Friday, November 02, 2007

Salary cap Sports and the Playoffs

So DC United fell in the playoffs to the Chicago Fire once again, this time losing 3-2 in total goals. The best regular season team in MLS fell to the #8 seeded side in MLS. Yes, I know that a #16 can knock off a #1 in the NCAA tournament, but when the regular season record for United against the Fire was 1-0-2, how does a club just fold like it did over two games? It folds because the best team wasn’t allowed to truly be fielded in either match, and that is Tom Soehn’s fault.

Let me first say that I think that Coach Tom Soehn did a great job with DC United this season. He was able to get the club through to the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup; correct the early season funk that United started the season with; was correct in sending a group of reserves to the USOC; steered the club to the semi finals of the North American SuperLiga; made a real match of the two legged CONMEBOL Copa Nissan Sudamericana series with CD Guadalajara; and won the MLS Supporters Shield which qualified United for both the SuperLiga and Champions Cup next year.

Coach Tom Soehn has done a great job in his first season as head coach. At the end, he stumbled a bit and that stumble did not allow United to really do anything in the playoffs. He stumbled because he was trying to manage the club in soccer, rather than manage the club in salary cap soccer. Salary cap soccer, especially in the playoffs, is a much different beast.

To say that I am blaming Tom Soehn for how United was knocked out of the playoffs is not 100% correct, I mostly blame the players for not showing up. However, I do blame coach Soehn for not managing the club properly at the end of the regular season. I blame him because he didn’t protect his players once the Supporters Shield and the “home field advantage” was secured.

To think of it in an other way, in the NFL, you never, ever see Payton Manning in an end of the season game when the Colts have secured home field advantage in the NFL Playoffs. If he does make an appearance, he maybe plays one or two offensive series, but never the entire game. He is held out to ensure that he doesn’t pick up any type of injury that would prevent him from playing in the playoffs, which is when the real NFL season begins.

Take that to MLS soccer. The regular season does “count” with the Supporters Shield. The club with the best regular season is recognized as the regular season champion and get one of the two berths into the CONCACAF Champions Cup. So after United secured the Eastern Conference regular season title, in the scheme of the Supporters Shield race, it made sense for Soehn to keep Gomez, Emillio, Fred and Moreno (while not on Bolivian National team duty) in the line up. That said, the minute United secured the Supporters Shield, those guys, along with Ben Olsen and Troy Perkins should have been sent to the dressing room and only allowed to train lightly during the week. They should have never been allowed to play in the final match of the regular season.

As we all know, they all did. Our two main offensive players, Moreno & Emillio, both picked up injuries in the final match against the Columbus Crew. To add insult to injury, is there any way that anyone cannot believe that getting burned for three goals didn’t do anything to Troy’s mental approach to the playoffs? How else did the loss to the Crew affect the rest of the starting line up? The way our defense played against Chicago makes me think it had a small affect.

So heading into a knock out series with the Fire, we had our two starting forwards on the treatment table, when if they had just been held out of the final regular season game, they could have started in Chicago. This is why in salary cap sports, you hold out your star players before the playoffs.

The biggest reason is because in salary cap sports, you spend so much to get the primary guy (Emillio) that you have very little to spend on the guy next in line on the depth chart, so you buy who you can get (Kpene), rather than who you would want. The drop off from Emillio to Kpene is huge, as we saw in Chicago. The next guy in line (Adderly) is just about as much a drop off from Emillio as Kpene is. It’s not like in the Premier league where is Chelsea doesn’t start Drogba, they can start Sheva or in La Liga when van Nistelrooy wants a breather, Real Madrid just inserts Saviola into the starting line up. MLS doesn’t have that type of depth. In order to adjust, Soehn should have kept most of our starting line up out of the Crew match.

Hopefully, Coach Soehn and the rest of the United coaching staff learn from this. Next season is already in the minds of United supporters and hopefully we will see the same type of coaching adjustments that we saw earlier in this last season. The current format for the MLS playoffs needs to be tackled as an entirely different beast than the regular season. Once the regular season goals are accomplished, the coaching staff really needs to insert the reserves and get the first team focused on the playoffs.

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