By Paul Gardner
Again, yet again, we are being reminded from all sides that this is playoff time. Which means playoff soccer. Which means ... well, what the heck does it mean?
I know what it ought to mean. In a word, excitement. And everything that, in a sports sense, that word encompasses -- drama, suspense, disappointment, elation, and because playoff games are do-or-die, now-or-never affairs, excitement heightened by the intensity of Rudyard Kipling’s two impostors, triumph and disaster.
The playoffs need that extra tension because they stand accused of falsifying the real championship, the way that soccer worldwide had always decided things: you play in the top league, you play everyone else in that league, home and away. And if you come out with the most points then you’re the champion. Which, many believe, is obviously the fairest way of rewarding a long season’s worth of winning play.
The playoffs wreck that thinking. Once they start in MLS, a club that has finished fifth in its conference is in with a chance of winning it all. The teams with most points do get a home-field advantage in the playoffs, they get to stage the second game in the best-of-two series.
But it’s not at all clear whether that is an advantage. There are coaches who would rather play the first game at home, expecting to establish a lead, maybe a two-goal lead -- and then travel to defend that lead by playing defensive soccer. That mentality should mean exciting first games -- but, of course, it guarantees no such thing. For the coaches of the away teams in those first games are more than likely to favor a defensive game. Either way, the mentalities involved do not promise excitement. Defensive soccer is cautious soccer, non-risk-taking soccer, and any team that has reached the playoffs is certainly capable of playing that sort of game.
I am in favor of the playoff system. I think MLS is right to insist on it. But it does appear that a couple of playoff regulations need to be changed -- or, at least, need to be closely looked at.
First: Once the draw has been made and the pairings decided (or even before, for that matter), allow the higher-seeded team (i.e. the one with the most regular-season points) to choose whether it wants to play the first game at home or on the road. A decision that would be required immediately the draw is announced, so there can be no delay.
Second: In Europe, and more recently, in South America, it is the practice, in home-and-home series where aggregate scores are the decider, to allocate double value to goals scored away from home, should the aggregate score be tied.
A clear motivation for teams playing on the road to do some attacking, and not to be satisfied with a tied score. MLS has its reasons, I suppose, for shunning that idea -- the only one that I have heard worth serious thought is the fear that an away team would run up a three-goal lead, say, thus rendering the return game pretty academic and ensuring the television nightmare of a largely empty stadium.
That might happen. But it seems to me that it is a lot less likely to happen than the cautiously played -- and therefore pretty uneventful -- first game that the current regulations foster.
Anyway, if the true do-or-die atmosphere is required, then playoff games should be single games. That will not happen -- and it does seem right and proper that each set of fans should get to see their own team fighting for the title. The single-game method is how, ostensibly, it is done in England with the FA Cup, where it makes a lot more sense because travel to an opponent’s stadium involves usually short journeys. But that plus is completely wiped out by the rule that a tie in the first game means a replay at the stadium of the team that played away in that game. Effectively turning the contest into a home-and-home series.
Looking at this year’s play-in and playoff games so far played, it cannot be said that things are working too well. Excitement has not been any where near fever pitch. I could point the finger accusingly at Vancouver coach Martin Rennie for getting things off to a tedious start with his decision to play defensively at the LA Galaxy. An early goal for Vancouver was followed by over an hour of uninspiring but dogged defense from Vancouver and barren attacking from the Galaxy. Mike Magee livened things up with a splendid tying goal for the Galaxy ... at which point Vancouver Whitecaps began to play, and to play pretty well. Had they played that way all game, would they have won? Possibly. We know for certain only that, playing a defensive game, they lost. And gave us a boring game.
The other play-in, Houston’s 2-1 win at Chicago, was no better. Giving an early goal to Houston is never a good idea. They’re certainly the best in MLS at defending a 1-0 lead. They are a disciplined team, the best at playing a tightly organized defensive game. That is coach Dominic Kinnear’s style. He does it surpassingly well, but it is not a style that lends itself to much in the way of excitement. It has proved very successful in the playoffs -- as both Chicago and now Kansas City will attest. Chicago, having conceded that early goal to Houston, then left it too late to start playing. Once they did, they created plenty of problems for Houston and again one was left wondering why their spirited response was so delayed.
“Difficult to beat” is certainly a cliche, but it’s the right cliche for Houston. Whereas the home-team Galaxy found it difficult to break down ultra-defensive Vancouver, it was more the home-team Houston that played that way in the other game, causing a frustrated Kansas City coach Peter Vermes to comment that “they always got 11 men behind the ball.”
The four playoff games so far played have been strangely disappointing. The lack of attacking play -- or, probably a better assessment, the dominance of caution and defensive play, is revealed in the scoring stat: Just five goals in four games.
The Galaxy is in trouble -- not only a goal down to San Jose, but surely nursing the unwelcome awareness that it is not playing well. The probability that all of these games will be decided by one goal makes Bruce Arena’s decision to remove David Beckham from the game against San Jose quite baffling. Because Beckham, when presented with his chance, is more likely than anyone else in MLS to deliver. Against San Jose, the chance came a couple of minutes into added time -- a free kick some 25 yards out, perfect for Beckham.
But Beckham was already on the bench, and Juninho made a mess of the kick. Just two minutes later San Jose went ahead on an unlikely goal scored by defender Victor Bernardez. Using exactly the opposite of Beckham’s finesse, Bernardez simply blasted the ball through the Galaxy wall, and then under the dive of goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
I suppose you could call it a playoff goal -- Arena said it was all referee Ricardo Salazar’s fault for giving a free kick for a non-existent foul, TV commentator Taylor Twellman blamed it on Omar Gonzalez for not standing still in the wall, while keeper Saunders, who did not look good on his attempted save, said it was his fault.
Two more playoff goals -- that’s what I’m calling them -- turned up in the D.C. United-Red Bulls game. Both of them own goals. Roy Miller’s effort was clear enough, but D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid did enough bobbling of the ball to make it not quite clear that the ball (all of it, of course, every last centimeter of it) had actually passed over the line.
But referee Jair Maruffo, without benefit of goal-line technology, made the decision. It was a goal. Would that Maruffo had been equally eagle-eyed on Chris Pontius’s penalty kick (not well-taken), which the Red Bulls’ goalkeeper Luis Robles saved. The kick should have been retaken -- as Pontius struck the kick Robles already had both feet off his line, with his right foot more than a yard forward. I guess you could call that cheating? Needless to say, it went unpunished, and D.C. suffered.
Now for the return games. Maybe things will liven up. Kansas City, after all, has to score at least two goals to avoid elimination. While the Galaxy, a team with plenty of attacking skill, must surely be committed to attack. Which should mean a more open game. The stodginess of the first game can definitely be attributed to the defensive orientation of the Earthquakes but it is inconceivable that Frank Yallop, even with that 1-0 lead, would have his team playing cautiously at home. The prospect of a more open game will surely be relished by Chris Wondolowski, for one, who barely got a sniff in the Home Depot.
Possibly the idea of the two-game series is faulty. Possibly it does encourage caution in the opening games. But the first games are out of the way. Now it really is all-or-nothing in the return games. Well, almost. I’m thinking about Houston -- will it be committed to attack, or will it be satisfied to protect their two-goal lead? No doubt Kinnear would deny any defensive intent, but that is what Houston does so well -- and to quote another ghastly cliche, defense wins championships. Which I don’t believe -- I believe it’s goals that win championships. It’s certainly goals that breathe life into games that defense always threatens to suffocate. And it’s goals that are needed to transform the MLS playoffs into the exciting dramas that they should be.