Dallas and Real Salt Lake light up the playoff scene

By Paul Gardner

Last time, you may recall, I was bitching about the sheer tedium of the playoff game between Colorado and Columbus. I asked the question: Does playoff soccer have to be like this?

Well, I got my answer, didn’t I ever. A resounding No! delivered and gift-wrapped by Dallas and Real Salt Lake on Saturday. A wonderful game, by any standards, in any league, anywhere.

Where Colorado and Columbus had given us an utterly threadbare game, here were Dallas and RSL pulling out all the stops to produce almost everything you could wish for in a soccer game, including shots, saves, misses, mistakes, stupidities, superb goals, plenty of excellent soccer, just enough feistiness (well, two red cards) -- all of this perfectly book-ended by an early 5th minute goal for RSL, and a late 87th minute winner for Dallas.

Between those goals the pace never flagged, the play was always open and skillful. Here we had two teams willing to do what Colorado and Columbus seemed unwilling to do -- to take the risks that playing an all-out attacking game demands.

I’m tempted to look at the background of the coaches involved to come up with explanation for that difference. On the one hand, Gary Smith of Colorado and Robert Warzycha of Columbus, two died-in-the-wool Europeans with an evident affinity for the European approach -- perhaps I should say the current European approach. You can see that approach in maybe 60 percent or 70 percent of the various European leagues -- English, Germany, Italian, French, Dutch, even the Spanish --that we now get beamed into us.

While it is not a game played with packed defenses, it is nevertheless primarily defensive in mentality. It is certainly not a version of soccer played with any great commitment to the attacking side.

On the other hand, we have Jason Kreis of Real Salt Lake and Schellas Hyndman and Dallas. American coaches -- willing to put the emphasis on attacking play. What we saw in their game was almost a festival of the offense. Of course there was defensive play and it was, I guess, just about adequate. But the point was that, in front of both defenses there were midfields almost totally dedicated to moving the ball forward, to passing the ball forward. With that mentality, you get teams playing with style and rhythm.

Switching games and teams: one team that surely ought to be playing with a good deal of style and rhythm is the Los Angeles Galaxy -- after all ... Landon Donovan and David Beckham? But Bruce Arena (an American, but with an influential European on his team) has the Galaxy strait-jacketed in the (European) defensive mentality. This was appallingly evident in its game against Seattle. If I were Commissioner Don Garber, I’d be seriously tempted to fine the Galaxy for having all that creative and attacking talent -- in a league that needs lively attacking soccer -- and not using it.

It was really quite sick making to hear our resident ESPN experts -- JP Dellacamera, John Harkes and Alexi Lalas -- instructing us on how amazed and admiring we should be at the defensive play of Beckham and Donovan. We, idiots that we are, wouldn’t have noticed it, of course. Maybe not -- but what we damn well could notice, without a lecture from the commentary box, was the virtual absence of attacking play from these guys. Do I really want to be watching Dema Kovalenko getting yet another yellow card while the Galaxy squeak out another meager 1-0 win?

The only factor that kept up the interest in this game was the tension -- which was largely created and maintained by the crowd, the atmosphere created by the wonderful Seattle fans. On the field we had a game that, after only 15 minutes, had Harkes commenting that he could see had “no possession or rhythm.”

Right. And that was all the Galaxy’s fault, a team playing defensive soccer -- and a team that looked suspiciously as though its main offensive aim was to win free kicks for Beckham to take. There was no Beckham magic in this game -- the one moment of magic came from Edson Buddle, with his snap-shot from 35 yards that completely fooled Kasey Keller for the game’s only goal.

While I’m on the subject of eking out 1-0 wins, much of what I’ve said about not taking offense seriously, and lacking style and rhythm, applied to the New York Red Bulls. Yikes! -- another team, with its costly DP troika, that ought to be playing classy stuff, but that never seems able to get things rolling. San Jose, like Seattle, tried its best -- as they should, being the home teams -- but it’s not easy to crack open defensively oriented teams that are looking to play counterattack soccer.

Bah, enough of this synthetic, tactics-dominated pseudo-soccer that is supposed to be so good for us -- away with it! -- and back to Dallas and Real Salt Lake, back to the real game. Let’s leave this first round of playoff games with a vibrant memory, a wonderful moment of soccer wizardry ... we’re in the 87th minute, with the game tied 1-1 ... Coach Hyndman sends on Eric Avila, slender, almost fragile-looking, but possessed of real soccer skills . . . it takes just 63 seconds ... David Ferreira, another small bundle of soccer energy, breaks away . . . a dribble for heaven’s sake ... he is outmuscled and knocked down, but has already passed the ball to Avila, who sprints forward, pushing the ball ahead twice, then right-foots the perfect shot from the edge of the penalty area, across goalkeeper Nick Rimando, to curl inside the far post.

Beautiful, exciting, memorable. Thanks Eric Avila, thanks Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Sad to know that one of these two adventurous teams will not get to the final. And downright obnoxious to know that one, or even two, of Los Angeles, New York, Columbus and Colorado can make it.

Imagining an MLS Cup between two teams from that safety-first foursome reminds me of a nice baseball story -- the expert who, before a World Series, spent hours analyzing and balancing the mountain of pitching and hitting stats for the two teams, before giving his verdict: I don’t think either team can win it.

5 comments about "Dallas and Real Salt Lake light up the playoff scene".
  1. Gus Keri, November 1, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

    I don't know what it takes to please you, Paul. New York's performance "AWAY" at San Jose was a masterful one. They dominated on both ends. Their chances were more dangerous than their opponent's. Just because they lacked the Latin flair that you crave, they became bad? Why don't you accept that diversity in soccer is something good for the game. These 4 play-off games showed us all the spectrum of soccer. It can't be bad.

  2. Barry Ulrich, November 1, 2010 at 2:35 p.m.

    I watched the last half of the Galaxy-Sounders game, totally disgusted with the youth league play of the Galaxy. By youth league, I mean coaches who instruct their players to just kick the ball up field, only to find the ball in the opposition's possession and putting the Galaxy again on defense. No attempt is made to control the ball and work it offensively. They seem to operate from a panic state! When I coached youth teams, I often said that my offense was my best defense because the other team didn't have the ball. What is it about late game tactics that the Galaxy players disdain taking the offensive? Even Ricketts' punts or GKs are all too often controlled by the defense, and once again the Galaxy are back on defense. Why can't Ricketts use his fullbacks more as an offensive tool?

  3. Vic Flegel, November 1, 2010 at 2:40 p.m.

    Paul watches too many games,and has done it for too many years.No wonder he finds most games boring.
    I enjoyed the Seattle-LA game.Donavan and Beckam, were as attack-minded as an excellet Seattle allowed them to be.

  4. Brian Something, November 1, 2010 at 9 p.m.

    Dallas-RSL was a fantastic match, though I thought Colorado-Columbus was decent too.

    SJ-NY wasn't much to watch and Seattle-LA was even worse. Seattle was committed to the attack but lacked the guile to break down the resolute LA defense. And I knew as soon as Buddle scored, the tie was over because the Galaxy can suffocate a game better than any team in the league.

    MLS front office may rejoice if we get an LA-NY final, but people who love the Beautiful Game will slit their wrists.

  5. Brian Something, November 1, 2010 at 9:02 p.m.

    I think Paul's point is that if we want to sell soccer in this country, there has to be some excitement. People will watch the World Cup because it's inherently exciting due to the stage. Ordinary MLS games have to contain good soccer to draw people's interest. A performance like LA's was very efficient and effective and their fans won't care, but we neutrals who want soccer to succeed know that more is needed for people to really get drawn in. Dallas-RSL had that.

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