Friday, October 20, 2006

Playoff Preview: NY/DC Game 1

After the most turbulent season in Metros/Red Bulls history (and that's really saying something), New York is gearing up to face the foe of foes in DC United in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs starting tomorrow at Giants Stadium (2pm, FSNY, DK).

While Red Bulls' Head Coach Bruce Arena says plays down any notion of rivalry, DC is at the top of many NY fans' hate list. I mean, would NY fans get as torqued up for Columbus? Doubtful.

It's been a strange season for MLS' most successful franchise. United stampeded their way through the first twenty games of the season with a staggering 13-1-6 record, including a fourteen-match unbeaten streak and a six-match win streak. After building a hefty distance from their Eastern Conference rivals, however, United suffered from a significant lack of focus, finishing the regular season on a 2-6-4 streak and three straight losses since September 30th. DC's Coach Nowak faces a challenge similar to many regular-season champions... how to push the intensity button after a long stretch of meaningless games.

New York's Arena has said that he views the two-game series as little more than "practice" for next season, which doesn't do much for fans that have watched their club win a single playoff series (vs. Dallas in 2000) since the league's inception. As you surely know the Red Bulls eked out a playoff berth in the season's final match for the second consecutive year. This year's NY team started out 0-1-5 before hitting the win column on May 20th vs. Chivas. Though NY finished the regular season on a three-match unbeaten streak, the Red Bulls played their best stretch in July under then-interim and current assistant coach Richie Willams (3-0-0 with three shutouts).

DC easily handled New York this season, finishing 2-0-2 with +4 goal difference. Here's a breakdown of tomorrow's key matchups.

The DC forwards vs. The Red Bulls' back line:
Jaime Moreno and Freddy Adu vs. Todd Dunivant, Carlos Mendes, Jeff Parke, and Marvell Wynne (and Jon Conway). It's hard to believe that Moreno, an 11-year MLS vet, is only 32 years old. Moreno's 11 goals puts him only behind midfielder Chrisitan Gomez on the club's '06 scoring chart. The Bolivian's 10 assists prove he's lethal: an unselfish goal scorer. While Adu started 29 of United's 32 matches this season, his two goals and eight assists note that the youngster still has a long way to go. The NY defense has been strong of late, though the Wizards made Conway & company look awful on KC's first goal last week. Still, they've allowed only one goal per game since allowing four at DC on September 23rd. Advantage: DC

New York's attackers vs. The United defense:
Youri Djorkaeff and Jozy Altidore vs. Brian Namoff, Bobby Boswell, and Facundo Erpen (and Troy Perkins). Youri certainly offered less in terms of on the field production (2G/4A) for the Red Bulls as the season moved along, certainly less than he did during the 2005 campaign. Tomorrow will hopefully be the first of many playoff games for Altidore, who has been the shining light of the Red Bulls this season. DC has allowed nine goals in its last four MLS matches, not the kind of momentum a team want heading into the playoffs. Erpen, with his silly name and three goals, is a scoring threat moving forward. Advantage: Push

The Midfielders:
New York's Chris Henderson, Amado Guevara, Danny O'Rourke, and Dema Kovalenko vs. DC's Josh Gros, Ben Olsen, Christian Gomez, Brian Carroll, and Matias Donnet. It can be argued that no two midfielders are as important to their respective teams' success that DC's Gomez and NY's Guevara (who is in top form with a hat trick last week). The two have combined for 22 goals and 16 assists this season. Assuming the two stars negate each other, the supporting casts offer lots of MLS experience (902 MLS regular-season appearances between them). DC's newcomer Donnet, however, may provide the difference. Expect lots of hard challenges on the Swamp's fieldturf, especially from Kovalenko and Carroll. Advantage: Push

The Coaches:
Bruce Arena vs. Peter Nowak. What a strange matchup. One coach needs to suddenly elevate his talented club's effort. The other has said publicly that these games are auditions for next year. Weird. Advantage: DC

The oddity that is the MLS playoff setup sends the higher-ranked club on the road for Game One. MLS playoff games are usually poorly attended, with so little advance warning to sell playoff tickets. Of course, the Eskandarian family of Montvale will be well represented, cheering as usual for their boy who'll start on the DC bench. I'm sure DC fans will be in healthy number and voice as usual. Advantage: (Sadly) leaning to DC

The Prediction:
To paraphrase Winston Zeddmore, DC "has the tools, has the talent," to beat the Red Bulls. They haven't lost to them all year. If Guevara displays the form he has this month, though, New York has a chance. Given the Red Bulls' sorry 1-8-7 road record, they must win tomorrow to have a shot at advancing. I don't see it. DC wins, 1-0.

Here what's on the tube this weekend. (times et).

9:30am: GER: Werder Bremen-Bayern Munich, GOL
10:00am: ENG: Everton-Sheffield Utd., FSC
11:30am: GER: Wolfsburg-Stuttgart, GOL
12noon: ENG: Aston Villa-Fulham, FSC
2:00pm: MLS: New York-DC United, FSNY, DK, HDNet
2:00pm: ESP: Real Zaragoza-Betis, GOL
2:30pm: ITA: Cagliari-Torino, FSC
4:00pm: MEX: San Luis, GALA
4:00pm: ESP: Dep. Coruna-Atl. Madrid, GOL
6:00pm: BRA: Santos-Figueirense, GOL
8:00pm: MEX: Tigres-Chivas, TELEF
8:30pm: COL: Ind. Santa Fe-Cucuta, GOL
9:00pm: MLS: Colorado-FC Dallas, FSC
10:00pm: MEX: Atlas-Monterrey, GALA
10:30pm: ITA: Messina-Empoli, GOL

SUNDAY, Oct. 28
9:00am: ITA: Catania-Lazio, FSC
9:00am: ITA: Udinese-Inter Milan, GOL
11:00am: ENG: Reading-Arsenal, FSC
11:00am: ESP: Valencia-Osasuna, GOL
1:00pm: MLS: Chicago-New England, ABC
1:00pm: ENG: Tottenham-West Ham, FSC
1:00pm: UNI: Toluca-Santos, UNI
3:00pm: ARG: Racing-Boca Juniors, FSC
3:00pm: ITA: AC Milan-Palermo, GOL
4:00pm: MLS: Chivas USA-Houston, ESPN2
5:00pm: MEX: Club America-Toluca, TELEF
7:00pm: COL: Atl. Nacional-Pasto, GOL

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