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Friday 28 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Wildcard: Match Two – Colorado Rapids v Columbus Crew – Of Blustering Cold, a Playoff Rematch, Tactical Changes, a Death Blow, & the American Scott Parker.

    On a clear, chilly night in the lofty confines of DSG Park with the temperature hovering around freezing Colorado and Columbus took to the field in the second wildcard match to determine who would move on to face Kansas City in the quarterfinals of the MLS Cup playoffs.

    The snow of the day before, which had fans gleaming at the possibility of witnessing the fabled orange ball, had gone; the silver defending champions’ ball would suffice.

    Each side made several unexpected changes from their preferred lineups, in part due to necessity, but equally in an attempt to break the deadlock between the two sides. A relatively even matchup that had seen each side triumph at home in the regular season – Colorado 2-0 and Columbus 4-1, though the expulsion of Conor Casey in the first half was responsible for the lop-sided nature of that score.

    Columbus – as the road side – came in conservatively, Coach Robert Warzycha opting for a five-man midfield with a lone striker up top. Emilio Rentería was held in reserve, as the more mobile Dilly Duka took up an attacking midfielder’s role in support of Andrés Mendoza. The suspension of Emmanual Ekpo necessitated the inclusion of Tony Tchani – formerly of Toronto and New York – as a physical, midfield dynamo in the centre of the pitch; his first appearance for his new club on such a crucial night spoke highly of his future role with the team.

    Colorado too was forced into making changes: midfield general, Pablo Mastroeni suffering from concussion symptoms - forced to leave a physical match with Salt Lake two weeks prior - was replaced by Jamie Smith, a more attacking selection, who is normally fielded on the left of the midfield. Wells Thompson, their usual wide left midfielder, was on the bench in lieu of the added forward dimension of Sanna Nyassi, who had been a makeshift forward for much of the second half of the season due to the rash of injuries that has affected the Rapids. Up top Coach Gary Smith fielded a classic, big man-little man combo of Caleb Folan and Omar Cummings; the usually conservative Colorado team had a very attacking feel about it.

    That attacking impetus showed through after both sides had felt each other out in the opening stages of play. Cummings signaled his sides’ intent with a dangerous, probing run and shot from distance in the eighth minute, while Duka responded in kind for the Crew, earning a corner kick as Marvell Wynne swept the loose ball parried by Matt Pickens away to safety.

    Despite the man-advantage in midfield Columbus found themselves susceptible to the pace of Colorado, who began slicing open their opponents defense seeming at will. An early yellow card to Sebastián Miranda, the Columbus right-back, made his attempts to challenge all the more difficult for fear of being sent off.

    Colorado tallied a dominant sixty-one percent of possession in the first half; their constant prodding at the Columbus defense kept the Crew on the back foot for the majority of the half, but it wasn’t until the final minute of play that their breakthrough came.

    Some fine play from Brian Mullan – a veteran playing in his eleventh consecutive postseason – on the right, moving infield as Kosuke Kimura – scorer of the goal that sealed their progression to the cup final last season - overlapped. Mullan played a deftly weighted ball through the backpedalling Columbus defensive line for the Japanese right-back to run onto. Kimura collected near the end-line and cut back a pass for Omar Cummings, who was coasting in unmarked in the high slot at the near-post.

    The Jamaican striker smashed his shot to the short-side, preferring power to accuracy, catching Will Hesmer in the Columbus goal with his feet moving and no chance of confronting the blast.

    Colorado had their goal, and seconds later went into the break with that advantage.

    Columbus came out for the second intent on rectifying the result, their ball retention increased – to fifty-five percent – but they were limited in their ability to create chances. Mendoza single-handedly crafted the best of the lot, cutting in from the right-side of the pitch to unleash a blast from distance that dipped unpredictably, fiercely striking the crossbar as Pickens watched helplessly in horror.

    Colorado’s midfield commander Jeff Larentowicz - the American Scott Parker, same high shorts, tidy haircut, and neat game – and his teammates stifled any attempts to penetrate, limiting Columbus to a paltry few shots from distance.

    The Crew brought on Rentería, then Jeff Cunningham in an effort to reinforce their attack, but could muster only the feeblest of challenges; when Cunningham tweaked a muscle he was replaced by Tommy Heinemann to similar – no – effect. Colorado solidified their midfield by removing goal-scorer Cummings for the added defensive awareness of Thompson.

    It was not all well for Colorado as they lost Smith to what appeared to be a serious knee injury, when he stretched and planted his right-foot awkwardly then crumpled to the ground. The string of injuries that has hampered the Rapids all season continues, as he was stretched off on the most low-budget of apparatus imaginable.

    Ross LaBauex replaced the injured midfielder, to assist in seeing out the match. Macoumba Kandji – scorer of the MLS Cup-winning goal last season – came on late to replace Folan and freshen up the high pressing.

    It was Kandji who made the last proper chance of the night, gliding in and lashing a shot low to the left-post, striking the base and squirreling away for a goal kick. 

    Columbus again sees their season ended prematurely by the Rapids, falling to the same team that knocked them out of the postseason last year. This year’s meek effort will not have the sting of last year’s penalty kick defeat; when Brian Carroll – Columbus’ fifth taker – skied his effort over the bar - the first miss of the shootout - to hand the Rapids a 5-4 win. Though there will of course be questions as to the inconsistency and lack of offense that doomed them.

    The 1-0 home victory for Colorado sees them move on to quarterfinals (conference semifinals) in the first round of the playoffs proper. They will take on Eastern Conference table-toppers Kansas City.

Colorado v Columbus 1-0.

Wildcard Match One – Dallas v New York Review

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