View from the Cheap Seats: Back in black

everyone's favorite sideline reporter -- asked Landon Donovan: "What is it about the playoffs that makes you raise your game?"

Bless your little journalism neophyte's heart, Lorrie, but the answer to your question was right there in your question, wasn't it? What it is about the playoffs that inspires the likes of Donovan to raise their games is the very fact that this is the playoffs. I know the powers-that-be -- or PTBs as Jimmy Conrad called them in one of his terrific SI.com columns -- hate it when someone (especially someone on their payroll) says, "Now, every game matters," because it implies that the regular season doesn't matter, but I'm going to say it anyway: Now, every game matters. Every touch, every pass, every shot, every save, every tackle -- every aspect of the game could mean the difference between a championship game in Los Angeles on November 14 and an early visit with the in-laws in Missouri. Considering that, is it any surprise that the great ones pick it up come playoff time?

Landon Donovan and Jaime Moreno have lifted their games more than anyone. And their teams, San Jose and D.C. United, respectively, have reaped the benefits. The Quakes won 2-0 at home and should've won 4-0 or 5-0. Plus, they were without Ronnie Ekelund and Richard Mulrooney. They looked devastating. Donovan was everywhere. Dwayne De Rosario was even more slippery than usual (and will from now on be known as "Slinky"). And the nail in the coffin: Craig "the Anvil" Waibel scored, which occurs about as often as a Warrant song gets spun on the radio. Considering that Lamar Hunt isn't allowed to buy goals for his suddenly goal-starved Wizards, that Colorado is as mind-numbing as a Phish song, and that Los Angeles is as incoherent as a James Joyce book, San Jose should cruise through the Western Conference playoffs with minimal ease. (Of course, now I fully expect the following phone call from Alexi: "YOU JINXED US!" Click. Guaranteed to happen.)

But the real story in the playoffs right now is D.C. United, who I also believe will march into MLS Cup (thereby setting up the Landon vs. Freddy final those same PTBs want anyway). Did you know that in United's last seven MLS games, they're 6-1, have scored 13 goals, and conceded only four? Neither did I. In fact, D.C. has lost only twice since the first week of August. Jaime Moreno is arguably playing better than he ever did in D.C.'s cup-winning heyday; this time around it's his team. There's no Marco Etcheverry, no Eddie Pope, no Jeff Agoos, no one else to depend on. It's the other way around: His teammates, coaches, and fans are depending on him. And he's accepted the mantle. He's a different player, slower, more crafty, more generous, a more complete player, and to my mind a better player. An MVP player, with apologies to the miraculous goalkeeping of Colorado's Joe Cannon.

He's also learned how to bring his teammates into the game, into every play. Alecko Eskandarian is scoring at will. Old Man Earnie is as spry as a 20-year-old (is there a more electric smile in the league?), and Brian Carroll is as solid as a 35-year-old. Nick Rimando, whose return to the starting lineup coincides with the team's recent run, has brought even more stability to a backline already stacked with leaders like Ryan Nelsen and Mike Petke.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're playing against the MetroStars, who haven't won in more than a month, and whom United has now beaten four times in a row. "Who's your daddy?" indeed. I think in last weekend's first leg of the D.C.-Metro series, Meat Loaf could've played 'keeper for United and the result would've been the same ("We're gonna go all the way tonight, we're gonna go all the way tonight, tonight ...").

What really has me enamored of this team, though, is what they've overcome to get to this point. First came a brand new coach, one with an incomparable resume as a player, but absolutely no coaching experience. Then, just before the season began, a close friend of several of the players and the organization tragically died (Thomas Rongen's stepdaughter Nicole Megaloudis). U.S. international Bobby Convey transferred to England. Freddymania kept building, followed quickly by the all-too-predictable anti-Freddymania, which of course led to Freddy's infamous whine session -- and his subsequent apology. Locker room unrest. Questioning the coach. Et cetera, et cetera.

Overcoming all of this is what coaches, old school scribes, and Paul Newman fans like to call "character-building" experiences. My favorite film of all time is "The Hustler," and one of the most telling scenes pretty much sums up what it is about the playoffs that makes the Landon Donovans and Jaime Morenos raise their game:

Bert Gordon (played by George C. Scott): You got talent.

Fast Eddie Felson (played by Paul Newman): I got talent? So what beat me?

Bert Gordon: Character.

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at cheapseats@g73.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.


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