[MLS] Los Angeles and New York got road wins, and the teams in each conference semifinal series are separated by only a goal heading into the second legs to be played this week. Here are some observations from the first legs ...
SOUNDERS QUIETED. Seattle came into the playoffs with the league’s best record (10-2-3) during the second half of the season, but also burdened by the poor form of Fredy Montero, with just one point in his last eight league matches. Except for a couple of lively moments in the first half, Montero lurched into double-teams and blind alleys; he and massive frontline partner Blaise Nkufo seldom broke free of the Galaxy’s shackles sufficiently to cause LA problems in the 1-0 Galaxy win Sunday at Qwest Field.
Midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Juninho got a lot of defensive help from Landon Donovan, the left mid for most of the game, and David Beckham, who dropped so deep at times from his right midfield spot he cleared a couple of balls from his own penalty area. Donovan added to Montero’s woes by squeezing him near the touchline when he tried to dribble, and so attentive were Donovan and Beckham to their defensive duties that Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi, closely monitored by outside backs Eddie Lewis and Sean Franklin, were rarely factors.
Lewis, sidelined much of the season by injuries, hadn’t been a starter since the opening game of the season, yet Coach Bruce Arena turned to him when a hamstring strain knocked out regular left back Todd Dunivant.
Sharp saves by keeper Donovan Ricketts on shots by Montero and Zakuani, and yeoman’s work by centerback Omar Gonzalez were enough for the Galaxy to blank Seattle, which had scored 13 goals in its last six regular-season games.
Edson Buddle’s first-time hit on the bounce that soared over keeper Kasey Keller to dip inside the far post will labeled as lucky, yet a goalscorer like Buddle is always looking for a chance to find the frame. And overlooked was how adroitly he shrugged off the challenge of defender Patrick Ianni going for a ball headed in his direction by Gonzales as he set the ball up for a shot with a perfect first touch.
Ianni and Jeff Parke have done a good job of replacing last year’s starters, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (injured) and Tyrone Marshall (off form). Yet does Buddle handle the ball that cleanly and get plenty of space to shoot if he’s squared up against Hurtado? Probably not.
Second leg: Sunday @ Home Depot Center, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2/Deportes).
BULLISH DISPLAY. As the Eastern conference champion, New York (15-9-6, 51 points) accumulated only five more points than sixth-place Western finisher San Jose (13-10-7, 46 pts.), yet for most of their meeting at Buck Shaw Stadium Saturday night the Red Bulls looked stronger in their 1-0 win despite missing Thierry Henry and Tony Tchani because of injuries.
Only superb goalkeeping by Jon Busch prevented New York from building a bigger lead than the 1-0 advantage provided by Joel Lindpere’s crisp finish in the 56th minute. Busch thwarted good shots by Juan Agudelo – impressive in his first start despite being just 17 – and Mehdi Ballouchy but Lindpere, who’d also been stopped by Busch earlier in the match, beat him cleanly when a headed clearance by Brandon McDonald of a Rafael Marquez chip drifted in his direction.
Marquez’s control of the middle stifled San Jose for much of the match. He dropped into spaces to close off through balls and cleaned up balls headed out by centerbacks Tim Ream and Carlos Mendes.
The Quakes’ attack perked up after Eduardo replaced Scott Sealy in the 62nd minute and Arturo Alvarez took over for Sam Cronin seven minutes later, yet Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski got very few clean looks at goal. He headed a driven cross from right back Tim Ward wide early in the second half, and the balls directed to his forward partner Ryan Johnson didn’t produce many opportunities.
Second leg: Thursday @ Red Bull Arena 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2/Deportes)
FCD FIGHTS BACK. Like the Red Bulls, defending champion Real Salt Lake took a 1-0 lead on the road, but unlike New York couldn’t hold onto it.
Substitutes Jeff Cunningham and Eric Avila scored late in each half to counteract an early strike by Fabian Espindola to give Dallas a 2-1 edge in the series. RSL’s early control, forged by its potent midfield, waned when Cunningham replaced an injured Milton Rodriguez and right back Jackson Goncalves and center back Zach Loyd switched positions.
Goncalves’ failure to shut off the middle enabled Espindola to cut inside Ugo Ihemelu and fire a shot past Kevin Hartman just inside the far post. FCD gradually forced RSL back into its own half to defend, and after Rodriguez left with a groin strain in the 32nd minute, Cunningham scored a minute before halftime when the RSL defense couldn’t clear a loose ball triggered by a David Ferreira cross. It caromed off the arms of both Jamison Olave and Cunningham before the FCD striker stuck it into the net.
Avila scored a spectacular winner by following up Ferreira’s aggressive dribble to rifle home a shot from the edge of the penalty area as again the RSL defense failed to clear its lines. By then both teams were down to 10 men; because of a second caution to Javier Morales and a straight red to Atiba Harris both teams will lack their services for the second leg.
Second leg: Saturday @ Rio Tinto Stadium, 10 p.m. ET (FSC/FSE)
RAPIDS RUE RESULT. Colorado coach Gary Smith walked off the field Thursday night with a taut expression that seemed to say, "We didn’t do enough."
They did enough to beat Columbus, 1-0, at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park with a Pablo Mastroeni goal midway through the first half, yet hit the frame only twice despite creating 15 shots, more than a few of which came from good angles and distances. Backup keeper Andy Gruenebaum, pressed into action when a shoulder injury sidelined starter Will Hesmer in the last game of the regular season, needed to make just one save. The Crew labored to contain Omar Cummings, but either his shots or those he created skipped wide of the target, and as the misses piled up Columbus regained some stability.
Crew forward Emilio Renteria, who scored five goals in 19 league matches, sat out the match with an inflamed knee. Guillermo Barros Schelotto began to find the ball and some space, yet generated little offensive impetus, so Coach Robert Warzycha replaced him with striker Andres Mendoza in the 68th minute and also removed forward Jason Garey in favor of Steven Lenhart.
Columbus gained a foothold in the Colorado half and drew several fouls within range of the goal, but lacked the edge of Barros Schelotto’s service on free kicks. Rapids keeper Matt Pickens fought off an Andy Iro header set up by an Eddie Gaven corner kick to preserve the Rapids’ lead to the final whistle.
In last year’s playoffs, the Crew lost the first leg at RSL, 1-0, then completely imploded at home to lose the second leg, 3-2, and the series, 4-2, on aggregate. Renteria may miss the second leg as well, but Barros Schelotto – burdened by fatigue from the Crew’s heavy burden of league, Concacaf Champions’ League and U.S. Open Cup the past 2½ months – should be well rested.
Second leg: Saturday @ Columbus Crew Stadium, 4 p.m. ET (TeleFutura).