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Monday, 31 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Quarterfinals: Matches Two through Four – 1st Legs – Of a Super-Sunday Triple-Header, Handbags at Twelve Paces, a Flurry of Red Cards, Road Teams Taking the Advantage Back Home, & Juicy Second Legs Still to Come.

    Three matches on a Super-Sunday of MLS action. Six goals, three red cards, several scuffles, and three road wins.

    With Salt Lake vs. Seattle out of the way on Saturday night, the remaining three quarterfinal (conference semifinal) matches took place one after the other for a triple-header from afternoon to evening making for a rather enjoyable lazy Sunday’s viewing.

    First up was the star-studded meeting between Los Angeles and New York; a sign of the growing strength of the league as five World Cup goal-scorers took to the pitch in the same match. Note - 1

    It was a chilly autumn afternoon at Red Bull Arena with snow piled around the circumference of a pitch badly marred by the runoff of water at the seams of the protective tarp. In stark contrast to the weather, a spicy encounter ensued.

    A surprisingly open match saw both sides garner early chances – a Stephen Keel header from a corner kick was collected by Josh Saunders; Robbie Keane floated a shot to the back-post striking the woodwork only for Mike Magee to nod the rebound over – before LA opened the scoring.

    A midfield turnover by Thierry Henry – harried by Keane – led to a free kick for the Galaxy, David Beckham stepped up to deliver. His ball into space behind the defensive line on the left-side of the area found Magee all alone. The New York backline froze as they saw Keane in an offside position, but he was deemed to be passive on the play, as Magee lashed a shot across a surprised Frank Rost, who barely reacted to the threat.

    Not to be deterred by going behind early New York continued to find chances going forward. Henry made his own opportunity with a spectacular looping shot from a turn-and-volley that seemed wayward only to drop onto the top of the crossbar; minutes later Joel Lindpere dragged a shot wide of the right-post from outside the box. Their forward progress left gaps at the back as Keane almost created a second when his one-two with Magee at the top of the box allowed him to deliver a cross for Sean Franklin to nod home, unfortunately the ball was slightly over-hit and sailed high of the right-back’s head. 

    LA should have gone ahead by another goal, when a poor back-pass from Dane Richards fell kindly for Keane, who rounded Rost only to delay taking a shot, allowing the German keeper time to recover with a sliding tackle.

    New York went into the half trailing, but returned to the pitch eager to find an equalizer; were it not for some heroics in goal from Saunders, they would have done so.

    Less than a minute in an excellent long pass from Rafa Márquez found Richards streaking through the LA defense; in alone on goal, with Saunders rushing out to challenge, the speedy Jamaican got off a quick, poked shot that was thwarted only by a flash of the hand by the LA keeper.

    The home-side continued their pressure; another long ball this time for Luke Rodgers to chase down, through hustle and strength precipitated a jaw-dropping bicycle kick from Henry, well wide, but encouraging for the partisan crowd. Saunders was soon called upon again to make another close-quarters reaction save. This time it was Lindpere who was denied by a strong hand, when his one-time shot from a Richards’ right-sided square-ball was swatted away from its mark.

    After weathering that storm, the Galaxy had a chance of their own - a searching Beckham ball in behind the Red Bull defenders created a footrace between his teammate Landon Donovan and Tim Ream. Ream watched in horror as he lost his footing, falling to the ground, allowing the usually clinical Donovan in alone down the right-channel on goal. Rost, like his opposite keeper, was up to the task, diving to his right to block the shot across him destined for the far-post.

    For some strange reason New York seemed content to continually hammer crosses into the box – twenty-four to be exact - where Omar Gonzalez’s aerial dominance rendered their small forwards redundant. LA for their part was content to ride out the rest of the match and take the advantage back to their home-leg on Thursday night.

    Saunders was called upon once more in stoppage time when the ball fell to Márquez just outside the area; he smashed a low shot towards the far-post, which the keeper calmly intercepted.

    The final whistle was blown, handshakes were exchanged between the coaches – New York’s Hans Backe and Los Angeles’ Bruce Arena; the drama was over, 0-1 to Los Angeles, the affair to be continued in the second leg.

    Or so it appeared, as in a flash there erupted a flare of tempers, as several players came together for a frank exchange of ideas.

    All precipitated by a churlish lobbing of the match ball at Donovan by Márquez, after the players were separated Márquez himself and Los Angeles’ Brazilian midfielder Juninho were red-carded and will miss the return fixture.

    As that drama was concluding, some one-hundred and sixty miles away the next match was kicking off.

    A contest between youth-laden with experience and experience-supplemented with youth as home-side Philadelphia welcomed Houston into their ground. The theme to Rocky echoed around the stands as the rowdy fans waited in anticipation of their side’s first ever playoff match.

    Union coach Piotr Nowak had chosen a defensive lineup, with two central holding midfielders to reinforce his strong defense, while Dominic Kinnear – his opposite – went with his standard diamond four-four-two.

    Philadelphia had been warned the path through Houston involved limiting the danger provided by the service of Brad Davis, especially from set-pieces. But the impetuosity of youth struck quickly as an errant high boot from Gabriel Farfan on Danny Cruz gave the Dynamo a chance in the sixth minute from deep on the right-side.

    Davis sent an inch-perfect ball into the mix of players dashing to the near-post; Canadian defender Andre(w) Hainault met the ball with a deft flick sending it downward into the bottom corner of the goal past a helpless Faryd Mondragón to seize an early lead.

    Philly wasted little time in getting back into the match, drawing level seconds after the restart when Justin Mapp cut in from the right, fed a pass to Michael Farfan to have a go. He struck an effort goal-ward only to see his shot deflect off the shoulder of Geoff Cameron causing the ball to loop and fortuitously fall into the path of Sébastian Le Toux.

    The in-form Frenchman – ten goals in his last twelve matches – calmly connected with a sweeping first-time volley to level the match at one.

    The two sides went on to exchange several chances:  the Union moving forward in surges to attempt shots from distance that were easily enough handled by Tally Hall, while the Dynamo continued to utilize their strengths pounding aerial balls into the danger area for their taller players to direct at goal.

    It was Houston who next found the break through with a bit of uncharacteristic interplay. Captain Brian Ching lifted a neat through-ball for Calen Carr to run onto. The speedy Carr was brought into Houston in a trade with Chicago involving Dominic Oduro early in the season, but had only earned the starting spot in recent weeks. Carr calmly slotted his shot low to the short-side past the Philly keeper, just as the defenders collapsed upon him.

    This time the Union was unable to correct the score-line in such a timely manner and the sides went into the half with the Dynamo in the ascendency. A minor fracas involving Adam Moffat and Sheanon Williams following a sloppy tackle from behind by the Philly right-back saw both players booked before the half came to a close.

    Philadelphia, desperate to find a way back into the match, began to throw caution to the wind and press forward at each and every opportunity. Some unsuccessful and mediocre chances paved the way for the substitutions of Jack McInerney, Roger Torres, and later Freddy Adu.

    The triumvirate of young attackers breathed new life into the resurgent Union who then went on in search of that much desired equalizer. It was Torres who was responsible for most of the action, whistling a right-sided free kick to the top corner of the near-post that Hall in goal barely managed to tip around the frame, before Adu sent a cut-back from Le Toux sailing over the bar from the edge of the box.

    With Philly pressing forward, gaps began to open at the back and Houston should have increased their advantage when a wasteful two-man break by Will Bruin and Carlo Costly led to nothing.

    The Union continued to test what now appeared to be an eight-man defensive line; a knuckled-shot by Torres caused Hall some trouble, but was mopped up by Cameron before the rebound became a threat.

    Again, Houston found acres of space on the attack, Davis – he of setting up goals – almost found one of his own, when he laced an effort across Mondragón only for the big Columbian keeper to come up big with the denial.

    The final throes of the match saw Philadelphia with yet more chances; McInerney’s header caromed off the bar from an Adu cross, before one final header – from a ball sent back in after being half-cleared – in the ninety-fifth minute fell into the arms of Hall and the match official blew the final whistle.

    A hard-fought 1-2 road win for the Dynamo to take a one-goal advantage back to Texas when the two matchup again in the second leg of the tie. After succumbing to nerves in the opening half, the Union found some composure in their game, and with youth leading the way, it will be interesting to see how the side lines up in the return fixture on Thursday.

      If Philly mounted a courageous effort to resurrect their chances from a nightmarish first half, Colorado could do nothing of the sort. Their night progressed from bad to worse as every possible obstacle presented itself when they hosted Kansas City in the final match of the evening.

    A cagey and physical first half saw a confrontation – more handbags – between goalkeeper Matt Pickens and KC striker, Kei Kamara, and the Rapids lose two starters to injury – Caleb Folan to a twanged knee when his foot planted awkwardly following an aerial challenge with Aurélien Collin and Kosuke Kimura to an apparent hamstring injury, before a strong clash between Teal Bunbury and Drew Moor saw the Colorado defender slam his shoulder into the turf.

    Both sides entered the half scoreless, but it would not remain that way for much longer.

    A horrid ten minutes for Colorado saw Bunbury nab a brace, Tyrone Marshall get sent off and Moor lost to shoulder injury.

    The first Kansas City goal was setup by a wonderful Júlio César through-ball. The defensive midfielder turned deep-lying playmaker sent Bunbury in clear down the left-flank to place a right-footed strike across the keeper. Pickens got a hand to the shot, but could only slow its progress as it nestled in the far-netting.

    Ten minutes later Bunbury grabbed his second. Moor’s sore shoulder prevented him from clearing the ball, which Bunbury touched back to Graham Zusi, who in return slotted a through-ball behind the turning Marshall.

    Marshall coyly tried to impede the KC striker’s progress with a gentle nudge, only to see the strapping young forward go down. The referee immediately – and quite dramatically – pointed to the spot, and produced a red card.

    Bunbury sent Pickens diving the wrong way before stroking his penalty in to the keeper’s right, though he appeared to scuff his shot somewhat, neither placing accurately, nor powering forcefully his conversion.

    Despite the endless difficulties Colorado did not give up the ghost of getting something out of this, their home leg of the tie.

    A late chance fell to Macoumba Kandji that could have breathed confidence into those hopes; a Brian Mullan through-ball found the lanky striker streaking down the right-side of the box. His shot was thwarted by a sliding save from Jimmy Nielsen – his first of the game – to maintain Sporting’s two-goal advantage.

    Perkins then made a huge save of his own, on Davy Arnaud from a similar position, before one last bit of trickery by Colorado almost caught KC napping.

    A clever set-piece conjured by Omar Cummings and Sanna Nyassi nearly caught Nielsen and his side napping at the near-post, as an early short-ball allowed for a quick shot at the unguarded short-side. Alas his accuracy was off the mark and the shot rocketed harmlessly wide.

    The 0-2 final sees Kansas City take their three-straight clean sheets back home to their stronghold – where they were only defeated twice. While Colorado must hope and pray for some miracle to grant them fitness and goals, or else they will struggle to field a side strong enough to mount a comeback.

    Three huge playoff matches, three away wins by the higher-ranked teams. The playoff format has suffered much criticism - from all sides – but one thing that is being overlooked is the quality of entertainment and the passion on display.

    The return legs go Wednesday and Thursday – November 2nd and 3rd – tune in; should be ACES.

The Fine Print

The stadium atmosphere at all matches was excellent. The fans should be commended for their contributions, as should the broadcasters who stomached the occasional bad word in an effort to transmit the energy at the grounds through the broadcast to the viewers.

A massive fail by MLS & TSN as the Canadian sports network held the rights, but opted to not air the matches - instead showing NASCAR - while MLS appeared to standby their agreement to blackout the stream through their pay service Match Day Live, which purports to broadcast all matches not aired on national networks.

It was nice to see Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc as the sideline reporter at the Colorado-Kansas City match.
Salt Lake vs. Seattle Review

New York v Los Angeles 0-1; Philadelphia v Houston 1-2; Colorado v Kansas City 0-2.

1 If this all seems a little too much investment, an abridged version of the weekend's events are available here.

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