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It Seems To Me . . .

Crucial MLS playoff games in Columbus, Dallas went virtually unnoticed.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, November 10, 1999) -- As we get ready for the climatic third games in each of Major League Soccer's conference finals, I thought it might be a good time to throw out some random thoughts I have had about the league and these playoffs.

Readers of this column know I often accuse MLS of seemingly going out of its way to shoot itself in the foot. But, during this playoff season, I have been positively squeamish watching it cripple itself, toe by toe. I commented two weeks ago that attendance at playoff games in the first round was an embarrassment. In the second round it has been worse, if anything.

Last weekend, in what arguably were the most important matches in both Columbus Crew and Dallas Burn franchise histories, the two Sunday afternoon contests -- played in perfect weather the two clubs could draw home crowds of only 12,778 and 13,816, respectively.

The league has locked itself into television contracts that demanded that playoff games be played on Sunday, in the middle of National Football League season. Everyone seems to agree the Sunday scheduling has cost thousands in attendance. It also has meant that key playoff matches can only be seen on cable systems and fully enjoyed only by Spanish-speaking viewers of Univision.

Since the column two weeks ago, I have received e-mail from fans in Dallas, Los Angeles and Columbus all saying much the same thing. They complain that the three teams, the Burn, the Crew and the Los Angeles Galaxy have done little to promote or advertise the days and times of playoff matches. Since the scheduling seems to be made no more than a week in advance, is it any wonder the teams are not able to market the playoff matches?

Take, for instance, the third Galaxy-Burn match being played tomorrow night because UCLA has a football game in the Rose Bowl on Saturday. Most of the promotional materials coming out of MLS offices until a week ago had the match being played on Saturday or Sunday as other playoff matches have been.

Galaxy officials and MLS should have known two years ago that UCLA was scheduled to play on November 13 at home in the Rose Bowl. That is when the game was scheduled. It should have been clear from the day Los Angeles gained home field advantage in the playoffs that a third game, if necessary, would have to be played on Thursday. All releases should have said this. I would assume there are going to more than a few Galaxy fans who won't be there on Thursday because they were planning on a Saturday or Sunday match.

On Sunday, I asked a number of fans in the stands in Columbus, why not a sellout. Interestingly many of the answers were the same. Those in attendance were the Crew's "hardcore" fans. The others, who made up the Crew's average of more than 17,000, are what both former MLS commissioner Doug Logan and his successor Don Garber call the "casual" fans. To lure them you have to market to them, and there has been little marketing of the playoffs in the playoff cities.

I am a big fan of D.C. United coach Thomas Rongen. I think he has done a terrific job this season keeping United on track and winning despite a rash of injuries and players missing dozens of matches because of national team commitments.But I think Rongen blundered in last Sunday's match at Columbus.

With Eddie Pope injured, Rongen elected to start striker A.J. Wood in the second half and switched from a four-back to a three-back alignment. This meant that United's three backs had to man-mark Columbus' speedy forwards. They were generally ineffectual, and Columbus raced to a 5-1 win.

I thought Rongen should have brought defender Geoff Aunger in instead, and stayed with a four back defense. Rongen disagreed. "It was the right thing to do," he told me with two days of hindsight to have reconsidered. "They were playing three backs and pushing up their midfielders putting too much pressure on us. I thought using three forwards would force them to drop back a couple of their midfielders and take some of the pressure off. With less pressure we could have gotten into our offense. It didn't happen. Our man to man defending was poor. But I would do exactly the same thing again."

I now think I have seen the single worst call, and job, by a referee in MLS this season. As I was waiting for a plane back from Columbus I watched the final 10 minutes or so, and the shootout, in the Dallas-Los Angeles match on Sunday. I think referee Ricardo Valenzuela, known fondly - or not so fondly - around the league as "Red Card Richard" turned a shootout into a fiasco for the second time in a month.

In the shootout's sixth round, the Galaxy's Paul Caligiuri pushed the ball well in front of himself and Burn goalkeeper Matt Jordan came out fast to try to get to the ball first. Caligiuri got there first and got off a shot which went wide. Jordan's momentum then carried him into Caligiuri and Valenzuela immediately pointed to the penalty spot. The penalty shot was converted and the shootout went on to a seventh round.

This was, in my opinion, an inexplicably bad call. Two things might have happened. Valenzuela might have thought Jordan handled the ball outside the penalty area. If so (and the television replay showed pretty clearly he had not), the penalty shot would have been warranted. But if this was the call, then it was mandated that Jordan be shown a red card. No card was given.

So I can only assume the penalty was given for the contact. But Caligiuri had already taken the shot and the contact came after the shot. It was not a case of the shooter trying to put the ball past the keeper, and the keeper obstructing him. Caligiuri shot, could not have caught up with the ball with a rocket strapped to his back, and then was hit. Under the rules of the shootout, clearly no foul. With Caligiuri's miss, Dallas should have won the game there.

In the previous round, Dallas' Jorge Rodriguez put the ball around Galaxy keeper Kevin Hartman, raced to catch up with the ball, faked a shot and then rolled it into the net. It seemed clear that the linesman keeping time on the shootout clocked stopped the clock when Rodriguez faked, and not when he actually shot.

Galaxy officials say they timed the shot off the videotape four times and the quickest Rodriguez got the shot off was in 5.2 seconds. It should not have counted, but Valenzuela would hear none of it.

On September 11, with the final spot in the playoffs on the line, the New England Revolution played the Miami Fusion in Fort Lauderdale. With the Revolution holding a 2-0 lead in the shootout, Valenzuela red carded Revs goalkeeper Jeff Causey for fouling Welton in the box on the Fusion's second try. New England was forced to put striker Joe-Max Moore in the nets, he could stop nothing, and Miami went on to win the tiebreaker. The loss may well have cost New England a playoff berth.

MLS gives numerous awards. If they gave one for worst call of the year, awarding Caligiuri the penalty shot would get my vote.

By the way, showing that MLS vice president for game operations Joe Machnik and United States Soccer Federation director of officials Esse Baharmast have a wonderful sense of humor, Valenzuela has been assigned to the DC United-Columbus Crew third match. Given Columbus vow to repeat their "aggressive" play of last Sunday, when they came within one foul of setting a league record, it will be interesting, to say the least, watching Valenzuela at work.

A lot has been written in recent weeks that Dallas Jason Kreis should be the League's "Most Valuable Player" this year. As far as I am concerned, Burn coach David Dir voted on Sunday when he took Kreis out in the 88th minute of the tie game and inserted John Jairo Trellez. He explained later his reasoning that Kreis just doesn't do well in the shootout. Kreis is said to have "philosophical differences with the concept of shootouts."

OK, I have no problem with that. But any coach would want the ball on the foot of the league's MVP in the last two minutes. Against the Galaxy, as it has been for the last two months, Dir's go-to guy was Ariel Graziani, in my book, who is not only Dallas' best player, but along with the Crew's Stern John, MLS's best player.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at

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