MLS conference semis start sharply

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.
5 comments about "MLS conference semis start sharply ".
  1. Frank Cardone, November 4, 2013 at 7:59 p.m.

    Good that you mentioned the three field marred by football markings, but no report is complete without mentioning the many empty seats in Houston. It was a pleasure to see the Galaxy in action before a big crowd and on a field without football lines. One question: Numerous people commented that the field in Houston is "small" by which, I assume, they mean narrow. If this is true, then did the Dynamo and MLS permit a brand-new soccer-specific stadium be built narrow?

  2. Kent James, November 4, 2013 at 10:41 p.m.

    While I agree that the playoff games have been exciting, that is not a convincing argument against the one table promotion/relegation system. The latter makes the regular league games more exciting (especially those at the bottom), and gives lower division teams something to strive for. I also think the playoffs take away from the MLS cup, which seems essentially redundant, rather than the playoff-style alternative it is to the league championship that it is in most places. I'd also like to see the CONCACAF Champions league have the playoff type atmosphere that now is only in the MLS playoffs. I think the elimination of the playoffs would benefit both the open cup and the champions league. On the other hand, I'm not sure we're quite ready to make that transition (most lower division clubs don't have the infrastructure necessary to move up, though that is slowly changing), so I'll just enjoy the playoffs we have. But we've got to get rid of the football lines! Those lines are a big stamp that says "SECOND CLASS". If they can't get rid of the lines, make them play two games away...

  3. Peter Skouras, November 6, 2013 at 10:27 p.m.

    "No doubt Commissioner Don Garber is sick and tired of responding to critics who pine for promotion-relegation and a single-table without playoffs." seems like you support the Commissioner on the issue of the "traditional" and "world" setup. You can never understand this Ridge and it is not your fault. You and countless others were born in the United States and cannot comprehend how a "small" club can "climb" its way into the big time! The only way for you to understand is by living in a country or countries within a small city...then you will understand. We are not saying a promotion-relegation table without playoffs! Actually, the Europeans and South Americans incorporated the playoff method from American Sport. What is being expressed is that there "must" be RELEGATION...a playoff manner is totally appropriate. Pressure at both ends of the TABLE will increase the "intensity" 100% for the entire season. The MLS collectively is BORING Ridge. Lethargic, blood and guts! When the playoffs arrive of course the intensity rises...but only for a few matches. The ratio of the millions of kids playing the game today vs the MLS is a fraction over a whole number with many zeros...but that's a whole different story. No research is required has already been done. Yours in the American game, Peter

  4. Peter Skouras, November 9, 2013 at 12:43 p.m.

    You know what Ridge??? I have a suggestion. You have done well for yourself $$$ wise all these years. Now, take you retirement, unemployment of disability and head overseas. Get an apartment and follow "all" divisions. Not to worry, even if you did want to follow Real Madrid or Man U there are plenty of lower league clubs in the same city you can actually "learn" the footballing culture from. You will see how "precious" Promo/Releg is! Come back in about 5 years and "really" write on Football! Take care, Peter

  5. Peter Skouras, November 9, 2013 at 12:44 p.m.

    edit..."your" "or"

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