[MLS] So much for MLS's playoff seedings. After No. 8 seed San Jose, No. 7 Colorado and No. 5 FC Dallas are through to the conference finals. Out are the lone Eastern Conference entrants, New York and Columbus, and defending MLS champion Real Salt Lake. No. 1 seed Los Angeles, however, managed to advance, at No. 8 Seattle's expense.
Three of losing teams could point to a staggering schedule of games as one factor in their ousters.
HEAVY LEGS? In the aftermath of Puerto Rico Islanders knocking out Los Angeles in a Concacaf Champions League series came rationalizations that perhaps the defeat, as stunning as it was, would lighten the Galaxy’s burden of matches sufficiently to improve its MLS Cup prospects.
Reasons other than fatigue caused three of the top four seeds to collapse in the first round, and New York has no excuse, flubbing a 1-0 lead from its road game to lose the second leg at home, 3-1, and the series on aggregate, 3-2, to San Jose. The Red Bulls couldn’t stop Bobby Convey, who scored two goals and assisted on the third, and in the second leg seldom looked as sharp and committed as did the Quakes.
Still, none of the three MLS teams to compete in the Concacaf Champions League group phase survived the conference semifinals. Defending MLS champion Real Salt Lake lost to FC Dallas, 3-2, on aggregate; Columbus fell to Colorado on penalty kicks after 210 minutes of play ended, 2-2; and Seattle lost both legs while tumbling against Los Angeles, 3-1, on aggregate.
CREW, RSL STUMBLE. Columbus went winless in six league matches before crushing Philadelphia in the season finale. It advanced through CCL group play (six matches) and reached the U.S. Open Cup final (four games), which it lost to Seattle. But for the second straight year it stumbled in the first playoff round. A year ago, RSL upset Columbus, 4-2, on aggregate on its way to the title.
This year, Columbus again started on the road, where it lost the first leg, 1-0, and probably should have lost by more to a faster, sharper Colorado team. The Crew rebounded in the second leg to lead the Rapids, 2-0, but conceded a Conor Casey goal in the 83rd minute to end up tied on aggregate, 2-2, and after neither team scored in overtime, lost on penalty kicks, 5-4.
Columbus couldn’t manage the game with a one-goal lead on aggregate, and several players were a step behind when Omar Cummings, charged into the right corner to hit a near post cross that Casey tucked away at the near post.
RSL, which also survived the CCL group phase to be paired with Columbus in the quarterfinals, scored the first goal of the first leg in Dallas to lead, 1-0, but lost control of the midfield and eventually lost, 2-1. At home on Saturday it gave up an early goal to Dax McCarty, and while it rallied furiously to equalize through Robbie Findley with 10 minutes left, it couldn’t score the goal it needed to tie the series on aggregate.
FC Dallas looked quicker and tighter than RSL. Another strong game by David Ferreira carved open the defending champion several times until; RSL regained a foothold in the second half. FCD needed superb work by keeper Kevin Hartman, who robbed Fabian Espindola twice with kick saves, to stave off RSL’s second-half siege. Espindola also headed a rebound over the bar that should have been a goal.
The defending champion couldn’t overcome the second-leg suspension of playmaker Javier Morales, a knee problem that hobbled forward Alvaro Saborio, and the absence of left back Chris Wingert (hamstring strain). Findley replaced Saborio and scored for RSL on a ball knocked down by defender Nat Borchers but FCD held its nerve and the lead through five minutes of stoppage time.
SET PLAY PRECISION. Nobody has scored more goals on set plays this season than the Galaxy, and it rang up its 12th and 13th goals in such situations against the Sounders. Edson Buddle scored in the 19th minute on a David Beckham corner kick. Buddle knifed in behind Omar Gonzalez, whose near post run and jump might have distracted Tyrone Marshall, marking Buddle, just enough that Buddle got to the ball first and drilled a downward header past Kasey Keller.
Los Angeles doubled its lead eight minutes later on another set play. This time, Beckham’s serve came from the left side of midfield and Gonzalez emerged from a pack of players to send the ball arrowing into the net with a diving header. The two-goal cushion enabled the Galaxy to play in shutdown mode and smother the Seattle attack, plagued by the poor form of Blaise Nkufo and Fredy Montero for the past few weeks.
Keeper Donovan Ricketts, who stoned the Sounders a few times in the first leg at Qwest Field, charged out to thwart Steve Zakuani in the second half on Seattle’s first good chance. In the final minutes, on a similar play, Zakuani came from the same angle and blasted a shot through Ricketts’ gloves for the first playoff goal in Sounders’ team history.
A relatively easy second leg should result in a fresher Galaxy team for the conference final next week at home against FC Dallas, and presumably the following week if it gets back to MLS Cup.
“I think so,” said Buddle, who cited injuries as well as fatigue for that narrow loss in MLS Cup 2009. “We’ve added the Brazilians [Juninho, Leandro, and Alex Cazumba]. Last year, we had to make a substitution early because our goalkeeper got injured and Omar was cramping up so we had to make another substitution. We had a few guys out there who could have used a break and been replaced with fresh legs.
“This year we have a lot more depth and I think we’ll be prepared for anything.”
ROADIES. Despite his team’s struggles to win at home during the final two months of the season, Quakes coach Frank Yallop had cited several times how its road record could be a factor in the playoffs.
San Jose compiled a 6-5-4 record, the league’s best, away from home this season; it won its first road game, at Chicago, in April, and also beat Toronto, Houston, Philadelphia, D.C. United, and Seattle. Trailing, 1-0, to New York from the first leg, it startled the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena by playing its typically cohesive and organized pressure game, and like FCD and LA, getting key saves from its own keeper, Jon Busch.
Convey, ostensibly the left mid, darted deep into penalty area to stick away Scott Sealy’s early service from the right flank in the sixth minute. Convey scored again in the 76th minute when isolated against Tim Ream one-v-one on the left side; he smoked the rookie with a ball knocked into space and fired his shot past Bouna Coundoul.
After he’d hit the post in the first half, spectacular teenager Juan Agudelo got free again on the left side to cross a ball that Juan Pablo Angel headed in to tie the series, 2-2, on aggregate. But yet again New York lost its focus, and Convey drifted into a huge space to serve a great ball that Chris Wondolowski, poorly marked, headed home.