[MLS] After splitting their regular season meetings, 1-0, and finishing even with 46 points, the Rapids and Quakes met again Saturday in the Eastern Conference final as the two teams "crossing over" from the Western Conference. The Rapids used their superior midfield and the powerful forward tandem Conor Casey and Omar Cummings to control play for most of the match, but needed an unlikely goalscorer and a bizarre play to knock off San Jose.
They probably won’t admit it, but the San Jose Earthquakes probably peaked too soon in the MLS playoffs.
After a scintillating performance that destroyed the Red Bulls, 3-1, in the second leg of their conference semifinal, they labored valiantly in unfamiliar, wintry conditions and lost to Colorado, 1-0, Saturday in the conference final at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on a goal as strange as it was deserved.
Superior when judged on the balance of chances created, the Rapids would have won by more if not for a few blinding saves by goalie Jon Busch. Yet the valiant Quakes never fell off the pace and stayed within a fortunate bounce or clinical finish of forcing overtime. The Rapids got that bounce, the Quakes didn’t, and by that slim margin the better team on the night prevailed.
Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan took the left side and his hard work kept the Quakes busy shifting from side to side. Wells Thompson had been deployed by Coach Gary Smith on the right side to overwhelm Quakes left back Tim Ward, who also had to battle right back Kosuke Kimura’s forays up that flank and the marauding runs of Cummings. Thompson’s strong left foot gave the Rapids the option of swerving inswingers from that flank, and from such a ball the goal came, but from a different outlet.
Kimura charged up the right side several times in the first half to lift crosses with either foot, and shortly before halftime he pulled a ball back to find a space from which he served it with his left. Rugged Cummings, marked by defender Jason Hernandez, arrowed for the ball just outside the six-yard box and took a swipe at the ball as it went by. Though he missed, Cummings’ swing froze Busch long enough for Kimura's untouched cross to bounce past him and just inside the far post.
Colorado’s central midfield pair of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni threaded dangerous balls to Cummings, and for much of the game Colorado’s wide mids Mullan and Thompson owned their corners. In the ninth minute Mullan broke in alone on the left side on a great diagonal ball from Casey but an offside call nullified the chance. Thompson and Kimura were usually in command of the opposite side.
In the wake of Casey’s tough, resolute drive to hold up balls and grapple with defenders, Cummings found gaps all along the back line, though he squandered a one-v-one chance by shooting into Busch’s feet, lost another when the keeper slide-tackled the ball to safety, and fluffed yet another by rattling the crossbar after rounding the goalie’s lunge. Casey missed the target three times with headers but constantly tied up defenders going for high balls and crosses.
San Jose’s holding mid Sam Cronin did a credible job of getting to balls and playing them to teammates, but playmakers Scott Sealy and Geovanni sputtered to maintain much tempo or rhythm with possessions. Colorado centerbacks Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne did a good job of blunting robust forward Ryan Johnson, and collected a lot of the knockdowns he was able to earn. Moor also directed a set play on frame that Geovanni, stationed on the post, blocked and then hacked out of danger.
Bobby Convey started the match as the left midfielder and shifted to left back when Coach Frank Yallop replaced Tim Ward with winger Arturo Alvarez in the 57th minute. Convey drove forward and veered inside to test the Rapids, but they collapsed on him cleverly when he got within shooting range and they marked up tightly when he delivered crosses, free kicks, and corners. Yallop also used Geovanni’s right-footed deliveries to mix up the set-play service but very seldom did the Quakes get a clean attempt at goal or a juicy knockdown in such situations.
Chris Wondolowski ran and darted for the entire match without much reward while drawing close attention wherever he went. He hit one half-volley wide of the near post and headed just past the post on a feed from Johnson. Sealy nearly struck in the opening minutes when Pickens cleared a ball right to him, but his first-timer from about 30 yards out dropped a foot or so over the bar. In the latter stages Sealy moved up top with Johnson to give the Quakes more beef in the box; the added pressure by substitutes Alvarez, Khari Stephenson and Eduardo yielded a few openings but for the 90 minutes the Quakes produced just one shot on goal.
Kimura, whose resolute work on the right flank all season prompted Smith to keep him in that slot and deploy Wynne in the middle most of the time, got the glory for his unintentional goal. Just as important was the intelligent and resolute defensive work by him and his teammates that offset some wasteful finishing by Casey and Cummings to subdue a very worthy opponent.