CCC08: Done, Dusted…and Ugly…just Ugly

Well, that sucks.  As any who cares by now knows, both of Major League Soccer’s representatives in the CONCACAF Champions Cup have exited the tournament, the Houston Dynamo with a whimper, while DC United went down with fists flying…well, judging by the scoreline at least; I didn’t see the DC game.

Being pressed for time today, I’ll have Jeff Carlisle’s double-bubble wrap on both semifinal series speak for the full record.  The comments below, a genuine post-mortem of sorts as opposed to yesterday’s gloomy prognostications, will be 1) brief, and 2) directed solely to Houston’s loss.  Nice picture, yes?

Deportivo Saprissa 3-0 Houston Dynamo: Ban Artificial Turf
That title should inform all that I intend to eat my sour grapes.  Saprissa’s stadium is a shitbox.  OK, that’s not right.  The stadium actually looks pretty awesome with the stands stacked over the field and so on; the field itself doesn’t look bad, either.  It’s the turf that sucks, sucks, sucks.  Watching Houston over-hit one pass after the other – a malady that played its most fateful role when Dynamo players got excited about an opening upfield – leads me to call for a ban on artificial turf (not seriously, no, but I do hate it).  It’s like Home-Field Advantage-Plus (H-FAP?).  If I had to name an iconic image from the game, it would be Dwayne DeRosario desperately chasing the ball through a seam he slit through Saprissa’s midfield; if memory serves, he caught that damn ball all of once.  Houston simply never got it going, not anywhere near where they had to.  They played the ball forward often enough, but their attack looked positively Columbus-esque in terms of menace.

None of this is intended to excuse Houston.  They had two legs, the first of them on favorable ground and featuring multiple opportunities.  Houston blew every one of them by the end of the first leg, leaving the far harder task of winning on the crap-factory field.

Getting back to the whole “ugly” notion, that first goal was uglier than the guy up top.  The second one, while a little better…still ugly.  By the time the third rolled in, depression rendered me unable to appreciate aesthetics; if anything, the goal looked like dull pain.  Feel free to add your thoughts below.

Well, that’s a wrap…I guess.  It sucks to type it, but…better luck this fall…dammit.  To think things looked so promising on March 31…

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Houston 0-0 Saprissa: “Better Luck Next Year” Already?

In the end, the game itself disappointed as much as the final, goalless score. In spite of the healthy number of chances (duly recorded in Soccer America’s write-up) the entire affair felt a little flat – especially from the Houston Dynamo’s point of view. For what it’s worth, I credit Deportivo Saprissa with pacing this game – an ominous sign given what that meant last night and what it will mean on the return leg. Then again, perhaps the various intrusions into my viewing experience detached me from the game (I have to ask: how the hell did my ten-year-old beat my three-year-old in falling down the stairs?).

OK, new approach: I’m just going to name the first five – I dunno – notions, concepts, or….sensory impressions?…that pop in my head and assume they’re the most important items.

– DeRo, A Man Alone: Not quite that, but Dwayne DeRosario was one of two offensive players for Houston who looked remotely switched on; the other, Corey Ashe, continues to impress me – quite a bit, lately (and Pat Onstad played another beauty in goal). Maybe Houston’s offense is like an old Ford truck; maybe it can’t fire properly till it’s warmed up. Even missing critical players – here, I’m thinking Brad Davis and Brian Mullan – Houston worked the ball forward pretty well; they even found seams in Saprissa’s back-line. But, like a synapse firing sideways, a half-step separated ball-from-player and player-from-player nearly every time. Getting back to DeRosario, between setting chances with seeing-eye flicks and making runs at Saprissa’s goal, some of them desperately lonely, he served as the fulcrum for an attack that never quite came off. That was through no fault of his own; so far as I’m concerned, the rest of his side let him down. Especially… Continue reading

MLS Daily Sweeper, 03.25: Temptation + Yanquis Chatter

– Damn the MLS Newsstand for linking to so many articles from Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.  All those tempting articles, each boasting a teasing title more tempting than the last: “Leading the League’s Expansion Drive”; “Agent Business Evolves as Sport Grows”; “Talks to Start Soon on New Labor Deal.”  I gave up plenty of information – too much, in fact, and given how far I went, they probably already have it – before panicking at the fine print on Street & Smith’s (non-) privacy agreement (e.g. “We reserve the right to announce your browsing history to your mother on national television….and she will cry…”  and “Please forward your child’s name, a photograph, and a short list of things that will lure him/her into a car with strangers.”)  Anyway, those sound great…I’m sure I’ll cave later…damn them.

– I know all y’all know about tomorrow’s friendly between the U.S. Men’s National Team (Yanquis) and Poland.  But I thought I’d pass on what I counted as the most interesting items on that – for instance: Soccer America’s piece calling on Bob Bradley to seek alternatives to perennial automatic Landon Donovan; ESPN.com’s preview (from Jeff Carlisle) which features a public flaying of Benny Feilhaber’s attitude, courtesy of Mr. Bob Bradley (to which Feilhaber should retort, “Well, well…Donovan is your security blanket…so there!”); finally – and this only related because the main article is about the Yanqui roster for the Poland game – the draw for the Beijing ’08 Olympics is on April 20.  I didn’t know that till then…it’s possible I’m behind the curve.

– Lastly, but not leastly, did anyone else know Shalrie Joseph coulda/mighta played for our beloved Yanquis?  Thoughts on this less-than-relevant revelation?  Here’s mine: as much as I believe Joseph would be an upgrade as a deep-lying, central mid and as much as his physical presence would truly be something, we’re pretty stacked in that position.  So, yeah, I’d like him to be there, but it’s not the end of the world that he isn’t.  I just wish Dwayne DeRosario 1) was American instead of Canadian, or, 2) that he hated being Canadian and loved the U.S. of A.  Anyway, good luck in qualifiers, Shalrie.  I’m pulling for Grenada.

So…right…that’s it.  I mean, no one’s going to vote to call Seattle’s expanion team “Seattle Republic.”  Otherwise I’d have to say something about that.

CCCo8: Houston 3-1 Municipal – Hey, Houston, It’s Corey Ashe Night!

Not much to say about that one – and I’m trying to be more brief, generally – but the Houston Dynamo did Major League Soccer (MLS) proud in the other CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinal. And I’m happy to report that Corey Ashe, my personal liability for the first leg, turned in the man-of-the-match performance that made it possible.

Who can say what happened between last week and tonight’s game? Did Dynamo coach, Dominic Kinnear, force Ashe to work on his crosses again and again and again, until he could send on to the six in his sleep? Probably not. After all, the best balls Ashe played skimmed close to the ground, much like the one he fired at Chris Wondolowski for the Dynamo’s third goal. Ashe also earned the penalty that put the Dynamo up 2-0, “soft” as it was (yeah, I’m sayin’ it: the severity of the contact doesn’t really matter does it? I mean, isn’t about a foul in the penalty area in the end?).

Not surprisingly, Dwayne DeRosario garnered his share of the credit as well. Between his opportunistic (and, possibly, illegal) goal that essentially started the second half and his cool conversion of the PK Ashe created, “DeRo” decided the game and settled his teammates. His finishing touch? The cross-field ball to Ashe that set up the Wondo goal.” Game, set, match, Houston.

Another big star on the night: Pat Onstad, who saved, by my count, two dead-certain goals. The first one of them, a point-blank stuff on CSD Municipal’s Mario Rodriguez, could very well have defined the series. I mean, what might have been had Municipal scored the first goal? A team possessed of that kind of savvy could surely have killed this game dead. But Onstad stoned him inside the six – as well as keeping the Dynamo’s clean-sheet on several opportunities before and after.

The main take-away from all this: damn good game. It’s a shame that CCC games can’t all be like this: great, lively crowd, quick, hard-fought, even-uncompromising play from both clubs until 2/3 into the proceedings. After that, Municipal seemed to feel the weight of the score and, even as they pressed and earned a penalty of their own, they didn’t appear nearly as alive and menacing as they did in the first.

So, that’s to MLS clubs in the semifinals. They passed the audition; good stuff. Now, they just have to get past the Mexican clubs…or the Costa Rican one. Whatever happens, the fun begins next week.

Houston Dynamo 2007 Review: …the Bastards.

Houston Dynamo
Record (W-L-T): 15-8-7; 43 GF, 23 GA
Source Material: Schedule/match reports; roster

Overview
This one is pretty uncomplicated.  Houston had a straight-up kick-ass 2007.  It’s not just that they won MLS Cup (more on this later), but how well they carried themselves through a duo of international tournaments, the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the inaugural Superliga.  There’s also the incredible 11 games without a loss that carried them through June and July, a period when they went 8-0-3 in league play.  Houston’s didn’t enjoy start-to-finish dominance – they suffered spells where they just…could…not…score – but, on the most fundamental level, Houston started 2007 where they ended it: as the best team in Major League Soccer.

Before going any further, I want to get one thing out of the way: I should hate this club.  I probably want to hate them.  And yet I can’t.  They just seem so dang nice.  Getting back to it…

As almost every MLS fan can tell you, Houston had the best defense in the league, allowing just 23 goals over 30 games.  This is precisely what made MLS Cup, and its clichéd “Tale of Two Halves,” so outright bizarre.   They obviously won in the end, but no one watching the final’s opening 45 would have considered it possible: the New England Revolution had not only dominated the midfield, they had achieved the unthinkable: they totally flummoxed Houston’s vaunted defense.  While the change after the half stopped just shy of night-and-day, the Dynamo’s winning goal revealed what makes these guys champions.  I can still see it (and here’s about how my reaction sounded live): “Whoa…who’s that?  Shit!  It’s [Brad] Davis!  Close him down!  Close him…close him…wait!  No!  Dammit…” Continue reading

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 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