Seattle Sounders finally reach Conference Final; DC United condemn New York Red Bulls to yet another conference semi-final defeat; Houston Dynamo break Sporting Kansas City again
As the final whistle blew at a dejected Rio Tinto, a tiny corner of the stadium decked out in rave green erupted. Four long years of playoff hurt were erased and a new star was born in Seattle: step forward Mario Martinez.
The Honduran international wrote himself into Sounders folklore by scoring the game-winner, and what an absolute stunner it was, to break a series deadlocked at 0-0 with just nine of the 180 minutes left.
"An unbelievable goal, and that's what it was going to take in this series. As I said before the game, it was probably going to be a one-goal kind of thing. We also knew that his passing could help us. We felt that his ability on set pieces -- we wanted to hit some in-swinging corners -- could help us, as well. Obviously he delivered for us with a great goal."
Teammate Brad Evans couldn't quite believe it: "It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. You see those once or twice a year - that's it. It came at a perfect time."
That game winning moment arrived after a defensive slugfest featuring two of the greatest goalkeeping performances the MLS has seen over a single playoff series: Michael Gspurning prevailed but RSL's Nick Rimando didn't deserve to be on the losing side.
Yet there had to be one side that went on to face LA and the Sounders finally reached the Western Conference Championship game, after four years of failure at the first hurdle. In previous years Seattle had relied on a top-heavy approach, focusing on all-out attack when the playoffs rolled around. This time they're sticking to what they do best: defending. The league's second best defense has conceded just twice in the last 630 minutes of play. And Seattle has the players to hurt teams when they get a rare chance: Eddie Johnson, Fredy Montero and now Martinez are all top finishers.
But the defense should take most of the credit: Jhon Kennedy Hurtado threw his body on the line time and time again, Adam Johansson covered superbly and Osvaldo Alonso buzzed around with purpose in front of the back four. Every Seattle player bought into the work ethic needed to succeed against Salt Lake and it wasn't like either team wasn't trying to score. Creative inventiveness and guile featured but it took that moment of sheer brilliance from Martinez that stole the show. The left winger has been used sparingly by Seattle despite his outstanding performances for Honduras at the Olympics and was only starting due to captain Mauro Rosales' injury.
Now the Galaxy await and Seattle fancy their chances of reaching a first ever MLS Cup in their fifth season in the league. You can see it in their eyes. With the second leg at CenturyLink, Seattle need to keep the game close at the Home Depot Center. In the regular season Seattle beat the Galaxy 4-0 and 2-0 at home and narrowly lost 1-0 at HDC in the season finale.
Seattle have played Houston and DC United just once each this season, beating the Dynamo 2-0 and drawing 0-0 with United. How much you can read into that is questionable, but only conceding once against the remaining three teams in the playoffs over five games is very promising.
Could this be year Seattle finally takes home the biggest prize Major League Soccer has to offer, to the league's largest fan base. JPW
For the second straight season the playoff-specialist Orange knocked out SKC, with their disciplined and defensive outlook prevailing in a 2-1 aggregate victory to reach their fifth conference final in seven years. But the Dynamo can also count their lucky stars after some woeful finishing from Sporting helped their cause.
Dominic Kinnear has worked wonders with the Dynamo. Next up are DC United on Sunday at BBVA and the manager will be hoping to get out of the blocks quickly once again on home soil because that's where the damage was done in the semi-final, as Sporting left themselves too much to do in the second leg.
Houston missed Jermaine Taylor at center back but Andre Hainault is a handy replacement with the Canadian visibly urging his teammates to stand firm, as a late SKC bombardment followed Seth Sinovic's 64th minute header which halved the deficit.
Kinnear was delighted to have Hainault step up to marshal the back line: "As we said, if Jermaine wasn't ready to play, we knew Andre could step in and play well and that's what he did tonight. He attacked the ball great, he reads the play well and he was good in the air. And he is not afraid to throw his body in front of things."
Dynamo head home feeling confident. They beat United 1-0 in the first-ever game at BBVA before thumping them 4-0 at home later in the season. Their one trip to RFK resulted in a 3-2 defeat in a crazy end-to-end encounter, but maybe this time goals will be at a premium after just six were scored over Houston and DC's four Conference Semifinal games.
But Houston face a galvanized DC outfit who are undefeated (6-0-3) since captain -- and Dynamo legend-- Dwayne De Rosario was injured on September 11. It will be tight, tense and exhilarating. These two sides weren't favored for much of the season, now one of them will be heading to MLS Cup.
A day of extra rest will be a blessing for Houston after their spell of three games in seven days in the crazy MLS playoff schedule (More on that in a minute). But after the first leg on Sunday afternoon, surprisingly a whole week will pass before the return leg at RFK. Houston will be hoping the tie is dead and buried before travelling to the nation's capital. JPW
With all of the drama over rescheduled games, snow storms and back and forth rival-baiting, it was easy to forget that Thursday's game had the potential to be New York coach Hans Backe's last game in charge. For much of the last month, since the arrival of Jerome De Bontin as general manager (widely seen as having the hand of worldwide Red Bull sporting director Gerard Houllier behind it), and the sudden demotion of the other half of the "Scandinavian brains trust" comprising Backe and sporting director Erik Soler, Backe has had to fight the impression of being a lame duck coach. Even as he steadied his side for a playoff run, the impression has been that a Red Bulls hierarchy who regard an MLS Cup as the only standard of success, would not renew the contract of a man whose team cannot quite make the necessary leap. Three times Backe has reached a Conference semi-final with New York Red Bulls. Three times his side have been eliminated.
If it was Backe's last game in charge, his side did him proud - looking nothing like the timid side that conceded so much space and initiative to DC in the first leg. Lade and Pearce got forward repeatedly as New York pinned their visitors back, and while DC coolly picked their moments for counter attacks, the home team's pressure built to a crescendo in the second half, culminating in the penalty won by Cooper as he rounded Hamid - who was promptly red-carded.
Cooper hammered home the penalty against the stand in keeper Joe Willis, but as New York celebrated, their night was about to unravel. Referee Mark Geiger ordered the kick to be retaken for encroachment and Cooper slammed it to the same spot - but this time Willis dived to his left to push the kick away. Moments later Rafa Marquez threw away the man advantage for picking up a needless second yellow with a wild lunge on Pontius, and despite New York peppering the DC goal with chance after chance, by the time DeLeon slotted home the game's only goal with only a couple of minutes left, the gut punch to the New York fans was almost expected.
Even as those fans left the stadium at the end of another trophy-less season, the older ones were already muttering about the "Curse of Caricola". The "curse" dates back to the then MetroStars' first ever home game, on April 20 1996, when with 46,000 fans in attendance at Giants Stadium, the defender Nicola Caricola inexplicably scooped a last minute cross into his own net for a loss to New England - inaugurating a tradition of fatalism on the part of the fans, that has since survived through name and regime changes, and been underpinned by the continued absence of trophies for the team.
Those same fans faced a familiar outcome against DC - and at the end of the game the most decorated team in MLS history progressed to the Eastern Conference Final against Houston, while the biggest-spending side in MLS were contemplating another long off-season to ponder their luck. Unless Backe is feeling exceptionally lucky, they may have another coach when they return next year. GP
Friday p.m. update: Andy Roxburgh joins New York Red Bulls after Hans Backe axed
Before the game we previewed our live coverage of this one with mention of Omar Gonzalez for LA and Victor Bernardez of San Jose, as key players for their side in the first leg. Once again the two giant center backs were at the heart of things in the second leg, but as a result two other center backs were thrust to the forefront.
Bernardez's night, and as it transpired, San Jose's chances, ended early. After picking up a yellow for a high arm on Gonzalez just after the kick off, he conceded another free kick then went down awkwardly and had to go off after just ten minutes. Bernardez, the scorer of San Jose's winner in LA, was distraught. Things would get worse for the Quakes though, as his replacement, Ike Opara, stood off Robbie Keane for his opening goal, then was caught ball-watching as Keane ghosted in for his second. A thankless personal night for Opara could have eventually been turned around in injury time, but this just wasn't his night. With San Jose needing a goal to take the tie into extra time, Alan Gordon battled to hold up the ball in the box and lay it back for Wondolowski, who coolly slotted the ball sideways on the edge of the box, to the man on the overlap. That man turned out to be Opara, making a death or glory run from the back. His shot flew over the bar and Buck Shaw groaned as their last chance flew away with it.
Even off the field Bernardez was something of a Banquo's ghost for the San Jose defense, as it was hard to shake the impression that had he still been in the heart of the Earthquakes defense, the outcome of some of the Galaxy's chances might have been different. Ironically it reminded me of watching LA's 3-1 defeat to New England at the Home Depot Center earlier in the year, when every New England goal was scored from a spot you might reasonably have been expecting the absent Omar Gonzalez to be standing guard.
Gonzalez is back and integral to a winning side now - a team their coach Bruce Arena called "the best team in the league since July." The 3-8-2 start seems like another lifetime. Yet while Gonzalez's ongoing battle with Steven Lenhart was typically rough — with an elbow here and a heated shove there — more than any game so far in these playoffs the attention was on the rookie beside him. Tommy Meyer had a great game, including popping up on one or two occasions to mop up for the more celebrated player behind him, and perhaps being marginally less distracted by personal subplots as he concentrated on the task in hand.
Meyer has had a tough learning curve since stepping in to cover for DeLaGarza'a MCL injury - center back is not a position you get to grow into quietly. There just seems to come a game when the players charged with filling the position assume the responsibility to do more than just react. Meyer did that against San Jose - even getting in on the offense as he fed Donovan for the assist on Keane's winner. LA need him to maintain that standard, but looking at their line up, from the productive veteran Keane to the young center back coming of age, it's hard to escape the impression that the last piece of the jigsaw just slotted into place at the back. GP
To move the first leg of the New York Red Bulls vs DC United playoff from one city to the other in the face of a hurricane was a move of rare common sense. But to even contemplate playing the second leg in the face of a second storm made much less sense. That the game was postponed after those who were willing to brave the elements had got there was the sorriest element of the white-out farce. The most foolish element of the postponement was that it was a decision that could've been made much earlier. NYRB officials had apparently told the League that the game should be called off as early as Tuesday: a storm was on the way and New Jersey's infrastructure had already been battered by Hurricane Sandy. But, instead MLS pushed for the game to go ahead - only to call it off when 700 Washingtonians had made the long journey north and several thousand locals who had battled to Harrison with limited transportational options.
There was anger at the postponement. Alexi Lalas tweeted: "Remind me again why playing in snow is dangerous for soccer players? #NYvDC." But Lalas wasn't in the New Jersey snowstorm. Conditions were unacceptable for players and fans - and there had been good warning that this was going to be the case. To be fair to MLS commish Don Garber he did apologise.
But the urgency to play the game came of course from a wider issue: the scheduling of the playoffs. Partially the problem is due to the TV paymasters, who want the games when they want them, but don't mind delaying them while some college football gets finished.
And the bigger picture is the scheduling of the playoffs, so late in the year and in such a short period of time. After a relatively leisurely eight-month stroll through 34 regular season games, the best teams in the country are submitted to a sprint combined with an endurance test. By Sunday the Houston Dynamo will have played four playoff games in 12 days - hardly conducive to the most attractive soccer. And then after the sprint will come a two-week wait for the final. In December. MLS doesn't need to ape NFL's setup for the SuperBowl. When MLS fans have been built up to a fever pitch of excitement with the playoffs, why not just get on with the final to keep the ball rolling?
And playing the final in December is just asking for trouble (although hurricanes are admittedly well beyond MLS' control). And beyond the questions about the weather are those about the limelight. While the MLS calendar is somewhat controversial in a global context, there are reasons it makes sense in the US. Playing much of the season when MLB is the only other major sport being played gives MLS breathing room. But by the Fall, MLS is facing competition (for fans and TV) with MLB's World Series, the NFL, the NBA and, usually, the NHL. It is an unnecessary fight. Why not shorten the regular season (in time if not games), stretch the playoffs a little, and play to the game's strengths? SB
Guardian US sports will have live minute-by-minute coverage of both games on Sunday.