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Jerry's World

Shortsighted playoff scheduling gave Chicago Fire edge in MLS Cup '98.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, October 27, 1998) -- Major League Soccer has no one to blame but itself for the scheduling mismatch that occurred in MLS Cup '98.

It's good to see top brass is eyeing a change for next year.

(Washington) D.C. United played in the title game after a Wednesday night match -- brought about because Columbus Crew extended the Eastern Conference finals to the full three games. Chicago Fire, meanwhile, unexpectedly swept the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference finals. It thus had been off since the previous Friday, yielding a five-day rest advantage.

The situation could easily have occurred during the first two years as well. The only thing that prevented it were conference finals' sweeps in both 1996 and 1997. In fact, during one of the years, a third game would have been held on a Thursday.

MLS now is talking about extending the season into early November to guarantee that finalists will have at least a week off -- and that most if not all playoff games will be on weekends.

That's good. It also should provide good crowds and will avoid the World Series hoopla in the media -- besides, most importantly, providing for two rested teams.

Incidentally, anyone notice the strong crowds for the conference finals as well as MLS Cup '98? In fact, playoff attendance set a record at 17,855, compared with 16,014 in 1997 and 17,673 in 1996.

MLS vice president Joe Machnik isn't apologizing for the officiating in MLS Cup '98.

He defends referee Kevin Terry for two controversial decisions:

1. Marco Etcheverry of D.C. United was tripped by Lubos Kubik on the left side of the penalty box in the fourth minute. "He was in good position to see the play," Machnik said. "He didn't think it was a severe enough foul for warrant a penalty kick. Another referee might have called one; another referee might not have. It's a judgment call, and I have no problem with it."

2. Ante Razov of Chicago Fire being in an offside position on Chicago's second goal in the 45th minute. "The question is did Razov interfere with or screen the goalie (Tom Presthus). The goalkeeper was already reacting to his left when the shot (by Peter Nowak) deflects off Diego Gutierrez, and goes to his right. There's no way he could have gotten the ball. No advantage was gained by Razov being there. In fact, he made an effort to get out of the way of the ball. If the ball had struck him, that's different. An offside would have been called."

Some thoughts on MLS Cup '98:

* If Chicago and D.C. United met 10 times, D.C. United would probably win seven, possible eight. But don't forget that Fire midfielder Peter Nowak, the best player in MLS when healthy, played just 25 minutes during the two regular-season losses (by a cumulative 7-2 score) due to a knee injury. And wing Roman Kosecki was not at full strength Sunday due to a lingering hamstring.

* Roy Lassiter needs to develop an effective header to be a force on the United States national team. He was way off target against the Fire, and very few of his goals during the season came in the air. His explosive speed combined with improvement in the aerial game could put him strongly back in the national team picture.

* If Jorge Campos had been the Fire goalkeeper, D.C. United probably would have had at least one goal, maybe two. Zach Thornton still needs work on his footwork and judgment, especially on corner kicks into the penalty area, but his fearlessness and every-game improvement is a big asset. So is his size -- 6-foot-3, 210 pounds -- especially compared with Campos' slight build of 5-6, 150.

* D.C. United midfielder John Harkes, a martyred cut by then-U.S. coach Steve Sampson before the World Cup who has revived his off-the-field image in recent months, had the best comment about MLS Cup '98: "They (Fire) got their chances and put them in the net . . . Everyone's talking about the controversy of their goals . . . But that's the game . . . You deal with it and play on . . . It was not meant to be . . ."

* Doesn't Chris Armas, 26, deserve a shot at the U.S. national team as a defensive midfielder? He neutralized Marco Etcheverry in MLS Cup '98. Summed up Chicago coach Bob Bradley: "Chris Armas is a great player . . . We sometimes miss players of this type when we focus on the (heralded stars of MLS) but he brings our entire team together with the little things he does throughout the game."

The United States Soccer Federation has contacted CONCACAF (Confederations of North America, Caribbean, Central America) officials to determine his eligibility. He has played two matches for the Puerto Rico national team, believed not to be FIFA-sanctioned.

* Why are so-called experts dismissive of the Fire, calling them defensive-oriented? The Chicago Bulls are praised for their defensive play in winning six NBA titles the last decade. The Fire relies on the counterattack -- as does practically every team in Major League Soccer. And when was the last time the U.S. national team didn't emphasize the counterattack against a quality opponent?

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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