Tough road for Houston
Taking on LA at home
Expect to see stars
The Power Rank uses past results to determine what is likely to happen in future matches. In that spirt, we’ll look back at the MLS Conference Finals to gain some insight into what will happen in the MLS Cup Final because they demonstrated a lot about the class of teams in MLS.
Starting in the Eastern Conference Final, the Houston Dynamo (#4) emerged victorious with a 2-0 win in Kansas City (#3). As someone with ties to both Houston and St. Louis, I was quite pleased with the result. However, the match itself was not a particularly great one. Relatively few good chances were created, with KC usually being contented with crosses into the box. Dynamo playmaker Brad Davis went down in a physical first half, but Houston stayed in the match by being compact in defense. Neither side really demonstrated a strong ability to possess and move the ball at will. In the end, even without Davis, Houston was still able to score off set-pieces while each side was unable to score when they had numbers in the box. In fact, Sporting Kansas City’s next best chances were off poor back-passes by Houston. While SKC’s season ended, they are a young team with a strong offense, so expect more from them next year.
Meanwhile out west, Real Salt Lake (#5) travelled to the Home Depot Center to take on the top ranked LA Galaxy (#1). This game captured how the various numbers that we use in the Power Rank relate to what’s going on on the pitch. First, the half a goal advantage for the home team was on full display on the Galaxy’s opening goal, which came from Landon Donovan by way of the penalty spot following a foul on Omar Gonzalez. The foul was definitely soft, and a significant portion of home field advantage is due to referee bias. Perhaps that was the case here, but fortunately, this was the only time the ref played a significant role in this game. What we got to witness for the rest of the game was a good team taking on a great one.
Here at the Power Rank, we consider that either team could win any game, so the objective of the rank is try to understand which team has the advantage. In soccer, advantage amounts to creating and finishing chances, while denying the other side the same opportunities. Quantifying a “good chance” is very difficult, but we can use human intuition in concert with the quantitative rankings to help understand the game. Prior to the frenetic finish, Salt Lake City had four really good chances. Three came off set pieces, with Alvaro Saborio scoring a nice header while Josh Saunders did well to block a short range effort that fell to Robbie Russell. Kyle Beckerman also hit the post after a set-piece scrum, while Fabian Espindola did the same following a good individual effort in the box. Had they converted all four chances, they would have won the game. However, it speaks to the difficulty of finishing in professional soccer that four goals is an unusually large tally, so while possible, scoring all four in would be an improbable event.
While it’s clear that Real Salt Lake is a good team, it’s telling that Galaxy striker Robbie Keane had five good chances just himself; more than RSL generated as a team in the first 80 minutes. Unfortunately for Salt Lake City, starting center back Nat Borchers was out while partner Jamison Olave was injured and not at 100%. That said, the real difference in this match was the play in the midfield. LA did an excellent job of working the ball through their midfield into good attacking positions. The forwards had support on the wings and through the center, resulting in many good chances for the Galaxy. In fact, the one fault in their game was poor finishing. RSL was not able to match this level of play, and were unable to effectively remove pressure from their back line. Their main problem was a lack of linking up between Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. Beckerman had a good game and played well on the ball, but couldn’t establish a rhythm with Morales, who often would up drifting wide. Instead, their attack revolved around getting the ball up to Espindola and letting him try to take on several defenders without support. In fact, aside from the first leg against Seattle (#2), Real Salt Lake has been unable to replicate their midfield partnership that was so effective last season.
So what did we learn from the conference finals? Well, the first thing is that Sporting Kansas City is not one of the elite teams in MLS. While good, this young side still has some growing to do and needs to resolve some defensive issues. We also learned that Real Salt Lake is not the same team they were last year. Certainly having Morales absent for most of the season was a significant loss, but he has yet to be the impact player he was before his injury. Only time will tell if this is temporary. Most definitely though, the LA Galaxy are firmly established as the class of MLS. They are 0.11 goals better than the second ranked Sounders, or put another way, they are over 10% better than the next best team based on the range of rankings.
Looking ahead to the MLS Cup Final, we’ll have Houston at Los Angeles. That’s right: at. While the final rotates between MLS cities, this year it takes place at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. This makes the Galaxy 0.76 goal favorites to lift the MLS Cup. Win or lose though, it is highly unlikely the Dynamo could win by a large enough margin to overtake LA in the rankings, or even match Seattle to join the elite. So in the end, credit to the LA Galaxy for having a great season and setting the pace in Major League Soccer.