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MLS Playoffs

28 November 4:24 pm

 

The 2012 MLS Cup (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PT on TSN and TEAM 1410 radio) will be contested by the same teams as 2011, at the same venue.  But don’t expect the same game.

Yes, once again LA Galaxy will host Houston Dynamo at The Home Depot Center, with the Dynamo hoping to overturn last year’s 1-0 defeat to the Galaxy.

There are many storylines coming into this final, but none bigger David Beckham’s last game in Major League Soccer.  This will be the final chapter of his playing days in MLS – a league which he’s done a great deal to help grow.

The ultimate question, however, is not so much about Beckham, but rather if Houston can turn the tables from last year and win this MLS Cup rematch.

A different Dynamo

Houston will go into this MLS Cup a more confident team than the last time they were here. A year ago the Dynamo had to deal with the absence of their most influential playmaker, midfielder Brad Davis. Not only do they have Davis ready to play this time around, but they can go into this game knowing that they can field a more potent offensive lineup.

Last year Houston sat back and allowed the Galaxy to carry the play, hoping they would catch LA on the break. It never really worked and the Dynamo never really looked like scoring, but they did keep the game close, which gave them the best chance to win.

Houston are now a more comfortable team in possession of the ball. Players like midfielder Boniek Garcia offer something different from last year, using his dribbling skills to attack defenders or make quick runs to get in behind the defence. 

Another key player will be striker Will Bruin, who has continued where he left off in the regular season by finding his scoring touch with four goals so far in the playoffs.

It’s quite clear to me that the Dynamo now have players to compliment the skills of Brad Davis, and this should change their approach from last year to be more of an attacking threat.

Motivation or distraction?

As for LA Galaxy, they will go into the game as clear favourites, however they will have to contend with the distraction of it being David Beckham’s last game in MLS. That being said, they’ve had to deal with intense spotlight ever since Beckham joined the team, so this should be nothing new for them.

The Galaxy have been the best team in MLS during the second half of the season and they are playing like a team that believes they are the best team in the league.

Facing a more attack-minded Houston team could end up playing right into their hands, as they have shown that they’re a very devastating team on the break, especially with Landon Donavon on the team.

There is hope for Houston, and they need not look further than LA’s last game. It was evident in the second leg of the Western Conference final that Seattle did not fear the Galaxy counterattack, as they committed players forward to overcome their 3-0 deficit. Mind you, they were at home.

However, Seattle probably would not have been so bold had Donovan been in the lineup. He is the most important player to LA’s counter with his speed and decision making in the final third.

His partnership with Robbie Keane has been, at many times, unstoppable.

Conclusion

In the end, the key to the match will be whether or not Houston can contain the Galaxy counterattack. They definitely can’t sit back like they did last year, or they’ll be inviting trouble. On the other hand, they’ll need to be selective about when to push numbers forward or else they’ll be cut apart by the speed of Donovan and skill of Keane.

It’s a delicate line that Houston will need to toe if they have any chance of spoiling the Beckham finale known as MLS Cup 2012.

In the end, I think that LA are just too strong. They’re the best team in the league, they’re at home, and they’ll have the buzz of Beckham’s last game spurring them on.

PREDICTION: LA Galaxy 3-1 Houston Dynamo

20 November 2:13 pm

The 2012 MLS Cup final will be a rematch of last year’s final: LA Galaxy versus Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center, the same venue as last year. If that’s not remarkable enough, then consider that these two teams finished fourth (LA) and fifth (Houston) in their respective conferences during the regular season.

What does this mean? Well for one, it turns out that home field advantage wasn’t much of an advantage at all.

Sporting Kansas City in the East and San Jose Earthquakes in the West won their conferences by five and nine points respectively, giving them home field advantage right to the final. Both teams had strong regular seasons, especially at home, which they would be relying on come playoff time. However, both SKC and San Jose would lose their first round matchups to much lower seeded teams in the playoffs and see their season come to an abrupt end. Kansas City had 10 more points than Houston and San Jose had 12 more points than LA.

When you see what LA and Houston have done it is easy to discredit the regular season. Of course, here in Vancouver we painfully remember the eighth-seeded LA Kings powering past everything in their way to win the Stanley Cup.

So what does home field advantage mean in a two-leg series? Well, you get to play the second match at home, which means you know what you have to do to win in front of your crowd, and if it goes to extra time or penalties you have the advantage of playing on your home field.

The problem with this is that you really need to get a favorable result on the road in the first game so you don’t have too much of a mountain to climb in the return leg (see DC United and Seattle).

You also have to consider that the team that has home field advantage has to travel twice. First to their away match, then back home. The lower seeded team gets to stay at home for the first match, without traveling, and then embark on a single trip for the second game.

DC United were a strange exception this season. They were the higher seeded team, but due to Hurricane Sandy they ended up hosting the first game in DC, with the return leg moved to New York. And guess what? That ended up working out just fine for United, as they had a 1-1 draw in the first leg before winning a thrilling 1-0 game in the second leg.

In the end, DC would fall in the Conference final when the tables were turned and they hosted the second leg after being faced with a 3-1 deficit from the first game in Houston. It proved too much to overcome.

Same thing happened to Seattle. They fell 3-0 to LA Galaxy on the road. A valiant effort saw them pull within a goal at 2-0 in the second leg, but a penalty kick awarded to the Galaxy broke their backs.

You could say that Houston is a team built for the playoffs and that the Galaxy have the best talent in the league, and that’s why they are preparing to battle for the MLS Cup again.

But the results of the MLS Cup playoffs are sure make teams think about how they approach the long and hard MLS season and what is the best route for progressing into the postseason.

06 November 3:51 pm

The second year in Major League Soccer for Vancouver Whitecaps FC was marketed as Round 2. We had a new coaching staff, some new players, and lots of optimism going into the new season.

Preseason had gone well in Arizona and Florida and everybody wanted to get the season started. Martin Rennie – in his first year coaching in MLS – liked the look of his Whitecaps FC squad and felt his team could challenge for a playoff spot. Getting there would be no easy task though.

Fast start

The season began in fine fashion as our ‘Caps won their season opener at BC Place with a 2-0 victory against expansion side Montreal Impact. Optimism was high, but we all certainly knew that an opening day win does not make a season (see 2011 opening win vs. Toronto FC).

The next game, however, provided further proof that this would be a historic year. The boys got their first away win in MLS by beating Chivas USA 1-0 on a Jay DeMerit header. This was a sign that the mentality of this team had changed; Rennie was slowly but surely building a winning culture.

The next two games would end up as 0-0 draws, which meant the ‘Caps remained undefeated and had shut out the opposition in every match. The run of form continued as the team achieved an MLS record for longest shutout streak to start a season.

It was a great start for the team, but this was only the beginning. Much work remained.

Proving their mettle

April saw the ‘Caps hit with their first taste of adversity. A blown lead and first loss on the season at San Jose and a home loss to Sporting Kansas City could have sunk the ship early, but Vancouver persevered. The Blue and White grinded out a pair of 1-0 wins, at home to FC Dallas and on the road to Columbus Crew.

The early season success altered expectations. Suddenly fans and media were dreaming big, how good could this second year team really be?

Lessons learned

The season was steadily moving along until the ‘Caps faced off against Toronto FC in the Amway Canadian Championship finals. A 2-1 aggregate loss to the team that would end up finishing dead last in MLS was nothing short of a massive disappointment.

Having been brought back down to earth, it became easier to reflect and evaluate. Clearly there was still work to be done.

Rome was not built in a day

Despite the positives from the first portion of the campaign, questions also remained from fans, media, and the club itself. What is the ultimate goal for this team? Is winning the only thing that matters? What about entertainment value, many asked? Was the team scoring enough goals? What about the young players, shouldn’t they be playing more? Why aren’t there more Canadian players?

These are all important questions that need to be posed and each of them are part of the values that the club is looking to instil moving forward. But it can also be easy to lose sight of the big picture. This remained only the second year for the club in MLS. All of these questions will be answered over time, but only so many aspects can be managed at once. Building a winning team, an entertaining team, a team filled with Canadian talent on the field – it’s all a process. For now, the most important thing was to allow coach Rennie to put his own stamp on this team. He has built a winning culture at every club which he’s coached, but that takes time and patience. If he could get this team to the playoffs in his first year, it would be a massive achievement and a big step in the right direction.

Tough decisions

Many coaches would not tinker with a team that was picking up points fairly regularly, but Rennie had made it clear that he was not just building for this year; he was looking at a team that could be one of the best for years to come.

Tough decisions had to be made before the season, and it was felt at the midway point of the season that more changes were needed.

This was not an easy time for players to come into the team. It’s never easy to adjust to a new team, a new city, a new culture, and a new league. It’s especially difficult to do it in the middle of the season during a stretch of nine out of 13 games on the road.

Results were mixed, but sometimes it takes one step back to take two steps forward.

Making history

With 39 days away from home and a rough winless stretch, it would have been easy for the team to fall apart and look for excuses, but you never heard that from the coaches or players. The team showed great resiliency, and in the end the season’s body of work achieved the main goal at the beginning of the year – a first ever playoff spot for a Canadian MLS club.

Their reward? A date with the defending MLS Cup champions, the star-studded LA Galaxy, on the road no less.

In the end the boys gave them the fright of their lives – probably much more than they expected. Not only did we score an early goal, but we also nearly doubled the lead to 2-0 with 20 minutes to go. Unfortunately it was not to be, as the Galaxy eventually came back to win 2-1.

I was so proud of the performance in our first playoff game and it just reinforced what I already knew: we belonged in the playoffs after competing all season long in a tough Western Conference.

Final thoughts

We have a coach in Martin Rennie who is not afraid of making big decisions. Of course not everyone will agree with every decision – you can’t please everyone. And not every decision will be correct either. As a coach you make some choices that will work and some that will not. The key is that everyone learns from the process. That is why I am really excited for next year. 

This team has come a long way from last year and has shown it can compete with the best teams in MLS. Now Rennie and his coaching staff have a season under their belt and are more familiar with what works in this league. They will also have a squad of players that are also more accustomed to playing in North America, with the physicality and the travel.

Of course there will be more changes, but having made the playoffs this year, expectations will again be raised. There will be highs and lows again next season, as there always will be, but I’m confident that the best is yet to come.

05 November 5:18 pm

So that was the season that was…

The build-up to last Thursday’s inaugural MLS playoff game had that familiar postseason buzz that ‘Caps fans know all too well. What was also exciting to see was the amount of attention that Whitecaps FC drew from being in the playoffs.

Of course, the Blue and White filled a certain void (no NHL hockey) for Vancouver sports fans last week, and although it did not result in a win in LA, the performance of Martin Rennie’s side left some good feelings.

The feedback from media and supporters after Thursday’s game was one of pride, as most were aware of the tall task that faced the ‘Caps against the star-studded Galaxy.

The contest required spirit and commitment from Vancouver, and that was seen in abundance at The Home Depot Center. By giving the defending MLS champions a severe test of their credentials, Whitecaps FC might have even played a key role in the destiny of this year’s MLS Cup title.

Traditionally, playoff exits leave an empty feeling. In this case, however, there was an acknowledgement to the efforts made by Rennie’s side in LA and indications by observers of how it offered a glimpse into a promising future.

Vancouver Sun sports columnist Iain MacIntyre was particularly struck by what he witnessed on Thursday, as he drew comparisons to where the club was in 1977 and how it built towards an NASL Soccer Bowl title by 1979.

There was also an intriguing - some might say prophetic - tweet from former ‘Caps and Seattle Sounders FC head coach Alan Hinton (@alanhinton11): “Whitecaps FC will within two years be the number two franchise behind Seattle in MLS…I know, I have been there!”

As for yours truly, the 2012 season was one where every match offered an opportunity to Whitecaps FC. Building and growing as an MLS outfit were, in many ways, the club’s objectives this season. In other words - 2011 was about establishment; 2012 was about strengthening.

Clubs that have shown steady growth in MLS are usually amongst the league’s elite. While that challenge lies in front of Whitecaps FC, this second season suggests Vancouver are now following a similar path.

While it would have been nice for the playoff journey to continue, much was achieved this season. What is really exciting is how things can improve even more, starting in 2013.

Hunger and desire are bedrocks of successful sides, and it would not surprise this soccer scribe if those are the driving influences behind a memorable Whitecaps FC campaign in the New Year.

As we enter the quiet of this offseason, we take positive vibes from a season that gave strong glimpses of very bright days ahead.

Time to prepare for the next chapter of this great journey!

Till we reconvene in the spring…

29 October 12:28 pm

What a difference a year makes!

This time last year, Whitecaps FC were wrapping up what was a turbulent inaugural season in MLS, and head coach Martin Rennie was preparing for a postseason training camp to familiarize himself with his new squad.

Our MLS Cup Playoff experience was a distant one last year, with our television screens showing the unfolding drama in the cities of our league rivals. Fast forward to this week, and our engagement for the MLS postseason is at its highest level. On Thursday night, Whitecaps FC make history as the first Canadian club to take part in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The midweek trip to Southern California was an effort earned over 34 regular matches by the Blue and White and sign of significant improvement for a burgeoning MLS club.

Five victories and 15 points more were achieved than at this point last year, with only MLS Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes and playoff-bound D.C. United making larger turnarounds statistically.

Vancouver’s 43 points was also the highest total achieved in a single MLS season by a Canadian club, with expansion club Montreal Impact also joining the ‘Caps in passing the 40-point barrier in 2012.

The club’s first three wins away from home, plus 12 clean sheets also contributed to the improvement, but even Rennie knows there is plenty of room for further progress.

Much of that can be set aside for 2013. Right now, Whitecaps FC are six results away from an MLS Cup title. If anyone knows the recent postseason history of MLS, it is not as improbable for Vancouver, as it initially looks.

This past weekend offered a very good ‘dress rehearsal’ for the clash with the Galaxy at The Home Depot Center. Like LA, Real Salt Lake can be a formidable foe when they are at home.

The type of tests that Whitecaps FC endured in Saturday’s 0-0 draw were not only good for them tactically, but also mentally. Shutting down a potent RSL attack required organization, commitment, and spirit.

The ‘Caps not only showed those characteristics in hostile territory, they left the Rio Tinto Stadium pitch feeling confident and full of anticipation for Thursday night.

Relishing the opportunity that is the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs will be a big part of the game plan in Carson, California. Few, if any, expect a Whitecaps FC postseason run, but Rennie’s squad know their chance to become MLS champions is no more or less than any of the other nine contenders that will be involved.

Long-time ‘Caps supporters will be the first to reveal their excitement at this time of year, as the club’s playoff folklore has done much to shape the identity of the Blue and White.

One only needs to look back to the championship years of 1979 and 2006 when Whitecaps FC triumphed against the odds. Now its 2012 and we’re in that familiar position again.

The key is to enjoy the journey, starting Thursday. Any achievement from this point on will be greeted with delight and excitement, as few outside Whitecaps FC nation believe Vancouver is capable of achieving anything in this year’s playoffs.

I say, “Let the skeptics think that way…we’ll worry about getting a job done on Thursday...and beyond.”

The playoff train is at the station!

All aboard for LA!

29 October 11:53 am

WATCH THE 1979 NASL NATIONAL SOCCER CONFERENCE FINAL VS. NEW YORK COSMOS (courtesy of canadianblaster09)
PART 1:
http://youtu.be/Tm2WkDW7stc
PART 2: http://youtu.be/tsMbk02WhHI
PART 3: http://youtu.be/ZPO1bfdgiiM

As we look forward to playing in our first Major League Soccer (MLS) playoff game against the mighty Los Angeles Galaxy, the task at hand appears quite daunting. The Galaxy are the reigning MLS Cup champions, and they boast three of the top players in the league in Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and of course, David Beckham.

If you are looking at this game on paper it is hard for anyone to really believe that we have any chance of going to LA and getting a result. Fortunately the game is played on the field, and not on paper. In fact, our boys can look at some playoff history that will show them they can do it.

To be the best …

It was back in 1979 when we were to face the cream of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the two-time defending Soccer Bowl champions New York Cosmos. In their team were World Cup winners Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) and Carlos Alberto (Brazil), as well as Giorgio Chinaglia (Italy) and Johan Neeskens (Netherlands) – the latter of whom led Holland to the runners-up spot in back-to-back FIFA World Cups in 1974 and 1978. Not to mention the wealth of other talented players they had on their team.

The Cosmos had finished with the best record in the NASL (24W-6L). In order to get past them, we needed not only to beat them once, but twice in a two-match home-and-home series – or in an extra mini-game should we win one match each.

We had confidence from beating them twice during the regular season, but this was the playoffs, and they had the added incentive of hosting the Soccer Bowl at their home venue – Giants Stadium.

Up against the odds

I have to say in looking at both teams’ rosters, our chances did not look too good. But we knew as a team that once both teams got out on the field that we were not going to be outworked by New York.

There was no doubt that there was more quality in their team, but mentally we felt that we had the edge. We were confident that we were more of a team and that we really trusted each other and could overcome anything that the Cosmos threw at us. But as they say, talk is cheap, and in the end you have to do your talking on the field.

Who wants it more?

We played the first game at home in front of a sell-out crowd (32,875) at Empire Stadium. The game was tense, hard fought, and very close. But we remained focused throughout the match and held strong. Eventually they were the first to blink and we came away with a 2-0 victory on goals by ‘Wee’ Willie Johnston and Trevor Whymark. The job was half done, but there was still plenty of work left to do going back to New York.

Even winning the first game did not change people’s opinions; the prevailing thought was still that the vaunted Cosmos had too much firepower for us and that would show with them playing at home.

When you go into a game as an underdog it is said that you really have nothing to lose and can play freely. There is some truth to that – there was definitely more pressure on New York than us – but we had a lot to lose. We had a chance to get to the Soccer Bowl and we were not going to let this team stand in our way.

We lost the game in a shootout, which meant that we would immediately play a 30-minute mini-game. The mini-game also ended tied, meaning the contest would go to a second shootout. After going toe-to-toe for almost four hours, we eventually came out on top.

David had conquered Goliath.

Our ’Caps face a mighty challenge against the Galaxy and will have to play their best game to advance. But I know firsthand that even the most talented of teams can be beaten.

The first step is believing that you will win.

24 October 2:00 pm

Before the season, Whitecaps FC head coach Martin Rennie set a goal to make the MLS Cup Playoffs. That may have seemed a lofty goal for a club coming off of a last-place finish in 2011, but after a long season the 'Caps achieved that goal. Along the way the team got their first MLS road victory, set a record for the longest shutout streak to start an MLS season, and put together an impressive home record by losing only three of 17 matches at BC Place.

We will most definitely be underdogs going into next week’s playoff clash versus LA Galaxy on the road, but one fact remains: this team is one of only 10 clubs left that can win MLS Cup this season.