By Paul Gardner
Unthinkable is probably too strong a word, but the ignominious departure of the New York Red Bulls and the Seattle Sounders from the MLS playoffs certainly seemed to defy probability. Above all, the mannerof their defeats, with the hammer-blow for each team coming via defeat in a climactic game in their home stadium jammed with their own frenetic, expectant fans.
I’m lumping the Bulls and the Sounders together because I think they share a fatal weakness that led inexorably to their failure.
Throughout the season I found myself wondering -- marveling, even -- at just how Mike Petke and the Bulls were reeling off win after win in games where they had played poorly, where they had produced very little that looked like good, or even halfway decent, soccer.
While the results surprised me, the lack of intelligent soccer did not. A quick glance at the Bulls’ midfield told the story. When the season started, there was Juninho, a highly experienced wily Brazilian, a creative player who could ensure intelligent play from a midfield that, apart from him, consisted of workhorses: Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty and Jonathan Steele.
Even so, a midfield that contained bothCahill and McCarty looked worryingly lop-sided. Before the season, I mentioned that to Petke, who smiled disarmingly and said, in effect, “Well, we’ll have to see.”
Juninho never looked comfortable and contributed little. For a player who had shone so brightly wherever else he had played (in Brazil, France and Qatar), this was puzzling. Whether it was his fault, or whether it was the inadequacy of the players around him, or simply the fact that he was now 38 years old, it meant that Juninho was no longer a regular starter. After playing just 13 games for the Bulls, Juninho said goodbye to the Bulls, his contract nixed by mutual agreement.
He was not replaced. And the hustle-bustle and the straightforward passing of Cahill and McCarty and Steele took over. It was certainly never pretty to watch, but an occasional touch of sheer class and artistry from Thierry Henry up front relieved the pedestrian atmosphere.
But a team lacking a midfield brain cannot be relied upon to be consistent. The Bulls found ways to win games that often featured athletic contributions from Cahill, were frequently based on counterattacking play, and invariably seemed -- to me, that is -- unsatisfactory. Maybe that was so, but there was no denying the wins. And the Supporters’ Shield.
And, dramatically, there was no denying that the Bulls took charge of their playoff series against Houston. A 2-0 lead, in Houston, already six minutes into the second half. What could go wrong now? In a word, everything. Ricardo Clarke scored for Houston, Jamison Olave got himself red-carded, Omar Cummings made it 2-2 with almost the last kick of the game.
Yet, with that away tie, the Bulls still held the whip hand. Back in New York, the Bulls needed coolness, calmness, measured and intelligent play to see them through this mini-crisis. Precisely the qualities that this team, with its formless, leaderless midfield, did not possess. Add in Thierry Henry suffering what the Italians call un giorno-no a “no-day” when nothing that he tried worked, and disaster was on the cards. Especially when the opponents were the playoff expert Dynamo.
And so the Bulls, who had been riding high on what was really a confidence trick were exposed. The sheer poverty of their soccer in the crucial final game was embarrassing. The road to that embarrassment began back in July when Juninho departed and was not replaced. Where the command center of the team should have been, the Bulls now operated with a yawning hole.
The same can be said of the Seattle Sounders. Another team that came to rely on a midfield dominated by determined physical activity. The symbol of that style was Osvaldo Alonso, relentlessly combative and aggressive. The Sounders had a skillful midfielder in Mauro Rosales, but injuries and an evident loss of confidence in him from coach Sigi Schmid, saw him become less and less influential.
Then there was Clint Dempsey. His arrival would make sense if he was brought in to run the show, to fill the midfield gap. But that seems unlikely. Dempsey was presented more as a spectacular coup by the Sounders than as the player who was going to lead them to glory. He brought with him, unavoidably, the friction that comes with introducing a star earning much, much more than anyone else.
At a more basic level, it is worth looking at two more of the Sounders’ 2013 additions: Shalrie Joseph, another forceful midfielder whose limited playmaking ability has always been highly over-rated, and the late-season signing of Adam Moffat, who represented yet more midfield energy. Schmid, incredibly, talked of Moffat’s ability in “running the midfield.”
Somewhere along the way, Schmid had lost his belief in creative midfielders. The Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez -- a DP no less -- had been ditched in 2012 for the German Christian Tiffert who played half a season as, would you believe, a physical midfielder, but a very ordinary one.
So the Sounders entered the playoffs, just as the Red Bulls did, without a real midfield. And they paid the price. To rub things in, they were beaten by local rivals Portland, coached by the young Caleb Porter in his very first year of pro experience.
But the significant thing about Portland’s victory was to be found in the sterling performance from Diego Valeri, precisely the sort of midfielder that both the Red Bulls and the Sounders lacked -- in both cases, it seemed, because the teams preferred to go with the frenzy of the physical game rather than to grant a place to skill and subtlety.
The Sounders were left to lick their wounds and ponder their future. That will probably go badly for Schmid -- which is to be regretted. If only Schmid would place less reliance on the Tifferts and the Alonsos and the Moffats and the Josephs and return to the faith that he did once show in building a more creative midfield.
The Timbers marched on and quickly learned a brutal lesson. Coach Jason Kreis' Real Salt Lake picked them apart, and the player who took charge of that game, who gave a superb display of what a skilled, creative midfielder can do, was Real’s Javier Morales.
Diego Valeri was completely overshadowed, indeed the whole Timbers team was put in the shade by the brilliance of Morales. But the 4-2 scoreline tells you that the Timbers had their moments. Between them, Real and the Timbers gave us a game that emphasized the skill side of the sport, and it was a game full of memorable soccer.
A game that demonstrated the importance -- and the beauty -- of skillful, creative, midfield play. And a game -- featuring two young American coaches -- that promises genuine soccer thrills and skills in the second leg on Nov. 24.