Nothing brought home the finality of the MLS play-offs like last night’s results.
For eight months, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose Earthquakes have been the two best sides in the country. They have dominated their conferences to varying degrees and have played football, each in their very idiosyncratic fashion, with the utmost efficiency.
24 hours ago it was the fitting MLS final; the best side in the league against the runners-up who also doubled as the Open Cup winners. That was Wednesday morning. That was so recent that it happened in President Obama’s second term in office.
Now that lies entirely in the rubble, buried among the savvy and superb coaching of two sides who know all about MLS Cup finals from recent experience, Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo and Bruce Arena’s Los Angeles Galaxy. Both crept and faltered into the post season; Houston in fifth place and LA only ahead of a Vancouver side with a losing record.
Now only the most diehard fan of the other remaining clubs are not already contemplating a repeat of last year’s final.
Poor David Beckham will have to repeat the identical non-answers about his retirement he was forced into giving 100 times last season to every passing reporter.
One would understand if the Galaxy made a ‘no accreditation for the final to anyone who asks him that’ rule.
Of course, there are two great sides who will baulk at the idea that the Galaxy are on their way to a second final; and those two sides will meet tonight at the RioTinto Stadium in Utah.
Real Salt Lake are old hands at MLS play-offs as in a way are Sounders FC with one obvious notable difference.
The Utah side have won their fair share of these play-off tussles, while Sounders FC have fallen at this hurdle for the last three years.
The Seattle side are a more mature outfit this season with a veteran core who know enough of club, league, the world, or all three.
Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso have experienced the pain of all three exits and Montero especially, will surely throw every part of himself at tonight’s game. In short, there is nothing for the ever maturing Colombian to hold back for.
Ossie Alonso, being the smart individual that he is, will have noticed that all the play-off games have seen free flowing refereeing with a tendency against early cards. In short, if he has read it the same way we have, he can ‘stick it about ‘ and physically impose himself on the RSL midfield. Ossie’s a damn sight smarter than we are at reading a game.
That factor also sways the crucial Jeff Parke v Fabian Espindola clash the Sounders defender’s way. But the Argentinian looked very sharp in training yesterday. If his Costa Rican colleague Alavro Saborio has one of those days where his finishing is more on than off, RSL will score at least once in 120 minutes.
In the vein of players who might take it up a little from last Friday, Will Johnson might also benefit from MLS’ desire to see flowing football rather than coloured plastic. Tonight might well be a showcase for what the frankly underrated Canadian midfield dynamo can bring to a tight game. If he doesn’t, Brad Evans on the other side will be happy to provide a masterclass in making yourself highly relevant to a game.
A more attacking-minded Defensive Midfielder like Kyle Beckerman may find a greater workload is required in a home leg with more possession and a raucous crowd urging you forward. If he performs as well as he can, and Christian Tiffert fails to show Bundesliga form, Sounders fans could be forgiven for perusing those Players Union salary charts one more time; but we are not going to join in the disgraceful speculation that any local initiatives on the ballot in Washington State may make Seattle a more attractive place for any player.
For all we know, Beckerman has no views on charter schools or the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Rightly though, much attention has been focused on the two goalkeepers.
Nick Rimando and Mike Gspurning are two genuinely decent individuals who love their craft and respect both the American game and the art of goalkeeping. That both emerged as heroes after the first leg was proof that something is right in the world.
Tonight that could happen again but for one of them, it will be his last hurrah of 2012. Whichever it is, the soccer writers of America will miss him. If we reach a penalty shoot out, one again will be the hero of the night. No-one on either side of the beaujolais/lime juice divide should begrudge him that.
Finally, to the clubs themselves.
Sounders seem to be under more pressure. A fourth consecutive year of quarter final exit will signify the first time that the club has gone backwards from admirable progress from the previous season.
From second place in the league with 63 points in 34 games last year, they fell to seventh place with 56 points. They also failed to retain the Open Cup, and surrendered the Cascadia Cup trophy of 2011.
If it is all about the big ‘mo,’ then the Sounders juggernaut would appear to have stalled.
So far their wider fan base has stayed generally very loyal to the Front Office, owners and the coach. That blind loyalty would surely be tested if there is a bad defeat tonight. Pinning it once more on the referee or the schedule may not work any longer. Well not with everyone.
Real Salt Lake too are not bereft of pressure.
Their failure to make it into the CONCACAF Champions League quarter finals, where Seattle incidentally succeeded, is a huge disappointment to a coach who publicly makes that tournament his priority.
Additionally the manner of their elimination bodes well for their visitors tonight. They could not score at home and we would argue Sounders are a better side than Herediano.
Indeed the lack of goals in the clutch part of the season shines a massive spotlight on Alvaro Saborio and even more on the lack of quality behind him in the depth chart. Justin Braun has shown himself to be a good MLS journeyman in his career so far, but nothing more. In front of him are Paulo Jr and Emilio Bonfigli, both yet to demonstrate they have the skill set to set this league on fire or be a regular starter, which is surely the duty of a back-up. Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Chris Schuler exemplify what a squad player should look like.
The lack of pressure on Saborio’s starting place is not a matter that coach Kreis and GM Lagerwey can afford to ignore. Elimination tonight, especially a goalless elimination, will merely serve to highlight it even more.
But, given we are a site mostly dedicated to the Western Conference, there should be a positive note to finish. Thanks to our honorary Conference members Houston Dynamo, there is a 50% chance that the MLS Cup Final will remain on home soil.
The prize for success tonight is suddenly even more lucrative than 24 hours ago. The two best sides have fallen, home advantage in the final is a 50/50 shot. MLS Cup glory is not that far away from either side.
So let’s not think of it as 90 minutes (by which we mean 120) from disaster, but 90 closer to the ultimate glory and the complete and utter vindication of every transfer move, every team selection and every tactical alteration for either Sigi Schmid or Jason Kreis.
That should get all of you, whether you are heading out to the stadium, congregating in the bar or settling in at home with the kids through to kick off with as much of a smile as can be expected on such a nerve wracking day.
Did we tell you that writers get big game nerves too?
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