Murphy's Law: "Just When You Think You've Seen It All

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MURPHY'S LAW
This edition: "Just When You Think You've Seen It All"

"The Rapids' 1-1 draw vs. arch-rivals Real Salt Lake on Saturday night was surreal in its cruelty to the players on the pitch coaches on the sideline and the fans in the stands.
The result was certainly undeserved based on the night’s performance by the Rapids. If you look at other sports rule changes over the years have tried to give the advantage to the team that is in ascension to the team that is aggressively trying to win the match. Whether it be livening up baseball for more run production implementing the three point line to open up sagging defenses in basketball or the tuck rule to protect the quarterback in American football most sports have tried to remove the spectre of sitting back and waiting for the clock to run out.

In our sport for better or worse the powers that be in FIFA have attempted to stay true to the sport's original form. Soccer was created as the "simplest game" back in Victorian England and you can steal a result while using the rules to your advantage. By lying in wait for your opponent you can expose weaknesses in his aggressiveness to your advantage.

It should be said that RSL didn’t necessarily come in with that in mind as a planned tactic. Jason Kreis’s line-up for this penultimate match was actually quite attack-minded personnel-wise. Their 4-5-1 formation was fortified with forward-thinking individuals such as Clint Mathis Kyle Beckerman Ian Joy Will Johnston and Dema Kovelenko.
People can get the misconception that a 4-5-1 is a negative formation but it is the players' and coaches’ interpretation that will determine that. With active players in the midfield the tactic was to overload the midfield and spring attacks off of Movsisyan’s lone striker role. He could hold the ball up giving time to his teammates to join in the attack. In this case RSL were saying "we have come to your place to get three points". It was certainly a bold statement but could they sustain it on the road for 90 minutes?

Despite RSL's courageous mindset it was a stance that the hosts were more than willing to match. So it was the Rapids that connected better in attack moved more fluidly across the pitch and were winning the ball higher up the pitch early on.
The opening 20 minutes of the match reflected both teams’ aggressive attitudes and led to Conor Casey’s goal. With RSL’s team shape pushed up higher defensively there were gaps occurring between Nick Rimando and Real’s center backs. An excellent pass from Jordan Harvey exploited that space behind the RSL back line for a simple but exquisite finish from the big striker.

The first goal was always going to be a key momentum swing in such a game. With the Rapids scoring relatively early both sides had to take stock of what was at stake. For RSL not conceding again before half-time became priority #1. That is why you saw them retreating into a more defensive shell for the remainder of the half. They had enough experienced players on the pitch to understand the situation and slightly modify their tactics until halftime. However when you drop off as a team it does allow the opponent to get more of the ball establish a rhythm and possibly create more chances.

For the Rapids it was obvious they were spurred on and began hunting for the second goal. This represents the positive attitude of Gary Smith and the players on the pitch and one that I agree with completely. With 25 minutes until halftime there was enough time to go after that second goal. The Rapids' mindset was that even if they were caught out and conceded an equalizer there was plenty of time to regroup make needed adjustments and get the goal back.

This shaped the last 25 minutes or so of the first half with RSL soaking up pressure and the Rapids taking control of the match’s tempo. Colorado's chances were created and continually spurned by an active Rimando as halftime approached.
However in the 42nd minute a Mathis header was brilliantly touched onto the post by Bouna Coundoul; a game-saving moment but an eerie reminder that RSL only had to equalize to gain the needed point to qualify at the Rapids' expense. A second Rapids goal would be needed to calm the nerves.
Both teams came out of halftime unchanged a testament to Kreis’s belief in his squad. Many coaches would have changed their shape and/or personnel but he must have seen that changes would only be required if the Rapids scored a second goal early or if it was still 1-0 in the last 15 minutes. Unfortunately for the hosts it was the latter scenario.
As the game drew to a close the second Colorado goal would not come. If this game will teach you anything it is that you have to capitalize on your chances or it will come back to haunt you.
But up until the last five minutes or so RSL really did not look like they were going to penetrate Colorado's defense. RSL used all of their subs and with the speedy Robbie Findely on instead of target-man Kenny Duechar an aerial assault was less of a threat.
However special players make big plays at the most important moments. Andy Williams was involved in two key moments late in the game. The first was on Ugo Ihemelu’s magnificent tackle in the box on a clear scoring chance. It looked to be a game-winning play but instead was a harbinger of things to come.
Minutes later Robbie Russell’s cushioned header was critical but Williams’ confidence to let the ball run across his body rather than take a touch in tight quarters eliminated a potential tackle from Mike Petke. Mike had to pull up or risk taking Andy down for a penalty kick. That space allowed Williams to get an awkward shot off. It was brilliantly saved by Coundoul but the ball broke kindly for Yura Movsisyan and he finished the rebound for the needed equalizer. The ultimate sucker punch.
The post-game scenes were stunning. Despair and joy. Bodies prone on the pitch while others were running wildly in celebration. Tears of pain. Tears of joy. This will be a game that no one will soon forget.
So what conclusions can be taken from such a match? The emotions were (and still are!) running so high post-game that it is very difficult to take it all in. However with some time to reflect I have some random thoughts:

• The Rapids have an amazing core support of fans. To see our fans in tears after the game should motivate everyone in our organization to come back even stronger in 2009. As much as it hurts think about the other teams in the league that had nothing to play for this weekend. These types of games are platforms for future success. I do believe RSL will use this result short term in the 2008 MLS playoffs. However the Rapids will take this setback for long term success and use it as a springboard for 2009.

• Gary Smith and his staff did an excellent job over ten matches. It is disappointing to see the season end the way it did but the coaching staff’s positive influence in the latter part of the season was obvious for all to see.

• If you go back to look at Conor Casey’s team-leading 11 goals this season it catalogs a variety of subtle finishes that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a big guy. The scary thing is that the future can be even better for Conor.

• Pablo Mastoeni was the best player on the pitch Saturday. His ability to cover ground in front of the back four screened the center backs and allowed LaBrocca and Ballouchy to get higher up the pitch. What a warrior. In the big games he just takes it to another level.

• I expect Omar Cummings Nick LaBrocca Colin Clark and Tom McManus to come back and improve upon their 2008 efforts next year. We have such a good group of young players that we can build on and that bodes well for the future of this franchise.

• Clint Mathis had a solid game for RSL as the 2nd striker Saturday night. His link play in transition was excellent and showed his experience in game management & influence. He faded a bit at the end but his impact on that game cannot be denied.

• RSL have improved significantly under Jason Kreis and his staff. They have made some good pick-ups and the team spirit seems very good. They match up very well against Chivas and I will predict they will advance out of the Western Conference Semifinals.
• My other predications for the playoffs are as follows:
-Houston over NY (4-2 aggregate) in the other West Semi's
-Columbus over KC (2-1 aggregate) in the East Semi's
-Chicago over NE (3-1 aggregate) in the East Semi's
-Houston 3 RSL 1 in the Western Conference Final
-Chicago 1 Crew 0 in the Eastern Conference Final
-Houston 2 Chicago 0 in MLS Cup
I would love to see Columbus rewarded for their excellent season so I will not be heartbroken if I’m wrong there. But a player who will remain nameless asked me back in February to pick the 2008 MLS Champions and I said Houston (I really went out on a limb there huh?)
That same player gave me a hard time in May when the Dynamo fell back a bit. However they have shown time and time again why they are the defending champs. I do not see anything that would change my mind right now. Robinson stadium is by far the most intimidating environment that I have experienced in my nine years in MLS for no other reason than because of the team that plays there.
To go to Houston and get a result is a very difficult proposition. I expect their momentum to take them all the way again in 2008.
Thanks again to all the great Rapids fans for their support all year long and I'll talk to you guys again soon."
-John Murphy
Director of Player Development Colorado Rapids
Rapids Director of Player Development John Murphy writes his "Murphy's Law" column exclusively for ColoradoRapids.com. Comments and feedback are welcome; send an email to John directly by clicking here. Check back to the website for future installments!