First XI: Every game counts
Remember a few weeks back when U.S. national team manager Bruce Arena said that MLS regular season games were not meaningful enough? You have to wonder how Arena would feel about those comments were he coaching one of the 10 MLS teams this past season. When you think about it, what team in the league has ever felt completely at ease this year, so confident that his team would, one, make the playoffs and, two, get home field for the playoffs? Until last week, when the Crew wrapped everything up with a win at Soldier Field, I'm guessing the number would be zero. Truth be told, it's been a season full of meaningful games and this week's First XI will go by team by team to illustrate.
11. The New England Revolution (30 points, need three points to make the playoffs): Think they rue the 2-2 tie in San Jose back on July 24? Leading 2-0, with only injury time to kill off, the Revs collapsed, allowing a 91st-minute goal to Landon Donovan and a 94th-minute tally to Brian Ching. Ouch. Those are two points the Revs could've used down the stretch. There have been other regrets along the way, I'm sure, but here the Revs sit, still in a position to swipe the final playoff spot away from the always-proud Chicago Fire with a home win on Saturday. You wonder what mojo will be at work here. Will the Fire be fueled by the fact that, as an organization, it has never missed the MLS playoffs? Or will the Revs be looking to exact some revenge for the overtime loss they suffered at Soldier Field a year ago, which kept them out of a second consecutive MLS Cup final. One thing seems certain, the Revs are a much more dangerous team at home then they are on the road. Gillette Stadium, never a fun place to play once the NFL season begins, will play rough, making this game a 90-minute war. Can Taylor Twellman knock in one of his trademark falling-on-his-rear-end goals? Or will Andy Herron keep up his two-goal-a-game pace for the Fire?
10. The Dallas Burn (35 points, need three points to make the playoffs): It was only a month ago that I called the Burn a team that could win it all. Needless to say, that statement has not looked good these past few weeks. The Burn have dropped five of six down the stretch and six of eight over a longer stretch. They have not scored a single goal in their last three matches. Still, there is hope. The Burn can still qualify for the postseason with a victory at home on Saturday. Standing in their way is the defending champion San Jose Earthquakes. This will be, plain and simple, a battle of wills. Do the Burn want the playoffs more than the Earthquakes want a shot to defend their Cup title? The Burn can look back at their last two victories, both at the Cotton Bowl. One was a 4-1 thumping of the Chicago Fire, the other a 2-0 win against the Galaxy, and hope it's got some home magic left for them.
9. The Chicago Fire (33 points, need a point to make the playoffs): Pride is on the line here, big time. This is the second time in the last three years that the Fire have needed a result in their final regular season game to make the playoffs. Two years ago, with Peter Nowak playing what was potentially going to be his final game in a Fire uniform, the Fire beat the Crew in Naperville, Ill. Nowak absolutely willed the Fire to that victory. Of course, that Fire team went on to be eliminated in a best-of-three series by the Revolution, who beat them twice in Foxborough, Mass., to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Obviously, Nowak's gone on to new things, but a lot of guys remain who probably cannot imagine a fall without playoff soccer. Guys like Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch and C.J. Brown. These guys won't go down easily.
8. San Jose Earthquakes (37 points, need a point to make the playoffs ... three points plus a Colorado loss and they finish third). We all know what the Quakes did on their home field a year ago, refusing to lose. Can they do the same on the road this week? I do not see the Quakes as a team that can play for a draw, so I look for them to come out looking to score on the goal-starved Burn, forcing the counter-attackers to come out and play. Like Chicago, San Jose has some fierce competitors who will not be too happy if they're sitting on the outside when the playoffs begin next week. You do wonder, though, if Landon Donovan will return from national team duty ready to drive his team forward. If he's not playing at 100 percent intensity, the Burn could send the Quakes home.
7. D.C. United (39 points, need three points to finish second). Sunday's game with the MetroStars is huge for United. Even though they proved they could win at the Meadowlands two weeks ago (even without Alecko Eskandarian and Jaime Moreno), United will desperately want to play Game 2 at RFK, on its own grass field, in front of its noisy supporters, rather than at Giants Stadium, on FieldTurf and football lines. Even though we know already it will be United and the MetroStars in the first round, the home field could dictate how this series plays out. In their victory against the Metros two weeks ago, United got a deflected goal, then elected to sit back. The strategy worked so well, you have to wonder if D.C. is ready to make one goal stand up for 180 minutes. For that matter, if United were to open at the Meadowlands, would United come out looking to lock up the shop for all of Game 1 and take its chances going level into Game 2?
6. MetroStars (40 points, need one point to finish second). The Ghosts of 2003 have to be on the minds of the Metros, who find themselves in exactly the same position as a year ago, needing a result in the regular season finale to finish second in the East. A year ago, Bob Bradley decided to use the week for almost all of his regulars to get healthy and ready for the playoffs. Part of his thinking was also that there was no decided disadvantage to playing Game 1 at home. Obviously, the decision by Bradley did not work out for the Metros who lost 5-2 in the Foxborough finale, then came out and lost 2-0 at home to the Revs, making Game 2 of the series all but a moot point. The MetroStars will come out on Sunday looking to win the game, not only because they want to finish ahead of D.C. and host Game 2, but also because this is a young team that needs a boost of confidence heading into the playoffs.
5. The Colorado Rapids (40 points, might need a point to secure third place). Not much to say here, except were we in a country other than the USA, you could go to the bank and bet on a draw in this weekend's Rapids-Crew game. A draw, after all, would secure third place for the Rapids and keep the Crew's record-setting unbeaten streak intact. In other words, both teams would get what they want. This, however, is America. The Rapids, I am certain, want to be the team to end the Columbus streak.
4. The Los Angeles Galaxy (43 points, need three points, and to win Saturday's game by two goals, to finish first in the West.) No reason for the Galaxy not to come out attacking in this game as they need not only to win, but to win by a two-goal margin at Kansas City. The Wizards will play, as always, a smart game. However, the Wizards will not come out playing for a tie, because they want to win the Supporters Shield in the event that Columbus loses in Denver. Potential for an entertaining game here. You do wonder, though, would the Galaxy rather finish first and get the Quakes in the first round, or finish second and get the Rapids? I'm thinking the latter.
3. The Kansas City Wizards (46 points, can lose by one goal and still finish first in the West). They've all but got the West sewn up, but might need to win and score some goals to win the Supporters Shield. Currently, the Wizards are plus-7 in goal difference. The Crew are plus-8. The Crew have also scored two more goals than the Wizards. Those are the tiebreakers. In other words, K.C. should probably just concentrate on taking care of business in the West, either by beating or tying the Galaxy, or by making sure they do not lose by two or more goals. Still, as I said above, you do have to wonder just who wants the defending champs (and a game at Spartan) in the first round. Very interesting, indeed.
2. The Columbus Crew (48 points, sitting pretty). How good are these guys? Well, we're ready to call them one of the great regular-season teams in league history. You do not go more than half a season without a loss and not draw some high praise. The Crew just get the job done, as they proved this week. In Chicago, they played a depleted but desperate Fire team and made one goal by Edson Buddle (and what a goal) stand up for a 1-0 victory. Then, in the Meadowlands, entrusting their streak to a reserve squad, tied the MetroStars 1-1. I'm going to make a confession here. The MetroStars outshot the Crew 19-5, but I cannot say the Metros had any more good scoring chances than the opportunistic Crew. Time and time again this year, I've been amazed that the Crew are outshot by 10 or more and come away with results. Maybe the Crew simply excel at forcing the opposition to take low percentage shots. That was the case Saturday. One thing I will reiterate from columns past is that I'm not sure the Crew would choose to play the Fire in round one if they had their choice. No game in Soldier Field is fun. Still, I look for Columbus to wrap up the Supporters Shield with a draw this weekend.
1. The Waffle House. Time for the ever-changing weekly First XI prediction (some of you will get the joke eventually). I have this weird feeling about the San Jose Earthquakes this week. I see them rising from the dead somehow, getting a point at the Cotton Bowl and upsetting the Wizards in the conference semifinal. In the East, I'm all Crew this week. Love 'em with all my heart. C-bus will walk past (drum roll) the Revs in the semifinal and score an overtime goal at Crew Stadium to defeat D.C. United and go to its first final.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at email@example.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.