Eastern Conf. Final: Reputations Polished and Dented

Is that all there is? The New England Revolution beats the Chicago Fire, who beats DC United? Will it take the revival of Kansas City, or the arrival of Red Bull New York, or – god forbid – the Columbus Crew to confound this predictable procession? Lord, I hope not, because the status quo sure looks set to hold for a damned long while.

Not that I’m complaining – writing, after all, as a Revs fan – or not that I don’t think New England deserved to win. Truth be told, the Revs played as well last night as they have all year, smartly ceding possession to Chicago where it couldn’t hurt them and clamping down like a pit bull where it mattered on defense and creating space and possession in the attacking third. If there’s a complaint to level against them, it’s that they were a little slow to fire into half-openings; worse, when gifted a couple glorious openings, key, veteran players – Steve Ralston and Shalrie Joseph – fired embarrassingly high and appallingly wide.

Of course, the offense – or, rather, Taylor Twellman – got it together the one time required, scoring off a bicycle kick that, even in real time, somehow developed in slow-motion; with the ball arching in the cold air, Twellman squared his body with his back to the goal, while Dasan Robinson and (was it?) C. J. Brown quickly closed the space until there was nothing much wider than a foot’s width opening through which to strike. Twellman’s foot squeezed through, the ball bounced into the corner of Matt Pickens’ goal, and that, though we sensed it more than knew it at the time, was the end. From there, the entire team scrapped all over the field to make that lone goal stand up.

In fact, the Revolution looked more like scoring a second than Chicago looked like scoring a first. What Chicago didn’t miss, Matt Reis swallowed up. Worse, things too rarely reached that point. Chicago’s forwards struggled in particular: Chad Barrett by bolting aimlessly around and Paulo Wanchope by lumbering a step or two behind every play. New England shut off supply by shutting down Blanco and Rolfe, the latter of whom the Revs abused just shy of illegality. Referee Kevin Stott admirably let the teams play, but, in what had to be one of the greater surprises of the night, both teams played a fairly clean game, leaving Stott little cause to wave around cards; maybe yellow card trouble isn’t always a bad thing.

For my money, two things, one avoidable, the other not, sunk Chicago. First, the unavoidable piece: their most effective players on the night – Gonzalo Segares and Wilman Conde – played too far back and had too many defensive responsibilities to help with the attack. As for the avoidable, that came with choices of personnel and substitution: subbing Barrett, whose sheer effort may have produced something eventually, didn’t add up, nor did introducing Calen Carr with only minutes remaining. But, to return to something I commented on last night, the biggest problem came in the personnel department: starting Wanchope can be excused, but leaving him on at least 45 minutes too long cannot. And, of course, Justin Mapp finally came on the field for the Fire, but a visible disconnect between him and the rest of the team came with him.

All of the above went some way toward polishing and denting various reputations. Factors mentioned immediately above haul in the coaches, especially Chicago coach Juan Carlos Osorio. Suspicion that he placed too much faith in Wanchope, a familiar, but worn-out, player should lay the first knock on his reputation for tactical brilliance. Among the players, Twellman polished up his star-power by holding his stomach for the big stage – if only on the club level. Going the other way, we all discovered that, whether its cold or Shalrie Joseph, Blanco the Savior can be checked. Perhaps most significantly, however, Revolution coach Steve Nicol came that little bit closer to defining consistency in Major League Soccer (MLS), even deflating the myth that parity and quality can’t coexist. Moreover, he wrote the definition by being consistent himself almost to the point of self-parody.

Unfortunately, consistency and quality stop on the wrong side of excellence, at least as how it’s generally defined in MLS. It’s fair to say that the divide between the two stretches across the steps heading up to the MLS Cup winner’s podium. Because we’re talking about Nicol, you can be sure he’ll trot out a highly similar line-up for the final, if not the exact same one with the exact same game plan. The question is whether 10 days rest – two more days than the TBD opposition will get – will be enough for the Revolution to finally push past the divide…where they’ll bounce like idiots per tradition.

Some other notes:

– Eric Wynalda is a huge fan of running the ball to the corners to kill the game. I am not. It’s a coward’s tactic. Whatever happened to killing a game by keeping possession? It can be done. I’ve seen it. Moreover, developing this skill helps with the rest of your game.

– I know I bag on New England harder than most people who hate them, but I’d gladly lay off if they play as well as they did last night. I don’t need tons of goals and super-cool skillz tricks; all I need is intelligent passing that finds its target and good movement.

– Is there a bigger ham in MLS than Matt Reis? I hope he can pull off something worthy for the player intros in MLS Cup.

– I still want Gonzalo Segares on my team. I love how that cat plays.

– I have to say it again: that was a clean, reasonably open game, something I would have never, never predicted. Call it a pleasant surprise.

– Bicycle kicks do it for me and, at the same time, they don’t. Entire articles are dedicated to this thing and it was pretty cool. But…damn…

– To end with the best news of all: No Revolution players will miss the final on card suspensions. Better still, I think they’re all healthy out there. If nothing else, this could mean they’ll finally put in a stirring performance in a final.

One Response

  1. Man do I agree with your assessment of the second-half tactics by Osario and Chicago.

    Wanchope was done about 40 mintues before he came off. Barrett has finishing problems, but he creates havok and relives pressure on Blanco and creates opporunites. Even when, like I say, he can’t finish.

    Putting on Mapp was simple desperation and not putting Carr in at the same time was stupid. Carr needs time on the field to have an impact. About 5 minutes to adjust most times. Mapp wasn’t game ready and his first 4 touches were all turn-overs after which he disappeared.

    Credit New England with a good defensive plan and execution, but demerits to Osario for not adjusting and placing faith in Wanchope’s past big game experience.

    Where were those tactics he was on about so recently?

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