the Crew could be accused of such tactics in the first leg, and its failure can't really be attributed to bad strategy or poor planning or an injust playoff format, but rather flat-out bad soccer that a good opponent took advantage of.

Columbus-Real Salt Lake Highlights:



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