By Ridge Mahoney
If the two MLS wild-card games generated plenty of intensity and drama, as knockout matches are supposed to do, the first legs of the conference semifinals were tighter and more calculated.
The four semifinals generated a paltry five goals, and those included two of dubious quality: a terrible goalkeeping bobble and another quite savable shot that slithered underneath the goalkeeper’s despairing lunge. How vividly we will recall Bill Hamid’s “hot potato” own goal and Josh Saunders’ unfortunate stoppage-time gaffe depend, in part, on how their teams -- D.C. United and Los Angeles, respectively – fare in the away legs after failing to win at home.
Also stumbling in the home leg was Seattle, which struggled to a 0-0 tie with Real Salt Lake amid a downpour and on a slick CenturyLink Field. The only team to hold serve, Houston, did so emphatically, knocking off Eastern Conference top seed Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, with Will Bruin’s third playoff goal and a long-distance belter by midfielder Adam Moffat that whistled into the top corner.
Three of the four home teams, in essence, failed to score a goal: SKC and Seattle were blanked, and United scored in its 1-1 tie with New York when Red Bulls defender Roy Miller sliced a clearance that gave his keeper, Luis Robles, no chance.
Like in other sports, playoff games tend to be decided by exceptional moments – as per Mike Magee’s superb volley in the Galaxy’s wild-card victory Thursday – or grotesque gaffes -- Hamid, Saunders, Miller – or razor-thin misses, such Robbie Keane’s rip off the crossbar in a 1-0 home loss to the Quakes, and Fredy Montero’s powerful header that banged the upright in a 0-0 tie with RSL.
Much has been said and written about RSL breaking up after this season no matter what the outcome. Might the Sounders be bound for an upheaval if they failed to get past the first playoff round for a fourth straight season?
There will be complaints, justifiably, about the scheduling. Wild-card winners Houston and Los Angeles didn’t get equal rest. The Dynamo won in Chicago Wednesday, then returned home to host SKC on Sunday. The Galaxy laboriously knocked off Vancouver, 2-1, Thursday at Home Depot Center and 72 hours later hosted San Jose. Houston looked sharp and fit while retaining its mastery over SKC; the Galaxy, which lost twice and tied once in three regular-season games against the Quakes, played marginally better but put only two shots on goal.
Not coincidentally, both of the Galaxy games – as well as its last few regular-season matches – were televised on ESPN2 or ESPN. So it will be Wednesday for the Quakes-Galaxy second leg. That scheduling squeezed the rivalry playoff series into a four-day span (Sunday-Wednesday), while RSL and Seattle, which played the first leg Friday night, don’t play game two until Thursday.
While Seattle looked nervous in its game – it failed to score against RSL for the fourth time this season, and is facing a fourth straight first-round playoff elimination -– the Galaxy turned up flat and fatigued. Prior to the playoffs, an Eastern Conference exec told me this rationale applied as to why he didn’t think the Galaxy wouldn’t repeat: “They just look old.”
Since then, Landon Donovan has confirmed he feels older than he is, and Sunday night he played like it. David Beckham couldn’t finish the first semifinal, and Keane came up just short: he took four shots, but missed the target with a header from a Beckham free kick, and lashed a shot from distance that shook the crossbar.
Thus frustrated, the Galaxy fell prey to the league’s best team, and best story, so far in 2012. For the second time in his MLS career, Quakes defender Victor Bernardez scored with a well-struck free kick. He tippy-toed on his run up to smack a low shot that caromed off the foot of defender Omar Gonzalez as he jumped, and it changed speed and direction just enough to slip under Saunders' arms as he tried to smother it. The stunned Galaxy players watched a Quakes' goal celebration for the 10th time in their four meetings in 2012.
The Cardiac Quakes had again scored in stoppage time, and once again had downed their bitterest rivals. They had done it a record nine times during the regular season, so why not in the postseason, the time of drama and destiny.