The Major League Soccer playoffs may be at odds with the single-table format that dominates world soccer, and critics might argue that they devalue the regular season, but hot damn, can they deliver the thrills.
As this past weekend’s conference semifinals demonstrated, there’s nothing quite like a playoff game for creating heightened atmosphere, sharpened focus, and great theatre.
We saw a surplus of all three this round. Let’s get right to it.
To put the case for the playoffs another way: Do you remember when (and how) LA Galaxy clinched the MLS Supporters’ Shield, as the team with the best regular-season record this year?
For most fans, the immediate answer is no.
But everyone is going to remember the Galaxy’s semifinal first leg against New York Red Bulls this past Sunday. For a long time.
Seconds after the final whistle blew on LA’s riveting 1-0 win, Red Bulls midfielder Rafa Márquez hurled the game ball at Landon Donovan, setting off what hockey announcers (and possibly Robbie Keane) would call “a good old-fashioned donnybrook.”
LA’s Adam Cristman was the first to confront Márquez. The Mexico captain responded with an attempted head butt and roundhouse right, both of which missed, as players from both benches beelined to midfield.
After everyone had been escorted to their neutral corners, the referee issued red cards to Márquez and LA’s Juninho, who had piled into the fray and clipped New York defender Stephen Keel in the mouth (inadvertently, replays showed).
Juninho and Márquez will sit out Thursday’s second leg.
The melee will grab more headlines, but the game that preceded it was wildly entertaining stuff, as both teams got after it right from the opening whistle.
Twelve minutes in, Keane corralled a sliding clearance by Keel, cut the ball back at the top of the box and curled a shot toward Frank Rost’s far post.
The big German stood was rooted to the spot, as if he were certain the ball was headed wide, and the stadium seemed to relax with him - until, thwack, Keane’s shot struck Rost’s far post like a wake-up call. Only Rost didn’t answer it: He waved feebly at the rebound while Mike Magee, on the doorstep, headed it just over the bar.
It was a sign of things to come: Just three minutes later, Magee controlled a curling pass from David Beckham on the left side of the box, and with Keane standing in a passive offside position (and distracting the New York defence), Magee lashed a shot past an unresisting Rost and into the far side netting.
The Galaxy weathered a furious second-half charge from the Red Bull - with Rost’s counterpart, Josh Saunders, making several big saves - and held on for the 1-0 win.
The series shifts Thursday to The Home Depot Center, where LA are unbeaten (12W-0L-5D) this season.
Houston, No Problem
There was no postmatch brouhaha, but the Philadelphia Union - Houston Dynamo match at PPL Park had quite a bit in common with the thriller at Red Bull Arena.
It was an emotional affair, with one shoving match, six yellow cards and some controversy. There was also an early goal from the visitors (Andre Hainault’s fifth-minute header off a Brad Davis free kick), and a second-half surge by the hosts thwarted by some excellent goalkeeping.
Two minutes after Hainault’s opener, Sébastien Le Toux brought the home crowd back into it, volleying in a deflected chip from Michael Farfan to make it 1-1.
But the Dynamo went ahead again in the 30th minute, Calen Carr speeding onto Brian Ching’s through ball and slotting home inside the near post just ahead of Philly defender Carlos Valdés’ tackle.
That proved to be enough for Houston, as the Union had a penalty shout denied in the 55th minute (the ball may have contacted Davis’ arm in the box), and Tally Hall made 10 saves to preserve the win, putting the Dynamo in the driver’s seat heading back to Robertson Stadium for Thursday’s second leg.
So much for homefield advantage: Sporting Kansas City made it a clean sweep for the visitors on Sunday, beating Colorado Rapids 2-0 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in the third game of the day.
United States international Teal Bunbury scored both goals for SKC, who are not only headed back to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, where they are 9W-2L-6D this season, but will also be facing a heavily depleted Rapids side in the return leg.
Colorado began the game without Conor Casey (ruptured Achilles), Pablo Mastroeni (concussion), and Jamie Smith (torn ACL suffered in the wild-card game just three days earlier). Incredibly, before an hour had passed in the match, they were down three more.
Striker Caleb Folan, defender Kosuke Kimura, and defender Drew Moor - the current MLS iron man, who had gone the distance in a record 69 consecutive games - all had to leave the match with injuries.
For all the wins by road teams this week, it was a victory by a home side that turned the most heads. Real Salt Lake entered their first leg with Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in the midst of a six-game winless streak. Sounders FC, on the other hand, had won five of their last six.
RSL did have Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Will Johnson reunited in midfield for the first time in a while, and the trio helped remind everyone why Salt Lake were widely acknowledged as the top side in MLS during their CONCACAF Champions League run last spring. They won the midfield battle, and Morales helped create two goals, as Salt Lake rolled to a dominating 3-0 win.
The Claret-and-Cobalt’s second goal came off a bit of magic from striker Álvaro Saborío, who flicked Morales’s 53rd-minute cross inside the far post with his backheel, as Seattle defender Jeff Parke clambered all over him.
The third goal came from Morales’ replacement, Ned Grabavoy, and it was huge: CenturyLink Field is an intimidating place to play, but even the raucous sell-out crowds there may not be enough to help Seattle overcome a 3-0 deficit.
Then again, RSL saw both of their centre backs, Jámison Olave (quadriceps) and Nat Borchers (knee), hobble off early, and could be without them for the Seattle trip.
As coach Jason Kreis said after the game (and promised to repeat up until the second leg): “It’s only halftime.”
That goes for all four series - and there are some entertaining second halves lined up this week.