Prudence pays off for MLS Conference finalists

Rebuilding is never a fun task. The struggles and frustrations of watching a team have to learn how to play with one another can be difficult task with players and coaches looking for some measure of success and supporters looking for hope.

It can take months even years for some sign of improvement to show. Yet when it does it almost seems like things snowball rather quickly.

 

On Sunday four Major League Soccer sides will continue their playoff journey as the Eastern and Western Conference finals kick off.

Although each side comes from a very different part of the United States with a different climate, culture, and background in soccer. Dallas is perhaps as different from Portland as New York/New Jersey is to Columbus.

The idea that four teams can play with very different styles is not something new to international football. Outside of some European countries and places like China tactics and style differ in regions.

But the United States is unique in that it perhaps has one of the most decentralised models in the world. What might work for the United States Soccer Federation might not work for the state of Maryland or on the county level.

This of course also does not include MLS teams like D.C. United or Seattle Sounders who have their own private youth teams.

Despite coming from very different places, the four squads competing in the MLS Conference Finals (Columbus Crew SC, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, and the Portland Timbers) all came to the same point with a similar philosophy.

Rather than going for the big name signing each club instead opted for a more practical approach: invest in younger players, find diamonds in the rough, and defend.

It seem odd to mention defending above all other skills on the pitch but defending in a two game series is critical. Each of the four sides were in the top ten in terms of goals allowed during the 2015 regular season while both New York and Portland shutout their Conference Semifinal opponents across two legs.

The other two qualifications seem like simple things but they can often be difficult to produce. Every MLS team drafts players from college in the league’s annual SuperDraft and most have some form of a youth academy yet players often never fulfill their potential.

Likewise teams that cannot afford the likes of Steven Gerrard or Didier Drogba will sign European and South American players of some notoriety to manageable contracts. But often those players fail to adapt to MLS and decide to take their paycheck and run. We call this the Lothar Matthaus effect.

As opposed to falling into some of the bad habits that MLS sides fall into, each of the four conference finalists suceded. Already having a strong young core of midfielders in Justin Meram (6 goals, 5 assists), Ethan Finlay (12 goals, 13 assists), and Will Trapp Columbus has spent the better part of the past two years signing quality international players.

Although defenders Gaston Sauro and Harrison Afful (9 starts), midfielder Federico Higuain (8 goals, 9 assists), and forward Kei Kamara (22 goals,  8 assists) might not light the transfer world on fire each has proven integral to Columbus’ rise through the Eastern Conference.

Their opponents on Sunday, the New York Red Bulls, made a major pivot in their philosophy this year. After losing Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill the club appeared to be in chaos.

 

But using the remnants of the 2014 side that made it to the Conference Finals, Director Ali Curtis and Jessie Marsch brought in veterans like defender Damien Perrinelle, and midfielders Sacha Kjlestan, Felipe, and Mike Grella to support an already strong cast.

Marsch’s commitment to marking on the counter-attack has helped knock off seven goals from last year’s total. Whether they can do it against a Crew SC side that likes to play the long ball from the outside will go a long way into determining who makes it out of the East.

In the West, league darling FC Dallas exorcised some old demons by eliminating Seattle Sounders FC in the previous round.

Although most of the plaudits will go to midfielder-forward Fabian Castillo (9 goals, 9 assists) Dallas supporters should thank 20 year old goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez for keeping them in the running for the Cup.

The Homegrown Mexican youth international held a potent Sounders attack at bay over the course of the two legs. His diving save during penalty kicks proved to be the difference-maker in the series.

Dallas will need Gonzalez against a Portland Timbers side that has finally found their scoring stroke. After scoring just 41 goals during the regular season the Timbers attack has come alive during the playoffs.

Timbers coach Caleb Porter’s decision to move 2010 SuperDraft pick Darlington Nagbe has paid off with the team scoring four goals in the past four matches. Nagbe’s speed and pace has provided some relief for a stout Timbers defense.

Former West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City defender Liam Ridgewell has held together a fragile back four and succeeded despite playing in the tougher of the two Conferences.

Each side has made marked improvements over the past year and each team looks primed towards making the MLS Cup, but this time of the year often shows the true mettle of a squad.

Given that three of the four sides have yet to win an MLS Cup (Columbus won the MLS Cup in 2008) it raises the stakes and should help provide some drama to a fascinating series of matches.

Author Details

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-mls/id979377624?mt=2

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