Colorado Takes First Leg Over Columbus, 1-0

The Columbus Crew started brightly last night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, looking like visitors determined to take the initiative in the game, and the home crowd out of it, from the opening whistle.

That lasted approximately 10 minutes.

Then Colorado started getting a grip on the match, and gradually came to dominate it, putting Columbus on its heels and controlling possession. The Crew went completely flat, looked leg-weary, and started turning the ball over at an alarming rate and frequently while under no pressure. Columbus produced just one shot in the first 45 minutes.

After the Rapids’ inevitable goal came, in the 23rd minute on a sliding shot by captain Pablo Mastroeni, it got even worse for Columbus. It looked like the Crew was playing in black-and-white while the Rapids were in high-def, living color, knocking the ball around fluidly.

The return leg is on November 6. As bad as the Crew looked for much of this one, they nearly poached a late equalizer, and they play at home next weekend with a decent shot to rally and take the series.

To do that, Columbus will have to be much sharper than they were last night, of course, but Colorado is no doubt ruing the fact that they didn’t get another goal in a game they dominated last night.

Here are the highlights:

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Soccertalk with Sal

Welcome to the first edition of Soccertalk with Sal, a new, randomly occurring feature in which we transcribe snippets of actual soccer conversation with Sal, the superintendent of our office building.

There are two things you should know up front about Sal: He’s got a terrific head of hair, and he talks exactly like Joe Pesci.

No, scratch that—‘exactly’ is not strong enough: The man has the same voice as Joe Pesci. It’s like the John Woo movie Face/Off, but with voices. Completely uncanny, and after we met him, it took us about three months to suppress the urge to crack a grin, or quote Casino, during conversations with him.

The third thing you should know about Sal, and what brings us here now, is that he’s a huge soccer fan. We discovered this during the World Cup this past summer, when we were treated to the out-of-body experience of discussing Italy’s Group F results with an apoplectic Tommy DeVito of Goodfellas (minus the sociopathic tendencies, of course).

It was not only an experience we’ll never forget, but also one we get to relive (to a less vein-popping degree) on a daily basis.

Herewith then, the first two excerpts of recent soccer conversation with Sal, who knows his stuff—and has the voice of Joey LaMotta from Raging Bull.

[For best results, imagine Pesci’s voice while reading. All conversations actually occurred.]

On the Monday morning after Steven Gerrard’s free-kick goal against Manchester United on Sept. 19, when Darren Fletcher—well, here’s the clip:

Sal: “You saw dat, right? I mean [hands now raised, placed together in front of his face, and shaken in the classic Italian gesture of pique] what are you doing in there?! The whole entire purpose of you being in dat wall in de first place—you’re not doing your job!”

BP: It was terrible.

Sal: You know what? It’s worse than not doin’ your job—you’re hurting yer team and yer goalie because you’re—whaddaya call it, you’re in his w—

BP: Screening him.

Sal: You’re screening him! He can’t see the ball—and then you let it through! You’re helping the other team. Oh, man. I would shitcan dat guy so fast.

On the recent form of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez—three goals in his past two games, including a late winner against Wolves in the Carling Cup on Tuesday:

Sal: I’ll tell you what—dat Mexican guy? Oh man. He scores two in the last game and then you put him in for what, ten minutes? And whaddayou get? Goal.

BP: That was a great signing for them.

Sal: And did you see that header he scored the other day? Flicked it back? Dats not easy to do.

BP: Maybe they don’t need Rooney after all.

Sal: Here’s what dey oughta do: put him in there, then put Berbatov in—and Rooney. That’ll give Chelsea a run for the money. And then when Hargreaves can get back…cuz you know, dat Scholes is not exactly a spring chicken.

BP: If Hargreaves can ever stay healthy.

Sal: It’s a big if.

MLS Playoffs Preview—First Round

The business of crowning Major League Soccer’s 15th champion gets under way tonight, and the Backpost World HQ, along with all satellite offices, could not be more pumped.

All four first-round matchups are intriguing—especially the Western-bracket pairings—and have the potential to produce some of the best soccer the league has ever seen.

Let’s break it down, and if you haven’t gotten your pool picks in, give this a read, then send ’em in!:

• Columbus (14-8-8) vs Colorado (12-8-10)

Tonight, at Colorado 9:00 EST, ESPN2

Nov 6, at Columbus, 4:00, TeleFutura

Season series: Split. Rapids won at home in June, 1-0; Crew won 3-1 in Columbus in August.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: The Crew slumped under a heavy late-season travel schedule, but finished the season with two straight wins (one in the CCL) and appear to have their legs back. They also have a genuine game-changer in Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

We think people—including the Rapids—are underestimating Columbus. Colorado keeper Matt Pickens told the Denver Post the other day, “I like our draw; I’ll put it that way.”

The Rapids’ strikeforce of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey combined for 27 goals and their midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni is as rugged as they come in MLS. The battles on the wings, between Columbus’s sometime U.S. internationals Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers, and Colorado’s Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan, will be something to see.

Late-breaking 411: Crew forward Emilio Renteria is out for the first game with a bruised knee. Columbus keeper Will Hesmer is out for the playoffs with a broken shoulder.

Prediction: We’re going against the grain and picking the 2008 MLS champs, Columbus.

• New York (15-9-6) vs San Jose (13-10-7)

Oct 30, at San Jose, 10:00 pm, TeleFutura, MSG+, MSG (joined in progress)

Nov 4, at New York, 8:00 pm, ESPN2

Season series: Split. Quakes beat a red-card depleted New York at home in May, 4-0; Red Bulls won 2-0 in New York in August.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: This is a series the Red Bulls should win, but that doesn’t mean they will win. Thierry Henry will not take part in the first game, which is obviously a big loss, and Rafa Marquez, who’ll be asked to orchestrate things in midfield, has battled an ankle injury for most of his time in New York. Bouna Coundoul, while a great shot stopper, can be a liability on crosses and goal kicks (that’s right, he occasionally struggles with goal kicks)—flaws that could be exposed in the playoff pressure cooker. Dane Richards’s ability to run at people on the wing will be key in this series.

San Jose was spotty down the stretch, losing games to non-playoff teams Houston and Kansas City (a 4-1 blowout), but the Quakes clinched a playoff berth with three games to play, and Chris Wondolowski, of course, is about 4,000 degrees Kelvin right now. They also welcome back veteran Ramiro Corrales, and boast three legit offensive weapons in Geovanni, Bobby Convey, and Ryan Johnson.

Key Stat: San Jose is 1-10-1 this year when conceding the first goal.

Late-breaking 411: New York’s Joel Lindpere (groin) and Salou Ibrahim (knee) both missed Tuesday’s practice. Here’s Lindpere on his injury: “I’m a man. I most likely am tough enough to play with this small injury. I can play through the pain.” Most likely, Joel?

Prediction: New York.

• Real Salt Lake (15-4-11) vs Dallas (12-4-14)

Oct 30 at Dallas, 5:00 pm, Fox Soccer Channel

Nov 6, at Real Salt Lake, 10:00 pm, Fox Soccer Channel

Season series: Split. Dallas won at home in July, 2-0, handing RSL its last loss in MLS play; RSL won 2-0 at Rio Tinto two weeks ago.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: Dallas has been hard-hit by the losses of holding midfielder Daniel Hernandez (hamstring) and first-choice keeper Kevin Hartman (knee; Merci, M. Henry). Hernandez is a stabilizing presence in front of the backline and incredibly poised on the ball. Hartman was having an MVP-like season before his injury. Dallas is simply not the same team without those two, but MVP-candidate midfielder David Ferreira is always a threat to turn a game.

Real Salt Lake has been the most consistent and probably the best team all year. But Colorado did something interesting against them before collapsing in stoppage time in the regular-season finale: they pressured RSL way up the field—we’re talking Rick Pitino–esque high pressure—and it worked. RSL was on its heels and Colorado took a 2-0 lead before the bizarre closing sequence resulted in a 2-2 draw. Don’t think Dallas, which has great team speed for tactics like that, didn’t notice.

From the Department of Disingenuousness: Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers on the playoffs:

“I’m on the Internet all day long and I still read a lot of pundits counting us out. That’s good for us. I don’t think we’re expected to win, but we in this group believe we can.”

Really Nat? Did you mean pundits like the ones writing here, here, and here?

Hey, anything to generate that us-against-the-world spirit, we suppose.

Late-breaking 411: RSL midfielder Will Johnson is questionable after limping off with a hamstring tweak during Tuesday’s practice.

Prediction: Real Salt Lake.

• Los Angeles (18-7-5) vs Seattle (14-10-6)

Oct 31, at Seattle, 8:00 pm, ESPN2

Nov 7, at Los Angeles, 9:00 pm, ESPN

Season series: Los Angeles. The Galaxy won 4-0 at Qwest Field in May, and 3-1 at the HDC in July. But those results were before Seattle caught fire in the second half of the season—and LA cooled.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: The Galaxy has a matchup problem with Seattle: The Sounders are fast, and Los Angeles … isn’t, particularly. Seattle’s four-pronged attack of Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Sanna Nyassi—with Nkufo holding the ball up and the other three, speedsters all, running off of him—would trouble any team in the playoffs.

Key Matchup: Seattle winger Zakuani vs LA wingback Sean Franklin. Franklin is one Galaxy player with lots of speed, and he’ll need it to shut down the greased-lightning trickery of Zakuani, who had 10 goals and six assists this year.

Key Stat, followed by Question that May Ultimately Decide the Series: Landon Donovan has a staggering 17 goals and eight assists in 22 career playoff games. But is Landon Donovan tired? He’s played pretty much non-stop for two years now, including loan stints at Bayern Munich and Everton and a pressure-packed World Cup, and he hasn’t been his vintage self in the second half of the season. Can he rise to the occasion this year as he always has in the MLS postseason?

Prediction: Despite Seattle’s form, the Qwest Field crowd, and Sigi Schmid’s playoff pedigree (MLS Cups in 2002, 2008), we’re betting on Bruce Arena to have his boys, especially LD, ready to go. Los Angeles.

Step Right Up, It’s the First Annual Backpost MLS Playoff Pool!

Major League Soccer’s 2010 playoffs kick off tomorrow night, when the Colorado Rapids host the Columbus Crew at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado (9:00 p.m. EST, ESPN2).

This year’s edition has the potential to be the best postseason in the history of the league. Every team in the field has a winning record, there are six legitimate title contenders, no weak sisters, and an impressive array of international stars will be taking part, including David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafa Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry (hopefully, but more on that later), Geovanni, and Blaise Nkufo.

We could go on, but it might be more effective to hand the mic over to “Jon,” a pub owner in Denver who recently offered an impassioned email plea to his fellow Coloradans on behalf of their hometown team, and their domestic league.

Take it away, Jon:

“It is always easier to be negative than positive in life, and we’ve heard it all when it comes to our domestic league (MLS). The naysayers are quick to make claims like, ‘the play is too slow,’ … or, ‘it isn’t like European or world football.’ I say ‘Rubbish to that!’ Having attended every Colorado Rapids and MLS match I could since 1997, I have personally watched our league, and team, improve year in and year out. Those arguments, although they may have held water up until a few years ago, are simply no longer valid. … MLS has improved tremendously over the last few years, and there are really no more excuses. The pace of play, the coaching and training, the atmosphere at the matches, and the competitiveness of the league, have all risen to a world-class level. This is a call to arms for those of you that love the sport: Get your butts out to DSG and support your team. If you love the game, it is your responsibility to get involved!”

Hear, hear!

Jon speaks the truth.

Without further ado, then, here are the scoring system and selection form for the 2010 BP MLS Playoff Pool, brought to you by debonair reader Abraham Thinkin’.

(We’ll post a playoff preview next to help you along in your picks. Check back for that shortly.)

No money is at stake, but the winner will get a copy of Simon Kuper’s and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book, Soccernomics. That, and glory, plenty of glory.

Submit your completed forms to jbackpost12@gmail.com before kickoff tomorrow night.

Scoring System

First round: 1 point [The first-round matchups are two-leg, total-goals series. Simply select the winner.]

Conference Finals: 2 points

MLS Cup Champ: 4 points

Tiebreakers:

† 1st: Both MLS cup finalists predicted

† 2nd: Total goals scored during the entire MLS Cup Playoffs (all teams, all games)

Complete the following form (don’t forget the ‘total playoff goals’ tiebreaker blank at the end) and submit to jbackpost12@gmail.com before kickoff on Thursday night:

Eastern Conference

EC1: Columbus v Colorado (1 point): ____________

EC2: New York v San Jose (1 point): ____________

EC Champ: EC1 Winner v EC2 Winner (2 points): ____________

Western Conference

WC1: Los Angeles v Seattle (1 point) : ____________

WC2: Real Salt Lake v Dallas (1 point) : ____________

WC Champ: WC1 Winner v WC2 Winner (2 points) : ____________

MLS Cup:

Champ: EC Champ v WC Champ (4 points) : ____________

1st Tiebreaker: Participant who predicted both Cup Finalists

2nd Tiebreaker: Total Goals Scored during MLS Cup Playoffs (excluding pks) : ____________ [so a 1-1 draw decided on PKs counts for 2 total goals]

Good luck, and enjoy the games.

Paul the Octopus, the Rocky Marciano of Footy Forecasting, Dead at 2

He was fine when his keepers at the Oberhausen Sea Life Center in Germany checked his tank on Monday night, but Paul the Octopus, who correctly predicted the results of eight straight World Cup matches last summer, including the final, did not make it through to Tuesday morning.

He was two and a half years old.

Foul play is not overtly suspected in the death, but there are reports that Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong will be questioned.

A spokesperson from the aquarium in western Germany said there are plans to erect a permanent modest shrine to the invertebrate, who made global headlines during the tournament.

Times will have changed by the time the 2014 World Cup rolls around, but we won’t be surprised if a variety of soothsaying animals are trotted out for match-prediction duties for that tournament. They’ll all be Johnny Come Latelys, almost certainly doomed to the same fate as Paul’s already-discredited imitators, such as Mani the Parakeet (Netherlands to win? Pfffffft).

Yes, like Marciano, and the 1972 Miami Dolphins, Paul will stand alone for years to come.

Sidenote:

This was our favorite ripple effect of the oracular octopod story: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemning Paul as a symbol of all that is wrong with the Western World.

Yanks In England, Week 9: Tracking Back

Bolton extended its Premier League unbeaten run to five games with a 1-1 draw at Wigan on Saturday, and U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden was involved in Wanderers’ goal.

He sent in a cross from the right that was eventually put away by Johan Elmander for a 68th minute equalizer. Holden started again and went the full 90.

Fulham is still searching for its first win away from home this season, having fallen 2-1 at surprising West Bromwich Albion (they’re in sixth place) on Saturday. Clint Dempsey started, played 90 minutes and whipped a long-distance shot just wide in the early stages.

Eddie Johnson dressed but did not play for Fulham.

At White Hart Lane, Everton’s Tim Howard made an uncharacteristic mistake that led to Tottenham’s goal in a 1-1 draw. Three minutes after Leighton Baines had put the Toffees in front with a superb free kick, the U.S. keeper waved at an Alan Hutton cross, missing it completely, and Peter Crouch headed it back in front for Rafael van der Vaart to power home for his fifth goal in Spurs’ last five matches. That signing? Working out pretty well.

Howard made three saves in the match, including a fine stop of a worm-burner from Luka Modric at the top of the box.

Marcus Hahnemann and Wolves fell to top-of-the-table Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The U.S. keeper played 90 minutes and made three saves.

Aston Villa and its trio of Americans faced Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. There was talk that young U.S. defender Eric Lichaj might get the start due to an injury to regular right back Luke Young, but as it happened, Lichaj did not even dress for the game.

Brad Friedel did, of course, but was foiled by a Richard Dunne own goal 24 minutes in that handed a 1-0 win to the hosts. Friedel made one save in the match.

Brad Guzan dressed but did not play. He’s expected to start Villa’s fourth-round Carling Cup tilt against Burnley tomorrow.

West Ham remained rooted to the bottom of the table after a disappointing 2-1 loss at home to Newcastle. The Hammers took the lead 12 minutes in on Carlton Cole’s first goal of the season, but surrendered one on either side of halfime to lose. Jonathan Spector did not dress for the game.

Liverpool’s American owners turned up at Anfield for the second straight week and surely enjoyed the proceedings a bit more this time, as the Reds picked up a much-needed three points with a 2-1 win over Blackburn. Fernando Torres hit the winner—only his second goal of the year—in the 53rd minute.

Quote of the Year Race Heats Up

We saw a new candidate enter the race this week in the person of West Brom coach Roberto Di Matteo, who offered the following after his promotion side* picked up yet another three points in the Premier League with a 2-1 win over Fulham:

“We try to play football and we believe that is the way to win games. It is quite simple actually.”

Indeed it is, Roberto. Maybe too simple.

We also enjoyed Blackpool manager Ian Holloway’s postgame comment on his team’s 2-0 defeat at Birmingham:

“I did not expect them to play a diamond in midfield. I felt I let the lads down a bit. But I shall also have a go at our scouting set-up because no one told me they would play with a diamond.”

Can Blackpool get a  “do-over”?

Non-Yank–Related Results

Manchester United bounced back from the Wayne Rooney U-Turn and picked up a vital away win against Stoke City, prevailing 2-1 on two goals by Mexican international Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.

Rooney, who has a sore ankle, did not play. In fact, he took a trip to Dubai to celebrate his 25 th birthday (really).

The Red Devils trail Chelsea by five points after nine games.

In the weekend’s biggest game, Arsenal got the benefit of an early red card to Manchester City midfielder Dedryck Boyata en route to a 3-0 rout at the City of Manchester Stadium. The result leaves both teams clustered behind Chelsea (and around Man U) with 17 points. Arsenal is in second place on goal difference.

*West Brom’s nickname is the Baggies, but no one is sure where that name came from—only that it replaced the old-school and almost equally obscure name for the team, The Throstles.

Cosmos Inching Closer to MLS?

Pelé's birth certificate says he's 70, but pictures tell a different story.

The New York Cosmos told the New Jersey Record yesterday that they’ve secured financing to build a stadium in New York City, with the goal of becoming the 20th MLS franchise in 2013.

“Our intent is to be the 20th team in MLS,” Cosmos director of soccer Terry Byrne told The Record. “We’ve had several meetings with Mr. Garber and progressed very positively.”

The Cosmos have also already set up two youth academies, one on each coast, that are being led by former MetroStarts Giovanni Savarese and Ted Chronopoulos. Three Cosmos youth players have been invited to join the U.S. Under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla.