The seeds of the pain felt by D.C. United and Seattle on Sunday were sown by actions and decisions taken before the matches in Houston and southern California.
It wasn't the oft-cited health problems caused by a glut of games that undid both sides, though Seattle could certainly make an argument in its particular case and both teams played with one fewer day to rest. Sure, the compressed schedule and the ridiculous physical demands placed on squads ill-equipped to cope with the additional burden contributed to the eventual problems. Any observer watching the procession of tattered players trudging off the BBVA Compass Stadium field on Sunday afternoon could see the impact of the fixture list. Missing starters – and such a designation truly does not sum up what the integral Mauro Rosales means to Sounders FC or what the talismanic Dwayne De Rosario means to D.C. United even in its currently revamped state – affect the game and limit its technical qualities, but injuries happen at the end of a long season. They are part and parcel of working under the strain of a protracted campaign.
Yet the primary tactical concerns faced by the two defeated clubs on Sunday were largely caused by two players momentarily incapable of controlling their emotions earlier in the postseason. D.C. United right back Andy Najar earned his walking papers in the first leg of the New York series and a spot on the sidelines for the Eastern Conference championship for petulantly chucking the ball at a referee. Seattle left back Marc Burch started making alternative plans for the remainder of the postseason after a camera caught him directing a homophobic epithet toward Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson on Thursday night. These actions are not included in the usual problems incurred at this stage of the year. They are missteps directly attributable to lapses in composure and in judgment.
For the sins of others, the remaining players suffered on Sunday. There were, as always, other factors involved in the final accounting. Winning and losing doesn't usually fall on the back of one player. It didn't in these cases, either. Not with referee Ricardo Salazar botching the straightforward dismissal of André Hainault on the stroke of halftime in a match United led 1-0, not with Bobby Boswell later clearing a certain Lionard Pajoy goal off the line and not with the Galaxy firing on all cylinders in the second half a 3-0 win at the Home Depot Center. But the absences of Burch and Najar created frailties to exploit and those weaknesses were ruthlessly exposed time and again until the entire team fell down.
The problem in Houston started with Robbie Russell's lack of pace in Najar's usual spot. Russell is an experienced campaigner and a MLS Cup winner back in 2009 with Real Salt Lake. The 33-year-old right back does his fair bit for the team (see his contribution in the attacking third during the New York series) and knows his way around the game, but he struggles to cope with speedy players capable of turning the corner on him when he isn't perfectly positioned. Perfection, at this stage of the season, is hardly a reasonable expectation. If Daniel Woolard had played a competitive game in the past three months and could have allowed Chris Korb to flip to the right side, then United coach Ben Olsen probably wouldn't have attempted to demand it.
Houston coach Dominic Kinnear understood United's potential issues in that department and used the quandaries to his advantage. He started in his usual 4-4-2 formation at the outset, but he transitioned to a 4-3-3 setup as the match progressed to place Mac Kandji right into Russell's usual operating theater. Kandji doesn't usually offer the final touch in front of goal, but he always supplies the pace necessary to unsettle defenders. Giles Barnes' unanticipated first-half arrival added another left-sided option willing and able to turn the corner.
By funneling the ball into down the left flank and relying on pace to hamper Russell's ability to recover, the Dynamo created instability in United's back four. Every time Russell got caught out for pace or ventured too far upfield, Dejan Jakovic or Brandon McDonald would have to shift over to provide cover. The resulting shuffle to fill in the gaps ultimately left holes United couldn't plug. Houston's second goal – Barnes finding the freedom to turn Jakovic on the edge of the penalty area, reach the end line and fire the effort that Joe Willis pushed right into Will Bruin's path – perfectly captured the issue at hand all afternoon and showed how a team could harp on one weakness to unsettle a previously stout side.
Seattle helped Los Angeles to present a second example of the same pattern after Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid inserted Zach Scott for Burch. Scott is a versatile, veteran defender who has played well at times for Seattle this season, but he isn't a natural left back. He was, however, the simplest and most reasonable choice to play there with Leo Gonzalez still unavailable. Schmid grasped the potential problem on the board (and, to be fair, Burch or Gonzalez wouldn't have solved it entirely, either) and inserted the previously out-of-favor Alex Caskey to accommodate for it. Caskey made a wonderful clearance off the line to limit the damage suffered during the second half, but his industry did not solve the problems presented by fielding a left back more used to featuring on the right or in the middle.
Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena deployed the right personnel to exacerbate the issue. Arena chose Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane up front (Edson Buddle's omission from the squad made the transition to the most potent duo possible an easy one) and kept the faith with the out-of-form Christian Wilhelmsson on the right. He also trusted Sean Franklin to overlap as usual to provide width when Wilhelmsson tucked inside to combine with the front two.
The sheer numbers – plus Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's inability to offer support in a meaningful way for much of the night – often left Scott flummoxed by the Galaxy's movement. Donovan or Keane would drop into a wider area to combine with Wilhelmsson at points. Wilhelmsson – as part of perhaps his best performance in a Galaxy shirt – would try to burrow his way into the pocket of space between Hurtado and Scott to partner with Donovan and Keane in more dangerous locations. Franklin would surge into the area to stretch the field horizontally. When Seattle attempted to shift over to bolster the numbers, it suffered from the same issues United did and the Galaxy found other fruitful avenues to pursue in the vacated areas.
It came as little surprise when the Galaxy's determined intent to play down the right led to the opener. Franklin crossed, Wilhelmsson flicked, Donovan looped to the back post and Keane headed home. It was a simple and skillful way to accentuate the main talking point of the first half and tip the balance in the home side's favor shortly before the interval.
The deficit and the uncertainty on the left side stretched Seattle's shape in the second half. Los Angeles found room everywhere because Sounders FC failed to stay compact from back to front in a quest to equalize or reduce the space available to the Galaxy when the home side won the ball. As Parke told reporters in the post-game reckoning, the final tally could have hit a higher number than three if not for some desperate defending at the right times.
That it didn't ensured that Seattle – and United, by its ability to keep its deficit to two after the 3-1 defeat in Houston – will have plenty to play for next weekend. It won't be easy for either trailing side to recover from this sort of hole, but it can be done with a home match still to play. It just isn't a simple road to travel against such formidable and seasoned competition.
Perhaps the most painful part about the slog ahead for both sides is the knowledge that one of the proximate causes of the impending toil arose through sheer indiscipline. Some factors – bounces, conditions, injuries and referees – remain outside the purview of control of a team on the given day. Other factors do not. Not having control in the first place is difficult enough to handle. Squandering it through intemperate actions and watching a season pushed to the brink due in part to the avoidable personal failings of one man? It just makes the inevitable torture found on the way to defeat or success all the more difficult to handle.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.