Monday, March 29, 2010

The Elite Eight and MLS Opening Weekend

We're down to the elite 8 of Europe's finest this week, with the Champions League featuring maybe not the most exciting quarterfinal match ups ever, but certainly a string of March upsets (sensing a theme here?) have left a number of underdogs still in the field.

The one mouthwatering tie above all others is Barcelona-Arsenal on Wednesday.  If ever there was a match to get your friends who say soccer is boring to watch, this is it.  Should be some exquisite, silky passing football on display, even if  Andrés Iniesta will miss out through injury.

Arsenal's string of lucky draws (the Duke of Champions League draws, if you will) has come to an end, and so too should their European dreams.  Even with Iniesta out, Barca are juts too devastating.  Cesc Fabregas may want to show the team where he began his professional career his worth, but it's just hard to image Leo Messi being stopped right now and Barca losing out over two legs.

The other big name matchup, on Tuesday, is Bayern Munich-Manchester United, replaying the classic 1999 final.  Bayern hit a rich vein of form from December through February, but they are a very average 2-3-1 in March, dropping to second in the Bundesliga.  The talented team also appears to be openly afraid of Wayne Rooney.  Man U, on the other hand, just keep on winning, not having lost since the trip to Everton in February.  The key for Man U is twofold, both the returning health of their backline and a number of players finding good form at just the right time, including proverbial enigmas such as Berbatov and Nani.

Man U will be favored to reach the finals, with the winner of the French pairing Lyon and Bordeaux awaiting in the semi-finals.  That quarterfinal I'm sure is going to be a huge TV draw.

On the other side of the draw, the Barca-Arsenal winner will face the Inter-CSKA Moscow winner.  CSKA was considered the plum draw, but like a "mid-major", they are more than talented enough, particularly at keeper, to pull off another upset.  Inter has also had an uneven month, with AS Roma and AC Milan crawling to within one and three points of the Serie A leaders respectively.

Could we be nearing a final four of the Champions League without a single "#1 seed"?  That would be quite remarkable, though it's hard to imagine none of Man U, Barca or Inter advancing, and it's fully possible that chalk will prevail.  Bayern, Lyon, Arsenal, and Inter are the home sides this week, so it will be interesting to see how Bayern and Arsenal in particular react against teams more than capable of grabbing the away goals advantage.


MLS opened up its never-ending season this weekend, a rather forgettable weekend from my point of view.  Not that it was entirely surprising that DC United started the season slowly and couldn't win at Kansas City.

Moving on from that nightmare, Seattle looked very good and the preseason predictions that the Sounders will challenge for the MLS Cup in their second year may very well hold true.  The other big new was really the opening of Red Bull Arena.  The gorgeous arena, which appears to now house a passable football team, was only half full at the start, though it filled up to an announced 24k (it seats 25k).  The crowd sounded quite lively and it's should immensely help the Red Bulls, and I'm very excited about making a road trip there this season.  Will the crowds hold up?  They will almost certainly dip as the season goes on, but it's good to just get the black mark that was playing in Giants stadium off the MLS books.

Other teams that should be good, including RSL, LA, and Columbus, won, but I don't take much stock in early MLS results.  This weekend I'll see DC up close, though sadly I may be more excited just to tailgate and see Wale perform before the game than to see the actual game after Saturday night's performance.  Much better will be expected by the home crowd.

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