By Ridge Mahoney
There's no question a Stanley Cup playoff game ramps up the pace and intensity of a typical regular-season NHL encounter, and judging by what transpired last weekend, the MLS Cup playoffs are clearly trending in the same direction.
No doubt Commissioner Don Garber is sick and tired of responding to critics who pine for promotion-relegation and a single-table without playoffs. Fortunately, he can point to the events of Saturday and Sunday as viable justification of why MLS does what it does, even though games hosted by New England and Seattle were played on fully marked NFL surfaces that blighted two otherwise entertaining encounters.
Each series is balanced differently given the results of the first legs, so each will have its own storyline for the decisive midweek rematches. Dynamics would be altered if MLS used away goals as a playoff tiebreaker, but since it doesn’t, the series will be decided by total goals, overtime if necessary, or penalty kicks as a last resort.
The four conference semifinals played last weekend were all riveting for their drama, intrigue and controversy. Eight teams will be back in action for the second legs Wednesday and Thursday that will decide the final four candidates for this year’s MLS Cup final, to be played Dec. 7.
By itself, the Houston-New York game provided all three elements, with a spirited Dynamo comeback from 2-0 down aided by a Jamison Olave red card and punctuated by substitute Omar Cummings’ equalizer in stoppage time. Still there was time for a desperation tackle by Ibrahim Sekagya on Cummings in the final seconds that looked for all the world to be a penalty-kick foul but wasn’t called.
Ordinarily, a tie on the road in the playoffs is to be celebrated, but the Red Bulls come home at 2-2 with one of the league’s best defenders suspended for the second leg and disappointed at the final score. In the latter regard they are not alone.
Surprise Western Conference winner Portland strutted into the lair of its fiercest rival and banged out a 2-1 defeat of Seattle, yet also conceded a late goal – by Osvaldo Alonso – that gives the Sounders a bit more hope for the second leg at Jeld-Wen Field. Yet given how tough the Timbers have been at home this season – they conceded only 11 goals and posted a 11-1-5 record – hope won’t be nearly enough.
New England, playing at home in the first leg, jumped on top of Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, then quickly conceded a goal. The Revs did manage to hang onto that 2-1 lead, but the goal by Aurelien Collin should prove valuable when the teams resume their series at Sporting Park.
The Galaxy beat Real Salt Lake, 1-0, at StubHub Center with its misfiring attack greatly aided by Sean Franklin’s searing shot from distance. The two-time defending champion carried the brunt of play but breakdowns and miscommunication in the final third, along with several superb RSL defensive plays, kept the score close.
GLORIOUS GOALS. Eleven goals in four matches produced a 2.75 goals-per game average. Two of the away teams -- New York and Portland -- scored first, which contributed to longer periods of attacking play than is the playoff norm. The second legs could be tighter, yet only Portland hosts with a one-goal edge, so the other three home teams will take the field knowing they must score at least two goals to advance outright.
Of the 11 goals, at least three were superb. Darlington Nagbe scored Portland’s second goal by crisply controlling Kalif Alhassan’s short pass with his left foot and belting a low, far-post finish on his right. Kelyn Rowe stabbed the Revs’ second goal with the outside of his right foot and, like Nagbe’s, it went low to the far post and left keeper utterly helpless. Franklin’s incredible goal, struck first-time from more than 30 yards out, whistled past several players and stung the net behind one of the league’s best goalies, Nick Rimando.
The playoff schedule -- compressed at the start and stretched out at the end -- is a compromise no one likes, yet one forced by the FIFA international break. Two of the semifinal first legs were played on artificial turf marked for NFL usage, and faint football markings could also be seen on Houston’s soccer-specific field. Only the Galaxy listed its game as a sellout, though the crowds in all four stadiums were spirited and loud.
Like its counterparts in other American sports, the MLS playoffs are designed to mark out dramatic outcomes and spectacular moments along a path to a climactic title game. The conference semifinals first legs certainly did.