September 28, 2007

Cupcakes Roundtable Preview: USL Championship, Seattle v. Atlanta


It all comes down to this, Seattle against Atlanta for the USL-D1 Championship. Seattle earned their place here through winning the Commissioner's Cup (best regular season record) and handling Carolina easily in the quarterfinals and topping a scrappy Puerto Rico side on penalties in the semifinal round. Atlanta finished 4th during the regular season, held off Rochester on the road in a dramatic second leg in the quarterfinals and upset #2 seed Portland on penalties at PGE Park.

In the regular season, the teams drew 0-0 in a dreary game in June in Atlanta. The return game in Seattle was one the Silverbacks would rather forget, a 3-0 comprehensive win for the Sounders. In Atlanta's defense, they were missing All-League first team defender David Hayes and crucial defensive midfielder Scott Buete.

First up in the roundtable is E. Charles Blanco...
Only a few short months ago the Cupcake Nation was
lamenting another bad result, one that had
all-to-often written the story of the first half of
the season. Now the Atlanta Silverbacks are
inexplicably in the USL First Division championship

Despite mitigating circumstances in and out of their
control (injuries, coaching, etc.), the 'Backs have
somehow managed to make the most out of their most
complete roster in years.

I've been skeptical this entire season, and nothing
I've seen recently should change my mind.

I want to believe this team has a chance to be league
champions, even after advancing out of Portland.

But I think this is the end of the line.

They got their asses handed to them the first time
they were in Seattle this season, and given Atlanta's
recent emphasis on defense, I just can't see them
coming home with the title.

But believe me, I hope the boys prove me wrong.

PREDICTION: Seattle 2, Atlanta 0
Next, El G├╝ero...
Although the Silverbacks should be overjoyed to reach
the title game after underperforming at times this
season, Seattle is probably the one team they don't
want to face. If we look back to the earlier results
this season, a 0-0 tie in Atlanta and a 3-0 victory in
Seattle, it doesn't look good for Atlanta.

But we said all this before the Portland series,
right? Unfortunately the Silverbacks don't have a home
game to rely on, it's one and done on the opponent's
turf. The good news is that the playing surface is
exactly the same that's found at ReMax Greater Atlanta
Stadium, and will be a lot more forgiving than the one
found at PGE Park in Portland.

Atlanta had problems in Portland settling the ball,
and the extra touches killed most of the offensive
opportunities they had.

But the Silverbacks MUST come out and try to WIN THE
GAME. If they don't do this, I smell another 3-0 loss
like they took in late August at Qwest Field. And
Macoumba Kandji MUST be utilized. Against Portland,
only Rivillo and Rios found him at home and nobody
found him up in Portland. His speed and ballhandling
skills are the best offensive option.

Anything can happen in the championship game, as
evidenced by Vancouver's 3-0 win at Rochester last
season, but I don't see Atlanta bringing home their
first title. A 2-1 or 2-0 victory for the Sounders is
in the cards for me.
And now, it's my turn...
I've been very impressed with the Sounders all season. I think Portland might have better individual pieces than Seattle in defense, but I think Seattle is the most organized team in the league. Coach Brian Schmetzer has to be applauded for the season he's had in the Emerald City.

They're not just a defensive team though. MVP candidate Sebastian Le Toux's speed up front has been a handful for defenders around the league. The veteran leadership of players such as Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, Roger Levesque, and Leighton O'Brien make the Sounders a tough team to defeat.

In my opinion, the match-up that will decide the series will be Seattle's Josh Gardner and the left side of the Sounders midfield against the speed and trickery of Macoumba Kandji for the Silverbacks. Gardner and the Sounders won that battle in the 3-0 win in August, as Kandji was forced to play much deeper than he likes and wasn't dangerous going forward. It's going to take a concerted effort, one that I would like to think is in the game plan, to take advantage of Kandji's speed advantage over Gardner. That could completely swing the game.

Machel Millwood will be another crucial part of the Atlanta attack. He wasn't at 100% back in August, as he was just returning to the lineup from a knee injury. He's been a hoss in the playoffs though, and should cause Seattle problems up front. Combine that with the skills of Dan Antoniuk and the workrate of Warren Ukah, and Atlanta's forwards will be formidable.

I think Atlanta should take notes from Vancouver's championship victory in Rochester last year. The Whitecaps took that game to the Rhinos from the start, and dug a grave that Rochester couldn't climb out of. With Atlanta's attacking prowess, they can do the same. The Silverbacks haven't scored on Seattle in 180 minutes this season, and have been fairly conservative in their approach both games. Coming out aggressively could be what swings the game to Atlanta's favor as Seattle starts to press in front of their home crowd. I have confidence in Ryan McIntosh and the Atlanta defense (who have been quite solid late in the season and in the postseason) to hold up their end of the bargain. The speed of Kandji and Millwood must be exploited by the passing of the Atlanta midfield, especially Rodrigo Rios. Rios is quite possibly the most skilled player on the field in this game (with the possible exception of Alcaraz-Cuellar), and must take control of the Atlanta attack. I think Seattle will eat up a long ball approach.

I have a good feeling that some demons will be exorcised at Starfire on Saturday night. Personally, I know I don't have the best memories of finals there involving teams from Atlanta. The Ruckus couldn't get the job done against the Sounders in 1995. Atlanta teams have posted some dreadful results in Seattle over the years (7-0 in 1997, a 2-1 loss that mortally wounded playoff hopes last year, even the Chiefs took a 3-0 thrashing back in 1980). That's going to change this weekend.

An early goal from Millwood will give Atlanta all the momentum they need to win 1-0. Ryan McIntosh will be the MVP of the game after making a number of huge saves. Cupcakes and good times will be had by all as Atlanta celebrates its first championship in soccer since the Atlanta Magic indoor teams of the early 90's and the Atlanta Chiefs of the 1968 NASL. Revenge will be sweet...
See for yourself at 10:00 pm on Fox Soccer Channel.


jsilver said...

I'll be honest (since we all are), it will be a huge feat for our 'backs to bring home the title. Something I'd like to hear talked about more would be the fact that Puerto Rico, the far inferior team, played really well against this tough opponent. What can we learn from the way PR played and does it/would it give us a better chance of winning?

Longshoe said...

Puerto Rico played Seattle tough all year. I think the Islanders are probably the top team in skill in the league, and that was why they were difficult for the Sounders.

The majority of teams in the league play a pretty direct style, with an emphasis on the physical side of the game rather than the technical side. Puerto Rico is a little different, and that can cause some teams problems.

Atlanta can be that way as well. There are some very strong technical players in the team. I think that more of a possession style, emphasizing the skill of the team, rather then playing long balls up to the forwards, will work best against the Sounders. Seattle will eat up the long balls, like they did in both games against the Silverbacks this season.

I'd love to see us play with Rivillo or Rios in front of Buete, and use them as a playmaker. Rivillo has made a difference in both games against Portland when he came on as a sub. A schemer can help get Kandji and the forwards in more dangerous positions. I don't think the sacrifice of a second defensive midfielder will outweigh the positives it could bring.

That said, I'm not sure if we'll see that change, at least not to start. I still hold to the fact that we'll be better off going for the game early, rather than trying to hold out for PK's.

bj said...

Why do you think the Silverbacks handled PR so well? They beat PR three times this year 3-2, 3-0, and 3-1. I was amazed at the results against them this year. Were the Silverbacks just a stronger defensive team than PR.

Longshoe said...

Not sure, to be honest. I haven't been able to figure out Puerto Rico's inconsistent results all year.

The first game, in Puerto Rico, was one of Atlanta's best of the year. The second game, Atlanta caught the Islanders on the 4th game of a 5 game road trip that started on the West Coast. Puerto Rico was dead in the water before they stepped on the field.

The third game was another of Atlanta's better ones, when the Silverbacks scored twice in the first 12 minutes.

Maybe it's just a case of a good match-up for the Silverbacks, sometimes it just happens that way. For example, the Silverbacks drew 0-0 and lost 1-0 to California this year, and they sucked. You never know...