And here we are at long last in the playoffs. I managed to claim the Supporters' Shield and to get through to the knockout stages of the Champions' League, but at what cost? Sadly, it looks like the team peaked too damn early, and we're in danger of suffering that most Soehn-esque of finishes to the season: the meek bow-out. Nevertheless, there are games to be played, and one positive result could turn things around for us.
Eastern Conference Semifinals, First Leg: @Kansas City Wizards
I'm not making any tactical concessions yet with my attacking style. The 4-2-3-1 remains in play. Gonzalez is in net with the backline that became standard in the second half of the season: Habarugira-Jakovic-Boswell-Namoff from left to right. I'm going for strength and power in the holding roles rather than guile, so Sosa and Simms get the nod. My normal attacking trident of Rogers-Vavá-Quaranta plays behind Moreno, who gets the start over my other struggling veterans, Lopez and Camara, who are both still dangerous enough to merit places on the bench. Gomez and Emilio are both in KC's starting lineup, and I'm sure they're ready to hurt me for trading them away...
Instead, it's Gomez who gets hurt early, subbing off in the 7th minute. The opening half hour is predictably tense and brutal; it's the playoffs after all. The match is fairly even. They're getting more chances on goal with direct wide play, while we're controlling possession and getting fewer, but better chances. Quaranta has the biggest on 25 minutes, but gets stoned when facing Hartman one-on-one in the box. They are fouling the crap out of my playmaker, Vavá, but no cards have been issued yet. The only two incidents of note in the last fifteen minutes of the half are that Rogers picks up a knock and has to be replaced by Lopez, and Sosa has a good chance from the edge of the box that Hartman saves comfortably.
I'm encouraging at the half, telling the guys they can win and asking Quaranta to really prove a point (his first half was pretty disappointing). We come out with a sustained period of possession, but nobody seems to want to shoot. Vavá and Moreno both pass up good chances near the edge of the box to lay the ball off. Finally, Simms takes charge on 50 minutes. Jakovic wins a clearance near midfield, takes a touch forward and then threads a ball on the ground to the charging Simms. Three defenders converge, but he unleashes a Clydewinder Missile from the edge of the "D" that finds the corner past the despairing Hartman. Halleluja, the goal drought is over! Now, can we keep the lead?
Moreno isn't playing very well, but I don't want to make a sub yet. Still, I'm concerned that his lack of mobility is hurting our attack. Usually, Camara is running all over the place and dragging defenders out of position, allowing the attacking mid trident to exploit the space. With Rogers off injured and Camara still bench-bound with his terrible form, I decide to gamble and switch things up. I push Moreno to the right wing, Quaranta to the left, and put the mobile and active Lopez up top to occupy their defenders.
Almost immediately, KC gets a chance through Emilio, but Boswell takes the sting out of the shot. Gonzalez tosses quickly to Simms, who plays wide to Moreno. An early cross from the veteran causes all kinds of confusion, and they knock it out for a corner (nearly an own goal). The corner bounces around the box before getting knocked clear. Moreno settles the clearance and darts along the right side of the box. Then he pauses, drags it back, and rolls a pass toward the spot. The box is packed, but Moreno goes all Charlton Heston, and the bodies part. The rolling ball finds the onrushing Sosa in space, and he drives it home at the far post. "4 minute double salvo!" says the FM announcer (clearly not Bretos, who would have gone with "Yyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeessss!").
They're going to come hard now, particularly at home, but it's too early to sit back. Eight minutes later, Vavá drives in a corner and Jakovic rises, unmarked, to head past Hartman. My team is back! 3-0 down, they're liable to throw the kitchen sink at us, so I roll the dice on Camara, putting him on for the tiring Moreno. Lopez goes back on the left, Quaranta on the right. Time to see if we can get another on the counter before they break the door down.
Nope. Boswell tackles Emilio, the ball bounces clear, and Arnaud one-times it from 25 yards to get them back in the match on 75 minutes. Now might be the time to start sitting back. KC switch to a Mourinho-style 4-5-1/4-3-3. With my last change, I bring on Olsen for Quaranta to see out the last 10 minutes. I also pull back my wingers and push up the holding mids to go 4-4-1-1, trying to negate their wing threat by closing down the space on the flanks. Emilio goes close with the last kick of the game, but can't quite get his drive under the bar. (W 3-1)
Jakovic wins October player of the month. And we have a whole week without a match. What am I going to do with all of this time?
Eastern Conference Semifinals, Second Leg: Kansas City Wizards @RFK
We're carrying a two-goal lead into the second leg, and I don't make many changes. I'm going to start with Lopez in place of Moreno, and play things a little cautious to start. Almost immediately, disaster strikes, and all of the positive feelings turn to ash. Sosa goes in hard for a challenge and sees red in the 8th minute. I swap Jacobson on for Lopez, and put Vava up top, leaving the central prong of the attacking midfield trio empty. If we start to struggle, I'll probably go 4-3-2 before too long, but for now, I need to negate Arnaud in the hole behind the strikers.
24 minutes in and the ref strikes again. Namoff goes up for a header in our box and gets whistled for a push. PK to them, which Jewsbury hammers home. Ugh. We've been dangerous on the counter, but I'm not comfortable with how much space and possession we're giving up in midfield. I go 4-3-2 with Quaranta and Rogers up top. Right away we create two good chances for Quaranta, but he has one saved and drags the other wide. Shortly thereafter we create a glorious chance on the break, but Rogers can only manage a tame header that barely tests Hartman. Seems like the finishing sickness is back. Perfect timing, eh?
After that brief flurry, KC recover, and it's all hands on deck in our box to keep them out, but we manage to make it to the break still ahead 3-2 on aggregate. At the very end of stoppage time, Rogers gets dragged down in the box, but the ref fails to make the call. Any guesses on the culprit with the whistle? Hey, guess what? It's my least favorite midget, Michael Kennedy. Sigh.
Quaranta took a knock at the end of the half, so I'm loath to make a change lest he need to come off, but Namoff has been downright terrible. So terrible, in fact, that I can't stomach the risk. I pull Namoff for Mendes and get rolling. Just after the restart, Jacobson gets hammered. No cards from the wonderful Mr. Kennedy, but I'm now playing down a man and with two guys, Quaranta and Jacobson, limping. We're in deep, deep trouble. I'd love to get one of those guys off, but we still might be facing extra time, and I've only got one sub remaining. Kennedy issues his third "stern warning" (second time for Arnaud) against KC, but still no cards for them. Did I mention that it's now pouring rain? This truly is hell.
Fifteen minutes left. One goal lead on aggregate. Man down. I need to make a change, but I've only got one sub, and both Quaranta and Jacobson are barely mobile. Midfield needs the legs more, so I take the chance and bring on Olsen for Jacobson. We're giving up height on set pieces, but I'm counting on Benny's heart and engine to make the difference yet again for DC United.
82nd minute and Kennedy finally busts out a yellow for KC after Hirsig barges over Vavá. Olsen commits three fouls in his first two minutes on the pitch, but it's Simms who gets yellow for us in the 87th minute after scything down Harrington. Simms has been all over the place, making tackles, playing balls through. Heroic performance. Hope it's not all for naught.
89th minute and now Mendes is limping off. He'll be able to return after treatment, but he's only got one functioning leg. We're now officially in the 4-4-1, 10-man stoppage-time bunker. Harrington crosses, but Cristman can only nod wide of the post. Four minutes of added time? For what? God damn Michael Kennedy, always looking for more ways to screw us. No more fingernails, but...
Final whistle! We're through to the Eastern Conference final, 3-2 on aggregate! The RFK faithful howl their approval in the rain, and all is right with the world. Simms in midfield and Gonzalez in net are the heroes.
In the other Eastern Conference semi, Chicago crushed the Red Bulls (another year without a trophy) 3-1 after a scoreless first leg in the Swamp. And in the West, Los Angeles beat TFC 1-0 at home to advance 3-1 on aggregate. They'll face Seattle, who dumped New England 4-1 on aggregate.
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...