By Paul Gardner
Let me deal first with the Columbus-Colorado game -- if only because I wish to get the least interesting part out of the way quickly. Very little good soccer to be seen here -- though, inevitably, the game got pretty exciting toward the end as both teams sought the vital winning goal.
As neither team managed to get it, we instead were transported into the mystic realms of the shootout tiebreaker, and the whole two-game series -- all 210-plus minutes of it, was reduced to just one player: the Crew’s Brian Carroll, whose shot was nowhere near on target, so the Rapids were presented with the win, and poor Carroll, with total unfairness, was left to bear the entire responsibility for his team’s loss.
That’s the way it is with those shootouts, which is as good a reason -- but only one of many reasons -- for not liking them. I’m not detracting from the Rapids’ win -- the honors were just about even during the real game. Except for one thing: A refereeing gaff -- yet another example of referees, good referees, failing to make a vital call.
In the 38th minute, Michael Kennedy yellow-carded the Rapids’ Brian Mullan for what looked to me like a tactical foul (the MLS website lists it as a reckless foul). Barely two minutes later, Mullan demolished Guillermo Barros Schelotto with a violent sliding tackle. As obvious a yellow card foul as you will see -- yet Kennedy allowed play to continue -- with Colorado in clear possession, so this was not a matter of playing the advantage rule. Eventually, Kennedy blew his whistle and brought the ball back, giving a free kick to Columbus -- thus acknowledging the foul, but not ejecting Mullan with a second yellow.
I’ve had my say on a number of occasions about forcing a team to play with only 10 men -- I don’t like it, nor what it does to the game. But as long as the rules say you can’t replace an ejected player, that is what we have to live with -- and the Rapids, clearly, should have been down to 10 men at that point.
Refereeing was not a factor in the other two playoffs. As expected, the Real Salt Lake-Dallas game was the pick of the crop, by a wide margin. This was where the sparkling soccer was, in Real’s Rio Tinto Stadium. It came from both teams, it came from Real’s Tony Beltran, Kyle Beckerman, Andy Williams, Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio, and it came from Dallas’s Martin Chavez, Jair Benitez, Dax McCarty, David Ferreira, and Jeff Cunningham.
The opening goal from Dallas -- the one that really decided the game -- was a beauty, a moment of great control, with his chest, by Brek Shea on an awkward ball, then a darting, neat dribble from McCarty to take him around goalkeeper Nick Rimando, and a firm finish. With Dallas already 2-1 ahead from the first leg, Real’s task became just too much -- it needed two goals just to force overtime. But the impossible suddenly looked possible -- almost probable -- at the 79th minute mark, after Robbie Findley had tied the game at 1-1. Up went Real’s intensity, up went the crowd roar, and we got a breathtaking final 15 minutes in which there were chances and saves for both teams.
Real Salt Lake -- to its and to Coach Jason Kreis’s credit -- did not resort to long balls, but continued to play the ball forward by passing movements. Maybe, with another minute or two, another five minutes maybe, it would have scored that vital goal. I found myself wishing that they would -- not because I favored them over Dallas, but because the goal would mean 30 minutes more of this exhilarating soccer.
It was not to be. Dallas advances, and it is rewarding to think that, in the end the goal that separated the two teams was that wonderful winner scored by Eric Avila in the first game -- Avila, who didn’t even get on the field in this deciding game!
So the playoffs lost one of its liveliest teams. It was impossible not to regret the passing of Real Salt Lake, especially so with knowledge that, earlier in the day, the very ordinary Colorado Rapids had fought their way through.
From the honest, pedestrian, hard-working Rapids and the skillful, enterprising FC Dallas FC we moved on to the L.A. Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders. What we saw was nothing particularly special. An exercise, if you like, in the professional approach to the game. The Galaxy doing what was needed, no more, getting a vital early goal from Edson Buddle -- who else? -- after only 18 minutes, then controlling the game, strangling it, really.
Very effective, but rather dull. Seattle, basically, had no answer to tactics that allowed it no time on the ball and that were dangerously quick to counter. Once again, we saw little in the way of skilled buildup from either team. Both of the Galaxy’s goals came from set plays (which the ESPN tribe insist on calling set pieces, for whatever reason). And both came from passes delivered by David Beckham.
This led to a series of emetically worshipful outbursts from commentators John Harkes and JP Dellacamera, raising Beckham’s achievements to almost god-like level. “If you’re open for a second, Beckham will find you,” was JP’s absurdity, while Harkes chimed in with “his vision and his ideas are unreal” -- that sort of idolatry is maybe OK once in a while, but this went on through out the game. (And my congratulations to Coach Bruce Arena, who in a postgame interview in which Rob Stone was trying to get him to single out Beckham as the evening’s star, simply remarked that “it was the whole team tonight.”)
What Beckham did was to deliver a perfectly ordinary corner kick that Buddle turned into a goal, mainly because he was unmarked and didn’t even have to jump -- his header, incidentally, bounced once before going into the net. After that, Beckham did send over a wonderful free kick, which Omar Gonzalez converted with a terrific diving header -- a great moment of soccer skill from both players. Dema Kovalenko, it is pleasing to report, had a subdued game, while even Landon Donovan had his quiet periods.
The Galaxy vs. Dallas game coming up has possibilities -- mostly from what Dallas offers. At the moment, there is no reason to expect anything other than more professionalism from the Galaxy, plus the Beckham set plays. From the other game, San Jose-Colorado, I expect little -- and if there is anything worth appreciating, it will come from the underrated San Jose, not from the banalities of Colorado. But I’m afraid it looks like a Galaxy-Colorado final.