Big names laid big eggs in the MLS conference semifinals

By Ridge Mahoney

The byzantine MLS playoff schedule goes into hiatus at just the right time, allowing more time for three of the top four regular-season teams to dissect and digest how they faltered in the conference semifinals.

Those in-house processes are ongoing as most of the American soccer community turns its focus to Columbus and the big Hexagonal opener between the USA and Mexico on Friday. Yet the common theme, for the most part, is that the big names for FC Dallas, New York City FC and the Red Bulls just didn’t show up.

It’s not fair that one bad game can torpedo a whole season and of course, fairness has nothing to do with the playoffs. If fairness rated top priority, every team would play the same schedule and the one with the best record at the end of the season wins the title. Dream on. It won’t happen here.

Fair to say that scouting and preparation played larger roles in the playoff outcomes than did luck or the two-games, total-goals format. Seattle overpowered FCD, 3-0, in the first leg by putting on so much pressure that the opponent cracked. Montreal clogged the middle and forced the Red Bulls to serve balls from wide positions, which is not their strong suit, and in the second leg relied on its counterattack. TFC crushed New York City FC by unleashing its own Designated Players and shutting down those wearing blue.

One can argue that FCD’s biggest name, Mauro Diaz, couldn’t answer the bell due to injury, but where was the leadership of Matt Hedges, to name one veteran, when the first leg against Seattle began to unravel? One of the club’s greatest assets, its youth, backfired when nobody gathered up the team, got into guys’ grills, and dragged every player’s head back into the game.

Kudos to the Sounders for coming out for the second half unfazed by squandered opportunities in the first 45 minutes, but a team as solid and experienced in FCD simply can’t concede three goals in eight minutes. Head coach Oscar Pareja has assembled a very good cast of players but aside from Diaz, who is 25, FCD is very young in the middle of the park -- Ecuadoran newcomer Carlos Gruezo is 21, as is central midfield partner Kellyn Acosta, and that lack of experience proved to be costly. After Seattle scored its first goal, FCD needed some possession and time to right the ship. Instead, the Sounders quickly punched in two more goals to take command of the series.

Lots of fingers were pointed at Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan after Montreal eliminated the Red Bulls, 3-1, on aggregate, yet defensive mates Aurelien Collin and Adrian Perrinelle can’t be excused, either. In the first leg, Perrinelle was marooned by the ball Marco Donadel played over the top for Matteo Mancosu to slam into the net, and in the second leg both defenders fluffed great chances on the doorstep of the Impact goal.

Yes, defenders normally can’t be relied on to score goals but in the playoff crucible chances are few and to whomever they fall must be taken. Perrinelle, perhaps impeded by teammate Dax McCarty as they vied for a serve, let the ball bounce wide of the goal off his foot.

Collin somehow missed the target when served up a header while in close and unmarked. I mean, if that opportunity drops to the 2013 Collin wearing Sporting Kansas City blue, it’s a goal. Montreal, which had lost all seven of its previous trips to Red Bull Arena, relied on its solid defense, experienced midfield and the marvelous Ignacio Piatti to prevail. You can scout Piatti all you want but when he’s isolated against the likes of Chris Duvall, as on the first goal, the outcome is not hard to predict.

As for New York City FC, one of the weakest defensive teams to ever finish as high as second place in league history, it had no answer to Sebastian Giovinco, but he’s lit up most of the teams in the league. Freshened by an injury layoff just prior to the playoffs, and perhaps extra motivated by being snubbed in the MVP voting along with continuous exclusion from the Italian national team, Giovinco dazzled in both legs.

His hungry, sharp displays far outshone the feeble efforts of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. Injuries impaired the latter pair and so frustrated was Villa in the first leg he lashed at the legs of Armando Cooper and luckily escaped a suspension. Man for man, TFC's stars and role players dominated for most of the 180 minutes.

NYCFC’s formational switches -- it played a back three in the first leg and reverted to a four-man line at Yankee Stadium -- showed the inexperience, or perhaps overconfidence, of rookie head coach Patrick Vieira. TFC ruthlessly exposed his failure to forge even a reasonable defense during the regular season and in both legs TFC showed no mercy.

In terms of both quality and composure, NYCFC’s back three looked more like the Three Stooges, and in the second leg the back four conceded five. Bottom line: a playoff record seven goals conceded in the two legs, and a crushing thud to end the team's first postseason appearance.

For both Big Apple teams as well as the one in Big D, the big names laid big eggs.

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