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Second Round of the MLS playoffs

A monthly column about the State of Soccer, from the world game to Team America to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A, all with a healthy dose of cynicism.

This month, the Armchair Midfielder will handicap the second round of the MLS playoffs and go on record with a pick for MLS Cup 2001 champion.

So the defending champs are gone, and with them went their blase brand of defensive-minded soccer. MLS Cup will not be "Goin’ to Kansas City" this year. And let’s face it, we as soccer fans are all better off with the Wizards watching the final from an Irish pub in downtown K.C.

Instead, we get a classic (okay, the word is a bit of a leap considering MLS is just a toddler) match-up between the Galaxy and the Fire. Here are two teams that have been good every year that they’ve been in MLS. Sure, they’ve each had their ups and downs, but you can always count on them to play attractive soccer.

It should be an even battle, one that is won or lost in the midfield. Two solid defensive midfielders in Simon Elliot and Chris Armas marking two creative and reliable midfield generals in Mauricio Cienfuegos and the now-healthy Peter Nowak.

But with Chicago firestarter Josh Wolff and born-again forward Eric Wynalda watching from a Soldier Field suite and jitterbug D. Beasley trying to knock the cobwebs loose from the last regular season battle versus the Burn, do the Fire have the guns to match L.A.’s trio of Sasha Victorine, "El Matador" Luis Hernandez and Cobi "Poor Man’s Lenny Kravitz" Jones? The answer? Probably not.

But the Fire do have a pretty solid defense, even with the relative inexperience of the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Evan Whitfield and off-the-bench favorite Jim Curtin, who as a rookie became one of the biggest surprises of the season. Speaking of the lanky Villanova grad, could one person look more like Screech from "Saved by the Bell?" I mean, come on. Curly afro? Gangly, awkward body type? He’s a dead ringer for the guy. But I digress...

Prediction: Galaxy in 3.

And then there’s the other side of the bracket. I don’t know about you, but as a loyal MLS fan, is there a more fresh and welcome playoff match-up than the Miami Fusion and the San Jose Clash (Sorry, the Earthquakes name still bothers me. Long live the scorpion logo thingy and the worst possible color scheme in major league sports. Not to go Seinfeld on anyone, but who’s the ad wizard behind the cross-pollination of hues like forest green, teal and celery green? That’s straight from the 1996 Clash media guide, not from a JCrew catalog. I’m serious--celery puke green.)

First up, los Fusionados. What a turn-around, and who deserves it more than a guy like Preki, who just seems to win wherever he goes. Coincidence? I think not. The guy is something like 46 years old, but he can still rack up huge amounts of assists and compliments from teammates. First he helped the Wizards go from worst to first, now the South Florida gang. Then you’ve got the most-hated player in the league in Diego Serna, teamed up with one of the most colorful coaches in sports with Ray Hudson.

Add in the best foreign acquisition of the year in Honduran midfielder Alex Pineda Chacon and "solid-in-the-back" ‘keeper Nicky Rimando (both of whom were absolute studs in Yahoo! Fantasy Soccer this season, by the way), along with the defensive-minded likes of Jim Rooney, Ian Bishop and Pablo Mastroeni, and what’s not to love about this Miami team?

But the Aftershocks (or Tremors, whatever you want to call them) are hard not to love either. They’re like the Chicago Cubs of soccer. They’ve been so bad for so long, you all but expected them to falter late in the season and go down quietly in the first round of the playoffs. But lo and behold, they put a pair of pastings on the Crew and ... Shazam!!! ... there they are in the Final Four and looking like they deserve a spot to play in Crew Stadium (site of MLS Cup 2001 on Sat., Oct. 21) one more time this year.

So what made San Jose something other teams envied rather than laughed at? For starters, the calming, mature defensive presence of team captain Jeff Agoos. Then they welcomed a great two-way effort in the middle from Manny Lagos and the big breakout of that Landon kid. Take these three basic team components and you’ve got excellent down-the-middle strengths. Combined with rookie coach Frank Yallop pushing all the right buttons, you’ve got yourself a team worth actually driving across the bay to see.

Prediction: los Fusionados in 3.

And to win it all, in the spirit of Chicago’s loyal, lively "Barnburner" section, you must ask yourself, "Who’s the Best?!?!...WHO?!?!?...WHO?!?!?" Sorry, Fire fans, the answer is the Fusion.

That’s right, I’m going with the team that’s been the class of the league on and off the field from the start of this 2001 season. And by "off the field," I’m mostly referring to the hilarious combinations of analogies and superlatives that English export Hudson treats the media to in Fusion post-game press conferences. (Fictional example: "He runs at the goal like a hillbilly with his flippin’ hair on fire!")

But nonetheless, you heard it here first: Miami will be holding the silver comet (otherwise known as the championship trophy) when it’s all said and done. I can see the MLS press release headline now: PREKI GETS SECOND RING WITH GOAL AND ASSIST TO HELP FUSION DOWN GALAXY 2-1 IN COLUMBUS. Sounds like a winner.

"Center Circle" (October 2001, Inaugural Issue)

In this Inaugural Issue of U.S. Soccer's new monthly fan newsletter / e-zine, you'll find the items listed below. Some will return next month, others will be entirely fresh for November.