First XI: Hot, hot, hot
The Columbus Crew, winners of four in a row, unbeaten in their last six, provide the inspiration for this week’s First XI. No one in MLS is hotter than the Crew right now (of course, where there’s smoke there’s usually mirrors), but it is not difficult to come up with 11 scalding topics in and around U.S. soccer.
11. The Makeshift Lineup Portion of the MLS schedule has arrived. The home office was so kind as to provide me with the following list of international absences that are set to kick in beginning this week.
So, we’ll get to see which teams in MLS have enough depth to cope. Keep an eye on a pair of goalkeepers, Jon Conway for San Jose and Zach Wells for the MetroStars, who’ll man the nets in the shooting gallery known as Spartan Stadium. Remember, Pat Onstad and Jonny Walker each had a five-spot hung on them the last time these two teams met.
10. Here’s why there are lies, damn lies and statistics, especially in soccer. During this four-game win streak, the Crew has been outshot 66-37 by the opposition. In fact, the only game where the shots have even been moderately close during this run was on Sunday, when the Revs only outshot the Crew by a 12-9 margin. In the previous three games, the opposition outshot the Crew by no fewer than five and as many as 12. Just win baby.
9. Thank you, Jon Busch, for not falling for the Jose Cancela pk chip twice in a row. I’ve often wondered just how Carlos Ruiz has been able to pull off that stunt more than once. If a guy does that to me (I’m known as Oliver Kahn to my five- and seven-year-old sons) once, there’s no way I let it happen again. I let him beat me every single time with a real shot, but no way he floats another one down the middle. Got to hand it to Cancela, though, it took some major league guts to think he could do it again, in injury time no less, with the result hanging in the balance.
8. U.S. vs. Grenada reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit many years ago where they did a spoof commercial, advertising a series of Time/Life books on the War in Grenada. The first book was entitled, "Day One, Breakfast." Needless to say, I do not expect Game One of qualifying to be anything more than target practice for the Americans, who looked very impressive against Honduras ... That said, I have no doubt the rematch in Grenada will be another tough roadie in the Wild World of CONCACAF.
7. Has anyone else noticed that the FieldTurf in Giants Stadium plays pretty much like old-fashioned Astroturf these days? Ever since the Giants asked that it be sped up (after some early games a year ago), the ball’s bouncing all over the place and running way too fast. Thankfully, we went from 3 FT fields to 1 this year. May good news on the Harrison stadium be coming in the very near future (I honestly think the deafening quiet coming out of the MetroStars front office is a good sign). Giants Stadium has become the saddest venue in all of MLS. I’ve taken a number of soccer-fan friends through the years and it’s getting harder and harder to get them to come to another game. They prefer watching the Metros on TV (MSG does the best job in MLS) to paying $10 to park and standing in long food lines in an empty stadium. Hard to blame them.
6. There is a lot of "buzz" (no pun intended) out there that the Dallas Burn will be re-branding when they move to their new stadium in Frisco. Here’s my two cents: Don’t change the name of the team. Do change the color, to Holland orange (too many black and red teams in MLS already). Do change your crest, but keep the fire-breathing horse somewhere in the mix.
5. Along the same lines, I want to remind you all that I called for an across the board "touch-up" for MLS next season, when the league celebrates its 10th season. I want to see "classic" badges for all MLS teams. I want the "Year Established" to be incorporated into all team logos. I want the matrix to be re-tooled so every team can have a primary uniform and a second-choice uniform, to build greater team identity. Get rid of all those white-white-white road uniforms, please! I want to see a team wear a dark shirt, white shorts and white socks. I know, I need a life.
4. While I’m in the idea-pitching mood, it’s now become all the rage around MLS for people to speak about the fact that regular-season games do not hold enough significance. I’ve been on that bandwagon for years, but I’ve never called for an across-the-board switch to a single table and abolition of playoffs, or anything impossibly radical like that. My solution is simple and makes sense. Award the regular season winner in each conference by allowing them to host a one-game semi-final in their stadium. Let the second and third-place teams in each conference to have a play-in game, with the second-place team hosting. That brings the number of playoff teams down from eight to six. It give the conference winners a great chance to advance to MLS Cup on their home fields, and it gives them two weeks to sell the game. I cannot see why this format is not a great compromise betweeen the American sports model and the traditional soccer model.
3. We’ve seen parity in MLS in years past, but nothing like this year. I’m not even talking about the current standings, I’m talking about the fact that there is no clear-cut winner in any game on the schedule. The closest thing to locks in this league is the Fire at Soldier Field and the Rapids at Invesco. Add in the fact that more teams are playing a defend-and-counter style and you can see why a three-point victory feels so good for any team in the league.
2. Here’s something else that’s hot. The highlights packages on MLSNet.com. If you don’t have a broadband connection, shame on you.
1. My lock (ha!) of the week is Colorado over Kansas City on Wednesday night, if that’s allowed, since I know all the other guys will be posting theirs later in the week. I need to change the vibe, as picking clear favorites has simply proven to be the wrong tactic. And since I won’t ever contend in the battle of MLSnet.com columnists Cup, I’ll make another prediction, the Golden Boot is going to be a two-horse race between Carlos Ruiz and Damani Ralph. I’ve seen enough of the MLS forwards to see those two are a cut above.