Sometimes life is not fair. More often, soccer is unfair. Over a 30-game MLS season, no team was better than the Columbus Crew. The more you watched Columbus play, the more you appreciated the way this group of players came together for one cause, to win a championship. From June 26 through the end of the regular season, the Crew did not lose a single game. A stretch of 18 games. That's impressive. Now, there are going to be fools out there who say the Crew choked in the playoffs, but you won't read that here. In fact, this week's First XI is (mostly) a tribute to the best team in MLS 2004.
11. After five games (three at home) the Crew were 0-3-2. Fellow columnist Eric Wynalda was calling them a "college team" and most of us in this business agreed. Smart money said Greg Andrulis would be fired. Obviously, we lost that bet. The Crew won four in a row, including a 3-1 win against Chicago at Soldier Field and, suddenly, became a team. A very professional team. Even when they lost their next two, they knew they were on to something. Getting a positive result against the Crew was impossible the rest of the way.
10. What a nice blend of youth and experience, of hard-working players and guys with individual flair. Great draft picks in Chad Marshall and Chris Wingert. Exceptional development of a player like Kyle Martino, who just seemed like a more committed player this year, getting forward and trying to ignite things, even if the numbers at the end of the year (five goals, two assists) do not show a great offensive output. Speaking of numbers, as is usually the case with great teams, numbers don't tell much of the story. Edson Buddle's gawdy numbers (11 goals) actually belie what was only a mediocre season. No knock on Edson, but he's capable of much, much more.
9. Robin Fraser. Every team in MLS needs a leader like Fraser. There was a lot of retirement talk surrounding this veteran defender, but he showed he is not only a great presence in the locker room, but also a guy who's held on to his physical tools. You still do not see many MLS forwards running away from the soon-to-be-38 year-old defender.
8. No single game exemplified the Crew season like their 1-0 victory at San Jose on Sept. 8. After being outplayed and outshot for an entire match, the Crew could not have been blamed for kicking the ball into the stands and walking away with a hard-fought 0-0 draw. But no, with time winding down, Simon Elliott found Tony Sanneh in the box and Sanneh, who'd joined the Crew only a short time prior to this match, put away the game-winner. This was the win that all but sewed up the Eastern Conference crown for Columbus.
7. Ross Paule. Hey, I live in the New York market and, were MLS part of the always-nuts world of sports talk radio, I'm sure Paule would be getting slammed for missing that penalty last Saturday. But where would the Crew's season have been if not for clutch spot-kicks by Paule? Credit to Wynalda for saying before the kick that Paule would side-foot it and Matt Reis was an expert at reading a shooter's intentions, but Ross cannot be skewered for missing that one. Watch enough soccer and you know it happens on occasion, even to the best players in the world. My only problem, and it relates to Tony Sanneh's miss, as well ... I can't stand to see guys miss penalties with soft shots. Hit it.
Now, a brief mention of the other MLS losers this past weekend.
6. San Jose Earthquakes. MetroStars. Colorado Rapids. I'm still in shock that the Quakes lost 3-0 to Kansas City. Serves me right for thinking a team could cruise through the regular season then turn it on for the playoffs. To be completely fair, the Quakes were disrupted a lot this year by World Cup qualifiers, losing the likes of Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario and Pat Onstad every time CONCACAF held games. The MetroStars simply had too steep a hill to overcome after losing 2-0 at home. In truth, the Metros played a good game on Saturday at RFK. Problem was they needed something great. When Cornell Glen's eight-yard header went right into the arms of Nick Rimando you had a feeling this one was over. When Glen pulled up lame a few minutes later and had to play the rest of the game on one leg, there was no question D.C. was moving on. The script was all wrong for the Rapids on Saturday. For Tim Hankinson's team to advance they were going to need to keep this game scoreless through the first half. Once the Galaxy got on the board, you had a strong feeling that L.A. would be going through. Questions for these teams: Is Landon a goner? Can the MetroStars find a veteran leader? Can Colorado do more next year than simply rely on Joe Cannon to keep a clean sheet?
As for the Conference Finals ...
5. D.C. United suddenly has the look of a favorite, playing at home and playing with extreme confidence in its style. Beware, however. The Revolution have a team that's been down this road two years in a row. They're going to scratch and claw right with D.C., and they have some playmakers who can turn one mistake or one set piece into a goal. I've said through most of the season that New England is playing better soccer (with worse results) than it's played during the Steve Nicol era. Am I picking them to advance? Sure, why not? D.C. will pay a price for its tactical fouling this weekend as Dema Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen watch from the sideline. New England, having lost in extra time in MLS Cup 2002 and last year's Eastern Conference Final, is due to win one in OT.
4. I like Kansas City a lot. That game-winning goal by Jack Jewsbury was one of the best goals of the season. When a team comes from behind to win a game like that one, they certainly have to take a feeling of invincibility into this weekend's contest. Kudos, also, to long-time backup 'keeper Bo Oshionyi, who made all the saves he needed to make last weekend, including a brilliant point-blank save of a Brian Ching shot late in the match. The Galaxy have Carlos Ruiz. So I could never count them out in a one-game playoff. Still, I'm picking K.C. to win a workmanlike 3-1 game against the Galaxy.
If your team is out of it, don't go away ...
3. No one complains about the MLS offseason and its quietness more than I, but this year, we get some big excitement right away. The expansion draft should provide all of the existing 10 MLS teams with plenty of trade discussions. Rest assured that before teams list their final protected list there's going to be some deals. To explain it the best way I can, all teams will be required to protect 12 players, no more than one of those 12 can be a 2005 Senior International. Also, one would think, since expansion teams have three allocations apiece we could see some marquee players dealt for allocations. There are endless possibilities that make this perhaps the most exciting offseason ever in MLS.
2. One final Columbus note. I said it up top: There's no shame in losing a hard fought playoff series to an experienced team like the Revolution. But I will be keeping up with all the Crew fan boards in the coming days to get a read on how they feel about Andrulis's decision to start Dante Washington over Buddle in the most important game of the season. I've heard that Washington was outplaying all the Crew forwards in training during the lead-up and that Buddle was struggling. I've also given you my opinion on Buddle's season overall ... that his numbers were better than his play. With that said, that's one controversial move (to say the least) to sit your top goal scorer in a game where you're going to need to score two to advance.
1. The Final Visit to the Waffle House. Well, the last two weeks I picked the Crew and the Quakes to go to the final. Such is life. This week, as stated above, I'm calling for a New England upset and a K.C. victory. As for MLS Cup, dare I say, New England exacts revenge for 2002 and takes the final 1-0 against the Wizards on a Taylor Twellman golden goal.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.