DCU|FM Challenge, Part IX - The Death March

Tino picked up an injury in training, just in time for the Death March to roll into town. He'll be touch and go to get back before we start kicking balls in anger again. Why do I get this sinking feeling that we're going to pick up a couple of key injuries in this massive fixture pileup, lose our form and confidence, and get spanked out of the playoffs early?

Pessimist, moi?

Camara got another cap for Sengal, and Boswell picked up another for the USA in their 1-1 draw with Costa Rica to close out World Cup Qualifying. The US finishes second in the Hex, 8 points behind Mexico, but 7 points clear of the play-in. El Salvador (!?!) grabbed the other automatic bid, while T&T will face off with Uruguay in the playoff. I'm still trying to figure out how a team as loaded as Honduras managed to finish bottom of the group.

Let the Death March begin!
SAT    Columbus
MON    @FC Dallas
WED    Toluca [NACL]
SAT    @Kansas City
WED    @Saprissa [NACL]

And I'm pretty sure the playoffs get started the following Saturday...

Since I've already clinched the Supporters' Shield and home-field advantage in the playoffs, the obvious play is to try and win the Champions' League group. Beating Toluca at home would do the trick since they wouldn't be able to catch us on the final day, being 4 points adrift. Easier said than done, though. And I don't want to ignore the league, as I'd like to be carrying some momentum going into the post-season.

So the game plan is going to be focused on the Toluca game, and having everybody fit and rested for the playoff game on the third Saturday (MLS wouldn't screw me over by sticking us with the Thursday game, would they?). I'm going with starters against the Crew & Toluca, a second team on the Monday game between those two matches, fit starters fleshed out with scrubs away to KC, and all scrubs at Saprissa unless we draw against Toluca, thus necessitating a result in that final Champions' League match. In that circumstance, I'll probably risk a few starters.

Deep breath.

Columbus: I ran out the normal first team with Olsen on the right wing in place of the injured Quaranta. Within two minutes we were down, Schelotto blasting away from well outside the box. At that point I figured I was in for a long evening. But we answered almost immediately, Olsen and Namoff combining well on the right before Olsen charged inside, dished to Szetela, who sprayed wide for Rogers. Rogers beat the hopeless Hejduk to cross for an unmarked Camara to tap in at the far post. Both sides exchanged blows after that. We had a series of nice buildups that came to nothing. They had a bunch of free kicks around the edge of the box that Brad Davis and Schelotto somehow conspired to fail utterly on. I had to bring on Lopez when Rogers went down clutching his knee (ruh-roh!), but Lopez was inspired... probably because he was up against Hejduk.

Whatever the case, it was Lopez that initiated the go-ahead goal on 40 minutes, cutting inside and picking out Vavá, who in turn touched a ball into space that Camara ran onto and buried. In the last minute of regulation before the half, Vavá called his own number, Lopez again setting the table for the Brazilian to fire home from the edge of the box on a quick counter. Szetela had had a decent half pulling the strings, but was already on a yellow and still committing fouls, so I replaced him at the break. Sosa slotted right in without missing a beat, and the second half consisted of bunches of crosses into our box that Jakovic and Boswell ate up and three or four great chances for Camara on the break. All were saved. Fortunately, we survived a late spell of pressure from them and had Jakovic nod in a Lopez corner with the last touch of the game. (W 4-1)

It looks like pulling Rogers early was the right move as he doesn't seem to be suffering any ill effects from his knock.

@FC Dallas: Dallas suck. Given that I only had one day of rest since the Columbus match and only one day between this match and the crucial Toluca tilt, I did a full-on swap, replacing every single member of my starting eleven except Rogers. Because he only played twenty minutes against the Crew, I decided to run him out here, resting the suddenly in-form Lopez for the Toluca match. Result? We dominated the first half against Hyndman's lame-ass 4-5-1 with a dedicated d-mid between two flat lines of four. They didn't trouble us offensively, and we weren't handing out any favors. Moreno hit the bar early before scoring on a curled effort from 20 yards. Rogers left Anthony Wallace looking for his jock after he torched him on the left, crossing for Moreno to attack in the six. Burse dove to deny Jaime, but Fred was crashing in behind him and buried the rebound in the 34th. Anthony Wallace was still looking for his jock ten minutes later as Rogers danced past him at the midfield stripe and raced down the left touchline, delivering a delightful driven cross that my boys were queuing up to finish. Moreno and Fred, already having found net, left it for Pontius, and the kid made no mistake with an easy tap-in on the stroke of halftime. The second half was a snooze-fest. Hyndman finally got up the guts to go 4-4-2, but it did his guys little good. In fact, we should have had at least one more, both Quaranta, on as a sub, and Moreno hitting one-on-ones directly into Burse's chest. (W 3-0)

[CCL Group A] Toluca:
Karma's a bitch. They did to us exactly what we did in their house. The first half was pretty even. We'd have chances, then they would. The deadlock was finally broken when they scored just before stoppage time in the first half. I pumped the guys up and came out looking to attack. It worked for a while. We created chance after chance, but Camara was having another of his miserable outings, so we were consistently denied. They had a couple chances on the counter, but nothing too dangerous. Then they got a breakaway in the 80th minute. My defenders closed down the guy on the ball. It squirted free. Namoff failed to get back. 2-0 to Toluca. I threw everything forward--only a draw was a realistic ambition at this point and would serve to keep our group-winning hopes alive. One arrived in stoppage time, but in the wrong net. Ugh. (L 0-3)

We're still through to the knockout stages of the Champions' League, but this one hurt. Time for some damage control.

Awards time is approaching! Henri Camara is on the short-list for the V-dub MVP with Ljungberg and McBride. Wallace made the Gatorade Rookie of the Year list opposite Zakuani and his old MD teammate, Omar Gonzalez. Cannon, Keller, and Ricketts are up for Panasonic GK of the Year, so no love for my boys there. And finally, Boswell and Jakovic are both on the VISA Defender of the Year list. That said, so is Jay freakin' Heaps. Ugh.

@Kansas City: Adam Cristman... superman! Remember that oh-so sick feeling I had about having peaked too early? Well, we did control large swaths of this match. And Sosa missed a glorious wide-open header. And Camara botched two clear chances. And I was playing with half of my starters resting. But still, Gonzalez needed to be a hero in net to deny a series of fine long-range drives from Cristman, one of which finally managed to sneak in at the close of the first half. Boswell and Camara both had shocking games after their awards announcements in midweek. I gave the whole team both barrels after the match. Time to try to build a little momentum against Saprissa ahead of the playoffs. (L 0-1)

...And we've gotten our confirmation as Supporters' Shield winners, along with the ticket to next year's Champions' League. Also, the playoff field is set and we get... Kansas City in the opening round. Fan-freakin'-tastic. I can just feel Gomez and Emilio itching for a bit of revenge. Well, two can play at that game. We want our mojo back after that last loss.

[CCL Group A] @Saprissa: Scrub time. The playoffs open on Saturday with this game being just three days before. It's the last game of five played in twelve days. We're already through to the next round, and Toluca aren't going to lose against Firpo at home, meaning the result is meaningless as far as group placement. But for all that, I need a result from my boys. The confidence of the team has been drained away over the last couple of matches, and we need a result to get a boost heading off to KC. Still... scrubs from the start. I do give Camara the start, hoping he'll bang one in to get the confidence going again, but knowing he wouldn't be starting in KC on his current miserable form anyway. Five minutes in, and we're down. McTavish whiffs a clearance, the ball bounces off Wallace, McTavish stands around scratching his ass as the Saprissa forward dashes past him to slam home from eight yards. Ugh. I pull back a little and play possession. We control things: 60% possession, doubling them up on shots. I yank the woeful McTavish and the slightly less woeful Camara at the half... but no positive change (shades of Soehn-desperation? at least I didn't yank them before the half!). I even try going 4-4-2 at the end, but we've gone completely off the boil. Perfect time of the season for that to happen, eh? (L 0-1)

So our meek finish to the Champions' League means a clean Mexico-USA, 1-2 sweep in the group stage, with us finishing behind Toluca, Houston behind Cruz Azul, Columbus trailing Pachuca, and the Red Bulls nipping in behind Pumas.

Final Group A standings...

And, before we hit the playoffs, a final chance to check the MLS league table...

Apparently, FM10 is in complete agreement with all the pundits in the 2009 pre-season who said the East was going to dominate. Witness: six playoff sides from the East, just two from the West. And the seventh side in the East, the Crew, finished ninth overall, meaning that the bottom six of the West finished on the bottom of the table. Shocking.

Chicago faded late, meaning our own power outage in the last few weeks didn't result in any close competition at the top of the table. Behind us and the Fire though, the rest of the playoff pack is demonstrating the powers of parity, packed into a three point window startlingly reminiscent of the "real-life" table.

I'm not at all confident heading into the playoffs. Three losses on the trot is the worst stretch of my reign by far. Very few of the players have high moral. The goals have completely dried up, and our go-to danger-man, Camara, is in awful form. Next time around, we'll see if I can plug the holes and right the sinking ship.


Think I'm making a mess of this? Grab a copy of Football Manager 2010and have a go yourself. Then write it up and post it to your own blog or send me a copy and I might post it here on FBF...

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