[MLS] One year removed from missing the playoffs entirely, Colorado and San Jose are a game away from going to the final. The Western teams square off in the Eastern Conference final Saturday (9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) with very little to choose between them.
They matched each other in the standings with 46 points apiece and split a pair of 1-0 decisions. Only by virtue of its superiority on the second tiebreaker, goal difference in all games, did the Rapids beat out San Jose for the No. 7 playoff seed (plus 12 to plus 1). The first tiebreaker is head-to-head results. (In most other sports, the first standings tiebreaker is victories, of which Quakes had 13, one more than Colorado, but such is not the case in soccer, and thus, MLS).
In their two controversial meetings in September of last year, spaced just five days apart, late penalty kicks awarded to Colorado resulted in a pair of 1-1 ties. Both teams were already in renovation mode, and they are similar in that the moves they’ve made in the interim have panned out.
Since the middle of the 2009 season, Colorado has added defensive anchor Drew Moor and his central partner Marvell Wynne; midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Brian Mullan; and attackers Wells Thompson and Macoumba Kandji.
The Quakes, winners of just seven games in 2009, now feature Brazilians Eduardo and DP Geovanni, outside back Tim Ward, midfielders Sam Cronin and Khari Stephenson, forwards Scott Sealy and Cornell Glen, and goalie Jon Busch. Acquired in the middle of last season was 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, whose ascension from Division II college player to backup pro to top gun is a script just dying to be written.
Says Quakes midfielder Bobby Convey, who himself shook off a rough first season back in MLS to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award, “We have gotten better from last year and added better players, and I think as a team, we are much more together and we have a better mentality this year where we don’t want to lose and we want to try and win every game.”
For both teams, the constants have also come through. The Rapids’ strike force of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings scored 27 goals in the regular season; they’re a nettlesome blend of brawn and speed. Pablo Mastroeni, paired with Larentowicz, has steeled the central area, where the Rapids may hold an advantage over San Jose.
Both teams could have trouble stopping the other despite those 1-0 regular-season meetings. Powering the Casey-Cummings duo are the flank thrusts of Mullan – a former Quake dating back to the first version that left for Houston five seasons ago – and Jamie Smith, and the central delivery of Pablo Mastroeni and Larentowicz.
The Quakes are more fluid, less predictable. Wondolowski has played up top and on the right side of midfield, Geovanni has license to float, Ryan Johnson doesn’t always get the start but he can battle to force scoring chances, and Sealy has lined up recently as a center mid to add yet another robust element. Convey will raid up the left flank, or drift inside – as he did to serve a great ball Wondolowski headed into the net to kill off the Red Bulls – effectively, or flip sides with the right mid, or join him to overload that flank.
How does a five-alarm danger like Wondo find so much room so often? Other than an instinctual feel of how to exploit opponents watching the ball instead of him, he’s constantly on the move, foraging for a seam or hole. Rather than leverage his body into congested areas, he goes where the defenders aren’t, since shooting from virtually any angle or cushioning the ball at an awkward angle doesn’t faze him.
“I just try to find space, that’s my game,” says Wondolowski, whose game also features an incredibly soft first touch and fierce finishing with either foot. “I’m not good at backing up to those big defenders, but if I can get away from them or make a run to get in behind them, I have confidence in my ability to either finish the chance or set it up for somebody else.”
Wondo downed Colorado at Buck Shaw Stadium May 1, catching a feed from Johnson and cracking it home. A catastrophic mistake by Busch handed the Rapids their 1-0 home win over San Jose in early August, and that loss came during a barren stretch of just one win in nine games. As different as they are in composition and style, they couldn’t be more evenly matched.
Quakes captain and left back Ramiro Corrales is hobbled by right hamstring strain, which might again mandate Convey shoring up the back line, as he’s done stoutly at times this season. Centerback Jason Hernandez is bothered by a calf strain and his availability for the showdown is uncertain, so Coach Frank Yallop may turn to Bobby Burling or Brandon McDonald, who have both logged plenty of minutes. Rookie Ike Opara, impressive early in the season while commuting between the team and academics at Wake Forest, is still sidelined with the broken leg that limited him to 11 games.
Mullan needed 12 stitches to close a gash on his leg inflicted by the Crew’s Emmanuel Ekpo in the semifinal, second leg, but otherwise the Rapids are healthy. They also expect to take advantage of the mile-high altitude and temperatures that could be frosty with snow showers.
For 13-season veteran Mastroeni, who played for the remarkable 2001 Miami team that San Jose upset on its way to the title before he joined the Rapids, it’s perhaps a last chance to reach an MLS Cup.
He’s not thinking along those lines. “For me, it would be a great milestone,” he said, “but more importantly it would be great for all the hard work that we have dedicated to the cause from game one in preseason to where we find ourselves today.”