[MLS PLAYOFFS] The conference semifinals included a postgame melee between the Red Bulls and the Galaxy that prompted harsh words from Landon Donovan, a Real Salt Lake romp over Seattle, a loss by defending champ Colorado to K.C., and a Philly fall to Houston. Ridge Mahoney explains how the new playoff system is working out and looks at the weekend's highlights and lowlights. ...
THE SYSTEM WORKS. One facet of MLS revising its playoff format, that of rewarding the conference winners by pairing them with wild-card opponents in the conference semifinals, worked well.
Both teams that advanced out of the wild-card rounds, New York and Colorado, lost their first legs despite playing at home. The Red Bulls fell to Los Angeles, 1-0, and the defending champs looked nothing like their 2010 selves while losing to Kansas City, 2-0.
By compressing the entire playoff schedule into a 12-day window (last Wednesday to next Sunday) as to avoid the mid-November FIFA dates, MLS placed an especially tough burden on the wild-card teams. They must play four games to reach MLS Cup, the other six teams play a maximum of three.
No team will find it easy to get through the conference finals. Both matches are scheduled for next Sunday (Nov. 6), and since four teams – Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Kansas City -- began their playoff runs Sunday, if they advance out of the conference semifinals they will play three games in eight days.
RSL and Seattle, which opened their series Saturday night, will get a bit more rest. The point may be moot, since RSL pounded the Sounders, 3-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium, but a desperate Seattle team on artificial turf in front of its howling fans will be a severe test no matter what the series scoreline.
“It’s not an ideal situation, again, it is what it is,” RSL coach Jason Kreis had said during a conference call prior to the game. “I do believe that our players have been faced by the same circumstance on multiple occasions throughout the season.
“The one consideration that you have to make is that any time you’re going to play three matches in a week, and you have the potential of moving on after the first round and playing again on the weekend, that’s three matches in one week and one of them being on an artificial surface. You’ve got to question yourself and question some of the players who have lingering injuries as to whether or not they can make it through and be fully effective in all of those matches.”
RSL ROMPS AT RIO TINTO. Kreis also said during the week he wasn’t concerned that RSL failed to win any of its last six regular-season games. His players responded with one of their best performances of the season, and an especially impressive victory given the loss of defender Jamison Olave to a first-half injury.
Kreis was able to field his strongest lineup, and his attacking trident of Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales gashed the Sounders’ back line repeatedly. Saborio scored with a goal-line tap-in and brilliant back-heel, Espindola threw himself into the goalmouth to fire several threatening shots at Kasey Keller, and Morales displayed enough class and poise to confirm he’s nearly all the way back after missing five months with a broken leg.
The third goal came from substitute Ned Grabavoy, who barreled into the penalty area to snag a weak clearance and drill a low shot underneath Keller that drops the Sounders into a deep hole. No team in the MLS playoffs has ever overturned a three-goal deficit after the first leg.
As good as the RSL attackers were, their Seattle counterparts weren’t nearly good enough. Smothered by Kyle Beckerman and Co., in midfield, and closely hounded by centerbacks Jeff Parke, and Olave’s replacement, Chris Schuler, the Sounders’ strike force of Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez and Sammy Ochoa usually struck out. Subs Erik Friberg and Mike Fucito added a little spark but RSL snuffed it out.
PHILLY FALLS. In addition to Los Angeles and Kansas City winning on the road, Houston – which unlike RSL finished the season strongly – came out of PPL Park with a 2-1 defeat of Philadelphia secured with goals by Adrian Hainault and Calen Carr.
The Dynamo carried the momentum of its 7-2-4 record over the final third of the season by punching home a goal in the fourth minute on a Brad Davis free-kick serve to Hainault, and then regaining the lead with a sharp finish by Carr from a superb Brian Ching chip.
Luiz Camargo, Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron all contributed, and keeper Tally Hall came of age under extreme conditions. He flew left to tip away a Roger Torres free kick for one of his 10 saves and got a bit of luck when Jack McInerney’s late header came back off the crossbar.
As second-half subs, Torres and Freddy Adu injected life into the Philly attack, opening the question as to Coach Peter Nowak’s decision to start Brian Carroll and Stefani Miglioranzi in the middle. Miglioranzi often dropped deep to shield the back line; this left much of the attacking burden on Sebastien Le Toux, who scored Philly’s equalizer with a clinical volley of Michael Farfan’s diagonal cross.
Still, the Union managed 25 shots. As the home team in the playoffs, more than one of those shots has to go in.
LANDON LASHES OUT. Hall’s fine game followed an excellent display by Galaxy counterpart Josh Saunders, whose stab save of Joel Lindpere’s close-range shot won’t soon depart the Estonian’s tortured nightmares. The keeper also thwarted Dane Richards and Rafael Marquez to frustrate the Red Bulls, especially Marquez, who triggered a post-match melee by throwing a ball at Landon Donovan that hit him on the foot.
Juninho entered the fray and was red-carded along with Marquez, who attempted a head-butt and threw a punch that missed before going to the ground along with teammate Stephen Keel. Juninho was led off the field by assistant coach Dave Sarachan. Marquez and Juninho will miss the second leg Thursday unless the punishments are reduced.
The Red Bulls had plenty of time to match or surpass Mike Magee’s goal in the 15th minute, but despite Richards’ raking runs and the usual rugged bustling of Luke Rodgers, New York ended the game in a petulant display.
“There a few plays where they took some cheap shots at us,” said Donovan after the match. “In all my years in this league, I’ve not played against a cheaper team, and they’ve been doing it all year. We saw it a few weeks ago with [Thierry] Henry kneeing someone in the back. We’ve seen that stuff all year. You just deal with it, and at the end of it, the cream rose to the top, and the better team won.”
Red Bulls-Galaxy postgame melee: