New England: On Getting the First Laugh

In the wake of a soul-crushing fourth failure in MLS Cup, I have only one more comment to pass on and it goes to New England fans across the country (you see, there’s me here in Portland and all those dudes in New England. See? Cross country). Once done here, I’m going to start cranking out 2007 season reviews for all the teams (an act of extreme self-loathing that will come at the expense of the Daily Sweeper, once again). But, to return to the situation at hand…

This whole thing, this collapsing into a bloodied, depressed heap at the last hurdle, is one of those laugh or cry scenarios – as in, this sucks, you can either laugh about it or cry about it. In my experience, the most effective way to survive ridicule is to beat the peanut gallery to the punch. Celebrate your permanent bridesmaid status. How? Maybe get the Midnight Riders to pick up the tradition of unfurling a giant banners over their section, but emblazon the thing with a blown-up picture of Cathy swapped into a New England Revolution shirt. She’s directly below, needing only competent photo-shopping to make it happen.

I’m just saying…it’s an idea…probably not a good one.

The point is, there’s something funny about this whole thing, how New England beats the rest of Major League Soccer (MLS) to the final and then goes and loses it, again and again and again and again (did I get ’em all?). I mean, why bother reaching the final at all? Why not let in some team who can actually clear the last hurdle? It’s like someone who doesn’t know how to drive a car insisting on sitting in the driver’s seat. It’s spoiling in its most extreme and reckless form, akin to burning down the dream house you lost in a bidding war to a nicer, cleaner couple.

Anyway, here’s where I am: if someone told me that the New England Revolution will one day win MLS Cup, I wouldn’t believe them. Like other good things – think flying cars, jet packs, or light speed – it’s just not going to happen. Perhaps it’s not meant to happen.

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New England Eats Its 3rd Consecutive Big One

I don’t actually have a lot to write about this.  If you saw it, you saw it.  If you didn’t, there’s not much I can write that will capture the loss better than the entire left-hand side of New England’s team sitting cross-legged in tears on the field after the final whistle.

So, I’ll start here by being Big.  Congratulations to the Houston Dynamo.  They’re a damned good team and a tough one to hate.  I can’t say they didn’t earn it, not even given the insanely lucky late save Pat Onstad pulled out from his upper intestine on Jeff Larentowicz’s point-blank header; Onstad’s positioning was spot-on, so there’s that usual bit about making your luck.

Congratulations also El Guero from Who Ate All the Cupcakes.  Well played on the pick.  I believe this leaves the Center Holds It/Who Ate All the Cupcakes Playoff Pick Duel with a tie at the top.  So…now what guys?  I don’t think we covered this scenario.

What to say about the Revolution at this point?  Three in a row, three heart-breaking losses running.  Doesn’t that top the Buffalo Bills level of self-inflicted pain?  (This is rhetorical, by the way.  I don’t really care about the answer.)  To make matters worse, they just got beat this time; no fluky goal – even Joseph Ngwenya’s equalizer was ugly slop, it was definitely coming based on how the second half started – and I have nothing bad to say about the ref, who I thought called a good game.  No, Houston just kept working and plugging away, they got their chances and made the most of them.  Dwayne DeRosario’s winner, which came off a marvelous cross by Brad Davis, who was given far too much space.

That raises the biggest question about this game: what happened to the New England team that looked unstoppable and unflappable in the first half?  That team did everything right – playing short, quick passes, stretching the Dynamo defense all over Hell to the point where you wondered if it wasn’t FC Dallas or the Kansas City Wizards out there.  For 45 minutes, New England left reeling the best-ever defensive team in Major League Soccer history.  And then what I thought would happen did happen (sincerely, I almost did an “at the half” post): Houston came out and, to all appearances, New England laid off.  That led to a series of scrambles in New England’s area, which ultimately resulted in Houston’s equalizer.  DeRosario’s wunder-winner followed and the rest is history.

So, did New England enter the second half laying off, saving energy for a late push?  I couldn’t tell, to be honest.  All I know is Houston unquestionably looked the better team in the second half.  New England – and not just Taylor Twellman – were left to rue the several missed chances, soft shots, and…and…whatever the hell it was the put on the field for the second half of what really could have been a Double-winning year.

My MLS Cup Pick….Drumroll, Por Favor

Well, it’s time.  Time to make this, my final prediction of the 2007 Major League Soccer (MLS) season.  The standings for the Center Holds It/Who Ate All the Cupcakes Playoff Picks Duel appear over on the sidebar of the Cupcakes site and, incredibly, I’m actually in the lead.  El Guero is close enough to force a tie, provided he nails the result and score and I flub both – something certainly within the realm of possibility.

And, before going further, I’d like to thank Team Cupcakes for a well-fought contest.   Now…my pick…

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the two dudes subbing in for Allen Hopkins has me second-guessing myself; that both guys seem to lean toward a win for my team – the New England Revolution – only further muddies my thinking.  And, as confessed in my first preview post, the object of this week’s blogging efforts boiled down to convincing myself of the possibility of a Revolution victory.

Against that, however, is a prickling kind of fear about picking the Revs to win.  I mean, what if they lose?  I’ll find myself both disappointed and wrong, and I’m not clear on how I’ll handle that…I hate it when the kids see me cry…

And so the fundamental question is, do I stick with what has worked in terms of picks – e.g. the multiple choice test approach, where you stick with the first answer that comes to you?

Answer: Shit…do I have to?  All right, all right.

You know what?  Screw it.  New England 1-0 Houston Dynamo.  I’m big enough to handle a double-dose of pain…and there’s a fifth of whiskey handy in case I’m not.

All right.  I’ve got a Daily Sweeper coming in a couple hours.  If you’re wanting more, do check out Blue Blooded Journo’s dialogue with Martek and CeltTexan, to die-hard Dynamo fans who Jimmy Chowda invited to his site to discuss Sunday’s big game.  It’s educational and who doesn’t love that?

MLS Cup Preview: Dynamo’s O versus Revs’ D

Welcome to this, my last MLS Cup preview, where I’ll turn my (divided) attention to how the Houston Dynamo’s offense matches up with the New England Revolution defense.  I’m burning out ever so slightly on this project, less because it doesn’t interest me than it only feels like more blah-blah-blahing as we get closer to the point where all the talk becomes immediately irrelevant – e.g. kick off.  On the upside, this will be my shortest selection…I hope.

Before getting into my copy, I want to flag Allen Hopkins’ (exceedingly lazy) column for ESPN, the one where he turns over his space to an anonymous player and coach and has them breakdown the game (nice work if you can find it).  At any rate, that both seem to favor New England is only the most curious part of an interesting read.

But that’s there stuff.  Here mine…which, not surprisingly low-balls the Revs’ chances: Continue reading

MLS Cup Preview: The Revs’ O versus Houston’s (Formidable) D

(UPDATE: Blue Blooded Journo is plugging away at match-up previews of his own. Do check out his latest on Shalrie Joseph (and others) v. Dwayne DeRosario (and others).)

Ever start a project only to realize you’ve built in some redundancy? It only occurs to me now as I’m sitting down to write this, how much of the offense/defense stuff I covered in yesterday’s post on the midfield match-up. That said, I’ll be tightening the focus today, keying in on how, and how well, each team’s forwards coordinate with their midfield. And, for no particular reason, I’m going to start with New England’s offense versus the mighty, mighty Houston Dynamo back four.

By coincidence (and we’re talking big coincidence ‘cause I really haven’t poked around much today) MLSnet.com posted an ode to the Dynamo back line by freelancer and Very Smart Man, Steve Davis. There, you’ll find both bang-up stats and some entirely valid thoughts as to what makes the four-man team of Craig Waibel, Ryan Cochrane, Eddie Robinson, and Wade Barrett effective to the point of making history.

In his piece, Davis points to the mystery of why these four clearly quality players have earned so few caps for the U.S. National team. The answer centers on the Dynamo’s one weakness, one that focuses, in the main, on one man: Eddie Robinson. And what’s that answer? Robinson plays hard – if a little too hard; in my mind, he pushes the “thug” envelope to the breaking point; when the bitter sets in, I tend to view him as a dirty player. Robinson’s 70 fouls put him second in the league (behind Juan Toja) and his 11 cautions put him in first (stats here, but you’ve got to find ’em), both of which tell me that the refs see at least some of what I do. So, to answer Davis’ question directly, Eddie won’t get a call up because he’ll confront his teammates with a conga line of free kicks.

So, yeah, I’m no fan of Robinson. And his problems with fouls have a meaningful practical downside – not just the free kicks I alluded to above, but there’s also card trouble and what that will do to his play if he picks up one early. Fortunately, he’s got first-rate help all around him: Waibel holds down Houston’s right brilliantly with hard, clean play (take note, Eddie); I rate Cochrane higher than Robinson on both offensive and defensive terms; and I think Barrett is pure class, one of the league’s most complete and accomplished left backs. Add ‘keeper Pat Onstad and it’s no wonder these cats made history in 2007.

And, with regard to how this group works together, do note the stats at the end of Davis’ piece – specifically, the shots and shots on goal allowed.

What do the Revolution bring against this highly formidable back four – a unit that receives useful, at times ample, help from midfielders like Richard Mulrooney and Brian Mullan? Put it this way: I don’t know how many free-kicks “Red Rage” Robinson would have to surrender before the Revolution can exploit one, but suspect it’s higher than he’ll achieve over the course of 90, or even 120, minutes. So, let’s take a look at Plan B (I kid, I kid; this is Plan A). Continue reading

MLS Cup Preview: The Battle of Midfield

Ugh. My head feels it’s stuffed with cotton this morning, so I can’t promise quality, never mind brilliance. This is kind of a tragedy because, today, I’ll examine the pivotal match-up in this Sunday’s MLS Cup: the Houston Dynamo’s four-man midfield versus the New England Revolution’s five.

UPDATE: Because my brain is barely working, I can only just recommend reading what comes below. As much as I feel like there’s good stuff in there, it rambles as if I’m speaking in tongues. Here’s a quicky summary for those interested in ducking all the half-coherence below:

– I expect Houston to attack to better effect down the flanks and see New England struggling to respond in kind. If the Dynamo can’t break through on the flanks – something I rate as a very real possibility – the middle becomes crucial. Assuming that scenario comes to pass, here are my key players for each team:

Richard Mulrooney (Houston): It’s not just that DeRosario is in a funk. Mulrooney will be the one switching the Dynamo’s point of attack and keeping the Revolution pinned in their own end. New England will be hard to break down, so buying time to create the chances matters.

Steve Ralston (New England): If you read below, you’ll see I don’t think much of the Revs’ chances down the flanks, at least by the straightforward, put-yer-head-down-and-run approach. For the Revs to have a shot at scoring, Ralston needs to serve as the pivot point, the means through which New England moves the ball across the field and into gaps in the defense. It’s a role similar to Mulrooney’s, but, ideally, it will happen closer to Houston’s defensive third.

OK, that’s it for this segment. If you’re up for making sense of the gibberish below, have at it.

Because it’s good, relevant filler, I’ll start by listing the anticipated personnel:

For Houston
Brian Mullan (R); Richard Mulrooney (CDM); Dwayne DeRosario (CAM); Brad Davis (L)

For New England
Wells Thomspon (R); Shalrie Joseph (CDM); Jeff Larentowicz (CDM); Steve Ralston (CAM); Khano Smith (L)

Reviewing those names as a New England fan, I can but tremble – at least where the attacking side is concerned. On the upside, throw both midfields into a Texas Cage Match (ringed with barbed wire, a curtain of blue flame, and a host of bellowing midgets), I’d bet my house on New England’s, um, tough customers…OK, thugs. Then again, that’s just Joseph and Larentowicz – and Joseph brings a considerable level of culture to his tough edge; Ralston, as I see it, brings the distilled talent.

I’ll expand on that later, but boiled down to the central strengths of each side it’s attacking ability versus classy thuggery. Advantage to…?

Let’s start with some assumptions: the goal of soccer is to win; a team wins by scoring goals; ergo, the team better-suited to scoring goals should hold the advantage.

As noted above, I think Houston holds the edge in midfield where attacking is concerned. Both teams like to work the flanks, but Mullan and Davis provide better service – especially Davis. Both teams also use their width to make space for the “operators” in the middle: DeRosario for Houston (with help from Mulrooney) and Ralston and Joseph for New England. I’ll get to those specific match-ups below, but most people – and I include myself in this bunch – expect what goes down on the flanks to decide the game. Continue reading