3778: Manchester United – Ferguson G
by : Kieran McHugh
Interlude: The Supporter’s Shield is awarded to the MLS side with the most points after the last round of regular season matches. The award carries plenty of street-cred among hard core MLS supporter circles, and also entitles the winner to participate in the following year’s CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. The merit of the Supporter’s Shield always remains slightly suspect, however, since the league’s conference format and scheduling can allow a team with a weak side or two in the same conference to run up a huge point total from the four conference matches against a crap side while teams in a more balanced conference take points off each other. Nevertheless, the Supporter’s Shield does represent both another trophy for United and also the ticket to international competition next year, two huge pluses for MLS sides. And given United’s poor run of form at the end of the regular season, that may well be the DC club’s last award of the 2006 season.
Resumption: United and the Red Bulls are bitter rivals, the relative closeness of the two franchises in American terms meaning that supporters frequently travel to away matches, a comparatively rare US soccer supporter experience, and the tension is heightened this year with ex-US National Team Manager, and ex DC United coach Bruce Arena coming to town in charge of the arch enemy.
United boss Peter Nowak, an ex-Polish international, has stuck in characteristic stubborn fashion to his 3-5-2 system of play and a religious devotion to possession and ball circulation, even as opposing MLS sides look to have figured out that the way to defeat United is to pull them onto you in your own half, then hit the United back three, not the paciest group of defenders, on the quick counter-attack. Bruce Arena has the players to give United trouble, in particular the enormous, powerful and talented 16 year-old Josmer Altidore, a player with several US U-17 appearances already under his belt. Look for this semifinal to go down to injury-time in R.F. K. During the second-leg.
Perhaps the most closely balanced semifinal tie is the second Eastern Conference tie between New England and the Chicago Fire. After a slow start to the 2006 season, the Fire enter the play-offs on a strong regular season end run, playing well organized, tight defending and rapier-like counter-attacking soccer. The Revs enter the tie on the back of a fine 2-1 away win at United, with US international Clint Dempsey playing some fine football, apparently on a mission to prove to the league, and perhaps to European observers, that his oft-stated ambition to leave MLS for pastures on the other side of the pond is a desire he wants to see fulfilled post-haste.
In the Western Conference, to the delight of supporters everywhere except Los Angeles, the league’s “flagship franchise” failed to qualify for the league play-offs for the first time, a horrible start to the season putting the Galaxy too far behind the other Western Conference sides for coach Frank Yallop, brought in to replace Steve Sampson, to make up the necessary ground.
FC Dallas are top seeds in the West, playing a semifinal against the Colorado Rapids. In the same way that DC United are in very real danger of losing their semifinal, FC Dallas look very vulnerable in the match-up against Colorado, the Rapids heavy tackling and speedy forwards and wide midfielders looking like just the set-up to rip the fragile Dallas back four apart on the counter-attack. The first leg of this semifinal is the key; should FC Dallas be able to nip a draw or even a one-goal defeat at high altitude in Denver, the return leg in front of their home support should see them through to the conference final.
The other semifinal sees the Houston Dynamo matching up against CD Chivas USA, the 2005 expansion team who finished dead last in the league in total points turning things round to the point of qualifying for the play-offs as the third seed in the West. The Dynamo look to have too much power and pace for the wily but ancient Chivas central defensive pairing of ex-Mexican international Claudio Suarez and ex-US international Carlos Llamosa. Chivas does have the Ante Razov wild card to play, however, a match-winning player capable of sneaking goals from nothing.
Eight of twelve teams in an extended MLS play-off lottery, surely too many sides, but four semifinal match-ups that all look capable of providing tense, interesting, and hopefully skillful soccer for the league supporters’ collective viewing pleasure.At the start of the season the received wisdom was that Liverpool would provide the sternest test to the Champions. Steady progress on Merseyside had the Red half believing that Benitez had found the ingredients to finally serve up a longed for 19th title. Arsenal’s progress to the Champions League final in Paris was offered as evidence that they too were capable of mounting a serious challenge.
With the midfield conundrum seemingly not solved, little mention was made of the other candidates. Surely by now we should all have learned not to write off Manchester United.
The signing of Michael Carrick was, in most opinions, the start not the end of the rebuilding of United’s midfield. Carrick, as good a passer as any in the Premiership, is not the enforcer that Fergie had with Keane in his pomp. It was thought that more dynamism was required, preferably in the shape of Bayern and England man Owen Hargreaves before Manchester United would be a genuine threat.
This assessment overlooks one piece of the Manchester United jigsaw that is going to be the most difficult to replace when the time comes. Sir Alex Ferguson keeps something of a low profile these days, compared at least to the presence in the English game that he once held. Perhaps time is taking its toll on one of English football’s greatest managers. Perhaps he has slipped down the pecking order whilst others such as Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have taken over.
This past week Mourinho has taken on the might of Reading Football club and the Ambulance Service in an ill thought out rant that deflected from a genuine concern for the safety of some in the game. That Mourinho’s views have been roundly contradicted by something as rudimentary as a set of facts won’t be of concern to the Portuguese.
Arsene Wenger decided that the state of a pitch in Moscow during the winter should be looked at by UEFA. Again, he may well have a point, but in accepting the invitation to join the Champions League Arsenal opened themselves up to the vagaries of the draw whereupon his team is asked to play a series of matches against some of Europe’s lesser lights before moving inexorably on to the knockout phase. A pesky hindrance, but if the millions are to roll in someone has to cough them up.
Amongst all this, Fergie’s largely self imposed media exile looks to be a masterstroke of sorts. Whether this allows Ferguson more time to deal with concerns on the pitch is a moot point, but it certainly stops him from getting caught up in the media’s burning issue du jour. So what does Fergie see when he looks at his squad and evaluates his Championship bid?
It is an oft quoted maxim that Championships are built on sound defences. In goal van der Saar is amongst the best in the business. Having settled at Old Trafford rather better than some of Sir Alex’s other goalkeepers of times past, the Dutchman is rock solid and keeps gaffes to a minimum.
In front of him the likes of Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Rio Ferdinand provide the English core that has been the hallmark of United’s great sides under Ferguson. Think Parker, Pallister and Bruce. Alongside those, Ferguson has Evra, Vidic, Heinze, (when he returns to full fitness), as well as Silvestre and O’Shea if and when called upon.
When it comes to a first choice Ferguson would maybe plump for Neville and Heinze at full back with Ferdinand and Vidic in the centre. With the opportunities to pick a first choice team limited, title chances are dictated more and more by the back up available. Although having only recently added Evra and Vidic, it’s possible that United are still a little light on defensive cover.
In midfield, where there was once a concern, United now look to have a wealth of options. The magical Ronaldo would get into any side in the world on current form. Allowing for the winger to have some freedom on the left usually means keeping the opposite flank tighter. When Ronaldo plays Ferguson can look to any of Giggs, Park, Richardson or O’Shea.