MLS Spotlight: Value of Momentum On Display in Play-In Games

IMAGE, SOUNDERSFC.COM

BY CHRISTIAN ARAOS
Staff Writer

The MLS Cup Playoffs will start with two play-in games that will illustrate just how much stock we can put into momentum given the current form of each of the four teams involved.

In the East, the Montreal Impact nearly collapsed out of the playoffs but were saved by the New York Red Bulls’ rally last Sunday which kept the Chicago Fire from overtaking the Impact for a spot in the playoffs. They face a Houston Dynamo team that has gone unbeaten in five of their last six games and are the two-time Eastern Conference champions  – each time coming from the play-in game.

In the West, the Seattle Sounders – to paraphrase their head coach – got their points early, as they went winless in it’s last seven games, stumbling from Supporters Shield contenders to fourth seed in the West. They host the Colorado Rapids; a young team that has consistently improved throughout the season and defeated the Sounders 5-1 just over three weeks ago.

In order to assess just how significant each team’s late season form is to their chances of performing well in the playoffs, we need to see why their form is what it is.

Start with Montreal. The Impact only lost three of it’s first 14 games but only one of it’s last eight. This is what happens when you have a talented but old team. As a season wears on, age becomes a factor. In the middle of the season, the Impact’s defense weakened as Alessandro Nesta became a liability, got injured and soon faded out of the first team and into retirement. Marco Di Vaio has struggled in the month of October scoring once on 18 shots compared to the five goals in thirteen shots he recorded in the month of May. Patrice Bernier and Jeb Brovsky have also missed time in recent weeks due to injury.

The Impact will likely play a 4-2-3-1 since they are on the road meaning old veteran midfielder Bernier will replace forward Andrew Wenger in the lineup. Bernier is capable of being a stabilizing force in the middle of the field – especially in a playoff game. However, can Impact Head Coach Marco Schällibaum rely on Bernier for an entire game, especially if it goes beyond the full 90? Schällibaum said he can but his fitness is still a great cause for concern especially since the Impact must win the midfield in order to have a chance in Houston.

The Dynamo’s last season rally and postseason experience make them the favorites in the play-in game. Houston recorded 14 points out of a final 21 which was just enough to edge out the Fire and Philadelphia Union for a playoff berth. The effects of losing almost the entire core group of players from a perennial contender showed throughout the year. However, Giles Barnes has emerged to be Brian Ching’s replacement up top, Warren Creavalle has emerged to be the versatile defender/midfielder that Geoff Cameron was.

Though the replacements have performed adequately they are not what will be the Dynamo’s biggest advantage in this postseason. Dominic Kinnear is. His resume speaks for itself, especially in the last two seasons where he guided the Dynamo from the play-in game to the MLS Cup Final on both occasions.

Take him and the Dynamo – especially when it’s against a coach making his first postseason appearance and a team that back-doored their way into the postseason.

Speaking of finding the backdoor, the Seattle Sounders looked to be teetering on the edge of collapse for much of the last month. International call-ups, leaky defenses and injuries not only killed the positive momentum the Sounders generated when they went on a five game winning streak, but generated just as much negative momentum. Newton’s Third Law of Motion Applied to MLS.

Clint Dempsey scored in the Sounders 2-1 loss, 1-1 draw against the LA Galaxy but the fact that it was his first goal with the Sounders is extremely disconcerting. Dempsey looks to be finally at or close to full fitness having played the full 90 in each of the last two games. The concern for the Sounders is that under normal circumstances, he would have been fully integrated into the team and developed connections with the other parts of the team’s attack. How in-sync he is with the rest of the offense will determine the Sounders’ chances of success.

Since beating the Sounders 5-1, the Rapids have become the flavor of the month. They are a young team with emerging talent at every place on the field. Head Coach Oscar Pareja will probably be in the top-three of the Coach of the Year voting and it is justified as one of MLS’ youngest teams has improved throughout the season. It is a disappointment that they laid an egg in their final regular season game against the Vancouver Whitecaps because the bye – and more importantly the home game – would be a massive help to a group of players going through their first playoff experience.

Ultimately, that experience, plus Seattle’s homefield advantage, may be too much to handle for the Rapids.

Play-In Predictions:

Houston beats Montreal 2-0

Seattle beats Coloardo 2-1.