3796: MLS Play-offs: Conference Semi
by : Bill Urban
"There was a feeling amongst the players that we were just going to play the season out." Anxious to ensure that the rest of the league programme didn't degenerate into a series of glorified friendlies, Cronin set the goal of finishing ahead of next to bottom Bray Wanderers. With three league games remaining, that target is still on the radar. They currently sit just two points behind the Wicklow club.
But for some bizarre officiating at Dalymount Park last month, when referee Paul McKeon overruled his assistant’s offside flag in the build-up to a Bohs equaliser, Waterford would probably have Bray in their rear view mirror. "I had no problem with the referee allowing that goal," Cronin surprisingly says.
It was the red cards shown to Alan Cawley and Ger McCarthy for their angry reactions to the mix-up that vexed him most.
“What did he (McKeon) expect?" asks Cronin rhetorically. "It was a very controversial decision, albeit correct. He should have just walked away and let the players have their rant.”
Cronin doesn’t do tired clichs about incompetent officials, but he is nonetheless frustrated by the level of protection afforded to them.
“I can be criticised and players can be criticised but generally referees aren't. It's about time that changed,” says the man famed for his straight-talking. “There still seems to be a layer or protection that I don’t agree with at all.”
The eventual 3-1 defeat to Bohs was one of only three suffered by Waterford in the last two months.
There has been no magic formula though. If Waterford had a point for every mention Cronin makes of hard work and organisation the club would be celebrating its first championship in 33 years.
"I'm not one for quick fixes", he maintains. "Next year the aim is mid-table, if we're in the Premier League, and we will build from there." For a club that must have Jimmy Savile on speed-dial it will come as a relief to hear their manager talking the language of pragmatism.
"Every year you finish higher will mean attracting better players to the club. That's the only way you can do it."
Not that he wants to immediately dispense with the services of many of the current crop.
Despite arriving in the South East expecting to "release everyone and start from scratch" Cronin admits to being surprised with the quality of the squad he inherited. "Next season, I will be keeping nine to ten of the players I have at the moment. I think they have a great chance of developing into top class players."
He insists that his retention of their services is not economically motivated. Cronin and the club's management committee are on the same wavelength in their pursuit of a common goal. "The management committee are very open to change and to anything I suggest," he enthuses. "They are all good blokes…not in anyway poisoned by the history of the league."
Cronin has a clear idea of where he sees the combined effort ultimately taking Waterford United. He believes that an Irish club will make the leap to the group stages of a European competition “definitely within four of five years." When pushed on who that club will be, for the only time during our conversation, Cronin betrays his assertion that he is not a dreamer.
He reels off the standard list before making one surprising appendage. "Maybe Waterford," he adds, half in jest and half in hope about where the gradual raising of expectations can ultimately take his “good old fashioned football club.” If the only thing standing between Waterford United and success is a need for hard work then that prediction may not be as far-fetched as it appears.
The storm clouds are lifting.
Were I possessed of enough character to be so inclined, I might credit Major League Soccer with an interesting experiment. This year’s play-offs, and I believe those from last year as well, do not count away goals as double. There appears to be a growing movement in European football to re-examine the validity of rewarding goals scored away from home with double points in the event of a tied aggregate scoreline.
I am firmly convinced that those in charge of the actual decision at MLS had no clue about this sort of thing; in fact, they might well not understand the concept of “away goals double” at all. But it does make for an interesting backdrop to the play-offs in both the semifinals and conference final matches.
DC United went to that horrid, field-turfed Giants Stadium shell passing as the semblance of an acceptable football venue and won 1-0, on a fine piece of crisp passing interplay between the two maestros Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez. However, in the MLS play-offs, if the New York Red Bulls were to go to R.F.K. Stadium next Sunday and defeat United 2-1 in regulation, they would not win the tie. Instead, the match would go to 30 minutes of overtime, followed by penalties if the aggregate scores are not broken.
In other words, in that hypothetical scenario, the Red Bulls mythical two away goals would mean nothing more than United’s one scored on the pool table at Giants Stadium. Not certain how I feel about that, although since it is the play-offs, an inevitable heightening of tension follows a match going into over-time. But then, if the league accepts that home field is in some fashion an advantage, something to have been “gained” by better performance than the opposition during the regular season, failing to reward a team for battling against this perceived advantage by counting away goals as double seems inconsistent.
FC Dallas did even better than United, going to Denver and winning 2-1 at altitude against the Colorado Rapids. FCD’s first goal was a combination of outright cheeky slyness, otherwise known as cheating, and lethal finishing from Carlos Ruiz. A clear handball helped the roll of the ball into his run, from where it was coolly slotted past a sprawling Joe Cannon, outing FCD in front 1-0. Colorado rode this blow to their confidence well and bravely, creating several fine chances that their Argentine striker Niko Hernandez spurned, before drawing level from Terry Cooke in the 23rd minute. After several good chances, and the interval, FC Dallas took the lead again with a fine goal, a raking long pass from Ronnie O’Brien deftly settled and lashed past Cannon by Abe Thompson. For all their chances, the Rapids could not draw level, in addition seeing striker Thiago Martins issued his walking papers for a blatant elbow to the chest of beanpole FCD defender Clarence Goodison.
The failure to count away goals as double seems even more blatant in this match than in the United/ Red Bulls tie. Traveling in altitude, weathering a storm of home attacks, and tackles bordering on the anti-social, yet coming away with two well-taken goals will mean precisely nothing if Colorado gets an own-goal in next Saturday’s match at Pizza Hut Park.
In the third semifinal of the first round, Steve Nicol’s New England Revolution made their return leg at Gillette Stadium a difficult prospect, losing 1-0 at Chicago. The Fire scored from a blistering Justin Mapp free kick, helped by the fact that the Revs in keeper Matt Reis’s wall ducked out of the way of Mapp’s shot.
Nicol and chief assistant Paul Mariner will be less than pleased watching that on the video, one can be certain. The Revs had chances to equalize, but failed to do so, and key playmaker Clint Dempsey came off with a mysterious injury in the 82nd minute, helping their chances not a bit. The Revs have every chance to set things right in the return leg, but the Fire went to New England twice during the regular season and came away with three points both times, so they will be confident of getting the necessary result in six days.
The last match of the semifinal first round was the pick of the lot, Chivas USA taking on the Houston Dynamo on an atrocious, sandy Home Depot Center surface. Thankfully, both teams managed to deal with the horrible playing condition of the turf, and put together some fine passing moves and intricate dribbling. Chivas scored their two goals from wickedly effective re-starts, a precise Ante Razov and a powerful header from ex-Mexican international Paco Palencia.