It was dramatic…it was exciting…and by the end of the week, Major League Soccer had their four semifinalists for this year's MLS Cup title.
MLS fans had to be full of anticipation for this week's four second-leg matches in the conference semifinals, as last weekend's first-leg games set the stage for the events that unfolded on Wednesday and Thursday night.
Going into the week, experienced MLS observers had to expect the unexpected, as the MLS Cup Playoffs have had the ability to throw out the form book and create some surprise results. While that may hold true in the weekend's conference championship games, this week's winners came through their series as predicted. Some did it with ease, while some were made to fight for victory. A closer look, shall we…
Earning home advantage in the playoffs is always essential, especially when playing a two-leg, aggregate goal series. The conference semifinals are the only portion of this year's playoffs that will use home-and-away matches to determine who will make that next step towards MLS Cup in Los Angeles, California, on Sunday, November 20. Last week's wild card matches and this weekend's conference championships are single-match affairs. Involving 180 minutes of action, the brewing rivalry that a two-leg series can create is what makes this time of year a lot of fun!
Let's start our look back in the Eastern Conference, where Sporting Kansas City's remarkable turnaround from a slow start to 2011 continues unabated. From the moment Peter Vermes' side moved into their new home at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in early June, Sporting KC have transformed from a struggling club after an extended road spell to topping the Eastern Conference standings at the end of the regular season. In good form coming into the postseason, Kansas City took advantage of a weary-looking Colorado Rapids side by dispatching the defending MLS Cup champions 4-0 on aggregate after Wednesday's convincing 2-0 home win. The Rapids' defensive backline was ravaged by injury and suspension after the first leg in Colorado, and a pair of Graham Zusi free kicks exposed those deficiencies, as Aurélien Collin and C.J. Sapong each headed home Sporting KC's two second-leg goals to secure the Eastern Conference championship game at home.
Kansas City's opponent on Sunday will provide stiffer opposition, as experienced playoff campaigners Houston Dynamo make the trip to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park after seeing off Philadelphia Union 3-1 on aggregate following a 1-0 win at home in the second leg. It's hard to dispute the value of Brad Davis' left foot, especially from crosses and set-pieces. His patented deliveries have set up many a Dynamo goal over the years, and his influence on this series was evident in both legs. Canadian international Andre Hainault benefited in the first leg in Philadelphia and big Hawaiian Brian Ching was the welcome recipient on Thursday, as he headed home the winner in the Dynamo's final game at Robertson Stadium before the club moves to a new soccer-specific stadium in 2012. For playoff rookies Philadelphia, the disappointment of an early postseason should be tempered by the fact that the Union made the playoffs in just their second season as an MLS club. How other expansion sides would like such a record…
While matters in the Eastern Conference were straightforward, there was more intrigue in the two Western Conference semifinal series, as four of the league's big hitters clashed. Down Interstate 5 in The Emerald City, Seattle Sounders FC had it all to do after a shocking 3-0 first-leg defeat to Real Salt Lake in Utah. 36,021 Seattle fans did their best to inspire their side to a famous series comeback, and for a time, it seemed possible after Osvaldo Alonso struck a second-half penalty and substitute Lamar Neagle pulled Seattle to within a goal with less than half-an-hour to go. Though they created just one good chance in the match, Salt Lake held out to go through 3-2 on aggregate after a 2-0 defeat at CenturyLink Field. While goalkeeper Kasey Keller bid farewell to his stellar playing career on Wednesday night, Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid will wonder what difference Álvaro Fernández and Brad Evans might have made after the pair were forced out of the game with hamstring injuries in the first half. Though they move on, head coach Jason Kreis knows RSL must be better on Sunday. He will also hope to have starting centre backs Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers back from injury.
The 2009 MLS Cup winners' reward for beating Seattle is a trip to Southern California and a Western Conference championship match against the best team in the league - LA Galaxy. This year's MLS Supporters' Shield winners are heavy favourites to win it all at home later this month, and their quality was enough to set up the Salt Lake clash following an entertaining 3-1 aggregate win over arch-rivals New York Red Bulls. The first leg in New York was not remembered as much for Mike Magee's lone goal in a 1-0 LA victory, it was the ill-tempered exchanges between both sets of players at the end of the game that drew the most attention. The instigator - Red Bulls' Designated Player Rafa Marquez - was promptly fined and suspended for the rest of the playoffs, while the Galaxy's Juninho also missed the second leg at The Home Depot Center. Considering how the first leg ended, it came as little surprise to see the second leg explode into life after just four minutes. Luke Rodgers - who looked to have taken notes from fellow countryman and ex-England star Paul Gascoigne with his highly aggressive play in the opening minutes - levelled the series with a well-taken strike from a Thierry Henry pass. That only seemed to spark the Galaxy to life, and just before halftime, Magee haunted his old club again with the series winner for a David Beckham corner. The Red Bulls - and Rodgers in particular - had their chances to score again after the break, but it was LA that closed the book on New York's disappointing 2011 season with a late London Donovan penalty for a 2-1 Galaxy win. The spot-kick award came after Beckham was needlessly chopped down in the Red Bulls box by New York defender Roy Miller, and at a time in the match when a second Red Bulls goal seemed very possible. While Hans Backe's side head home to reflect on an unfulfilled campaign, star-studded LA are now two home wins away from realizing their goal as league champions.
Bring on Sunday!