MLS Playoff Roundtable Part Two: Who’s going to win the Cup?; more
With the MLS Cup playoffs getting underway Wednesday night, SI’s soccer staff takes a look at a few storylines in a Planet Fútbol roundtable. Here’s part two of two.
What club is under the most playoff pressure?
Grant Wahl: Has to be the Seattle Sounders. Lead owner Joe Roth got tired of seeing his team losing to Los Angeles last year that he resolved to spend more than ever in the transfer market, resulting in the arrivals of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
Things seemed to be working out well until Seattle’s late-season swan dive (no wins in seven games) dropped the Sounders from the league’s best record to fourth place in the West. Coach Sigi Schmid has made the playoffs in five out of five seasons in Seattle, but his job could be in real danger if Seattle doesn’t pick it up in the playoffs.
Brian Straus: Seattle, because of the money it spent, the way it finished the season, its 1-4 record in playoff series and the pressure exerted by the league’s largest fan base. With the current MLS playoff format, judging a single year based on results in a couple of games is unfair. But fail for five straight seasons, and you’re going to face some scrutiny.
I don’t think this falls on Clint Dempsey’s shoulders. History suggests it takes time to integrate (or re-integrate) into MLS. He’s started six games. Look at how Tim Cahill finally blossomed after a slow start. And everyone remembers David Beckham’s growing pains.
Winning in the postseason usually is about collective effort. Playoff games are tighter and more frenetic. You don’t necessarily need a superstar to win. You do need 11 players on the same page. If the Sounders fall short again, questions concerning coaching and chemistry are inevitable.
Alexander Abnos: The Seattle Sounders. On paper this team has more talent than just about anyone else. The Clint Dempsey addition gives them a player in his prime that has played and thrived in one of the world’s top leagues. But their startling fall from grace in the month of October has them vulnerable, and Dempsey has been well below par all-around.
If the Sounders are able to win against Colorado in the play-in game, it’ll be their first victory in nearly seven weeks. Think about how much pressure can build during a winless streak in the regular season. Now imagine having to break that streak to keep your season alive in the playoffs. The only other team facing similar pressure is Montreal, and even they have won more recently than Seattle.
Avi Creditor: Real Salt Lake. Houston may have the itch to win after getting to the last two Cup finals but coming short. Seattle may have made all the moves to position itself to be the champion — at least on paper. Sporting KC may not yet have had the postseason success to match their otherwise top-level ambition. New York may have the pressure of carrying the league’s top record into the postseason.
RSL, though, has been the quintessential “Yeah, but” team. Like the great Atlanta Braves baseball teams that managed to win only one title, RSL has had such a talented core and been so close on the league, Champions League and U.S. Open Cup fronts only to fall short every time after winning the 2009 MLS Cup. It may have been a transition year — and a successful one at that — for RSL, but with Jason Kreis being courted by New York City FC, the window to add to the trophy case and avoid another “Yeah, but” is shutting.
What player must rise to the occasion?
Grant Wahl: Kansas City’s Graham Zusi. As impressive as K.C. has been the last three years during the regular season, the team has underperformed in the playoffs, going out to lower-seeded Houston in both 2011 and ’12.
When he’s on his game, Zusi has the potential to be the best player in MLS, the kind of game-changer who can take his team to the title. But he needs to take the next step, and that would mean guiding Sporting to at least the final. If that can happen, the Big Game would take place in Kansas City, too.
Brian Straus: New York’s Thierry Henry. David Beckham and Robbie Keane have their MLS Cups; now it’s time for the league’s other megastar multimillionaire DP to come through. The Frenchman has tallied only one goal in five playoff starts. He’ll surely need to score a few more if the Red Bulls are going to make a deep run.
Henry has been happy at times to operate as a link player and typically is team-first. New York won the Supporters’ Shield even though Henry netted just 10 goals this season, the lowest total of his MLS career. But the time for ruthlessness has come. Defenses tighten in the postseason, and Henry has the talent and experience to unlock them. That’s what the Red Bulls are paying for.
Alexander Abnos: Any Kansas City forward. Seriously, any of them. Sporting undoubtedly has the defense to lead them to the title game, but the attack sorely misses Kei Kamara, who was sold to Middlesbrough at the start of September and remains the team’s second-leading scorer. Their top scorer, Claudio Bieler, hasn’t played meaningful minutes for KC since the start of September, when he scored a goal and had an assist against the Columbus Crew. Bieler has been hobbled by a groin injury, and KC has scored more than one goal in just two of their seven MLS contests since.
Leading the attack in that span has been the young trio of C.J. Sapong (24 years old), Dom Dwyer (23), and Soony Saad (21), but none of them has led the line with either the inventiveness of Kamara or the stone-cold finishing of Bieler. At least one will need to step up and become a consistent goal-scoring threat because Graham Zusi can’t do it all on his own, all the time.
Avi Creditor: Seattle’s Clint Dempsey. You don’t become the highest paid player in MLS and have the league “move mountains” to get you in uniform ASAP only to come up empty when the lights are brightest.
Dempsey has not had the impact on the scoresheet most may have expected following the U.S. captain’s shocking move from Tottenham to Seattle, with just one goal to his name in nine matches. Dempsey starring in the MLS playoffs and helping carry the Sounders on a deep run is a best-case scenario for the league from a neutral spectator standpoint. It also would go a long way towards halting the scrutiny of his deal, especially considering counterpart Landon Donovan’s history of postseason success.