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Thursday 3 November 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Quarterfinals: Second Leg – Night One – Of a Storm Brewing in Kansas City, the Luck of Champions Gone Bad, Weathering the Early Onslaught, a Decisive Clearance, Emerald Hope Ignited, & Farewell to Two More.

    The first two return legs of the quarterfinal pairings took to the field on a dark, wet Wednesday night. A matter of chance granted the viewers the two matchups closest to having been decided, with Kansas City holding a two-goal advantage returning home, while Salt Lake carried a three-goal lead into Seattle. Four goals – one a penalty; both home sides victorious, seven bookings from seventy-one fouls, one spectacular game-saving clearance, and a final clean sheet for Kasey Keller.

    The nasty weather that moved into the Kansas area was a bad omen for a Colorado side facing what proved to be an insurmountable two-goal deficit. Sheets of rain hurled in every direction, pools of water formed to create troublesome dead-spots on the pitch.

    An ugly night, made fatal by the sheer number of lineup changes forced upon the Rapids. Without eight regular first-team players – Kosuke Kimura, Caleb Folan and Drew Moor injured in the first leg and Tyrone Marshall suspended that same match; Jamie Smith injured in the Wildcard match; Conor Casey and Pablo Mastroeni longer-term injury concerns.

    The newly constructed back-line had never taken the field as a unit, while Omar Cummings was stationed up top alone in a 4-5-1. Brian Mullan and Sanna Nyassi were meant to provide support, but due to the disjointed midfield and the awful conditions, their usual speed game – both of foot and of passing, preferring to expose the space behind defenders – was limited in effectiveness especially facing a very settled Kansas City defensive unit.

    That frustration began to build in the midfield as repeated turnovers resulted in unnecessary fouls in dangerous areas. Those mistakes were duly punished by the set-piece accuracy of Sporting and some poor marking by the makeshift Rapids side.

    Having withstood the first chance – when Aurélien Collin found Teal Bunbury streaking in behind the out of position Wells Thompson, playing at right-back – Kansas City’s first goal was a dagger to any chances of a comeback.

    An unnecessary foul by Joseph Nane a half-hour into the contest near the centre-line provided Graham Zusi the chance to deliver a ball into the heart of the Colorado box. The inexperienced collective of defenders somehow managed to not mark the big Frenchman Collin standing near the penalty spot. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens raced out in an attempt to punch the ball away, but Collin got the first touch, nodding it downwards, past Pickens, into the unguarded net, taking a clattering in the process.

    Some fool-hardy keeping by the stranded Pickens stood in stark contrast to the cool, relaxed game of his opposite Jimmy Nielsen. The Dane has been a calming influence all season long, as he was on this night; stopping chances and taking the pace out of game. He backstopped Sporting to a fourth consecutive clean sheet. 

    The pattern of the match continued, Sporting earning set-pieces then winning headers, while the Rapids struggled to find any flow.

    A second goal just as the match entered its final fifteen minutes was the cherry-on-top for the joyous home crowd that came out to show support despite the torrid weather. Another Zusi dead-ball delivery into the centre of the penalty area found the rookie CJ Sapong who was again the unmarked man in the high slot. Sapong rose tall sending his towering header arcing high into the net, out of reach of the stretching Pickens.

    The match fizzled out with a few tasty challenges, as both Thompson and Nyassi got crunching tackles in on Zusi and Chance Myers respectively, but that was all the spirit the Rapids could muster falling 2-0 again for a 4-0 Sporting aggregate victory.

    The hard luck season – hampered by constant injuries and that long suspension to Mullan - for Colorado was over. They now face a difficult offseason as Coach Gary Smith’s contract is up and a frosty relationship has developed between himself and the club’s Technical Director Paul Bravo, which could lead to a real shakeup within the organization over the winter.

    Kansas City keep on rolling and building winning momentum – unbeaten in their last eight matches.  A steady lineup - with sufficient reinforcements – an ongoing clean sheet streak, and strong home form bode well for their progression in a season once marred by that hellacious ten-match road trip as the finishing touches were put on Livestrong Sporting Park.

    Coach Peter Vermes and his charges now look forward to an Eastern Conference semifinal clash with the winner of the Houston-Philadelphia tie.

    The second quarterfinal of the evening also saw its fair share of cold November rain as Salt Lake entered Seattle clinging desperately to a massive three-goal cushion.

    Salt Lake, like Colorado, was forced into a number of changes to their back-line. Neither first choice centre-backs - Nat Borchers and Jámison Olave – had recovered sufficiently from quadriceps strains to feature, so Chris Wingert moved inside to pair with Chris Schuler in the middle, while the fit again TonyBeltran came in at left-back.

    Seattle, still hunting for an elusive first playoff victory, made one lineup change. Lamar Neagle dropped to the bench in lieu of Erik Friberg - an attempt to add extra bite to the midfield and additional ball retention in the centre of the pitch - moving Brad Evans out to Neagle’s wide midfield spot.

    Seattle facing a massive task, down by three because of a poor opening leg in Utah, took some inspiration from their home fans and from their coach, Sigi Schmid.

    Sigi has been around this league for some time; interestingly he was the Los Angeles Galaxy’s boss when the original San Jose Earthquakes completed the greatest comeback in MLS history in 2003. Down four-goals after a whipping in the first leg, the Earthquakes stormed back scoring five goals to win on aggregate*. Perhaps it was Schmidt’s turn to mark an upset.

    Seattle came out firing, registering their first shot on goal in the second minute; evidence this was a different side to the one that did not tally a single attempt in the first leg.

    The opening twenty minutes seemed against them though as Fredy Montero wasted a  golden chance to opening the scoring in the seventh when a free kick from Friberg found him unmarked at the far-post. Some choppy early play disrupted the flow of the match; the referee – attempting to keep a lid on what proved a difficult match to handle, while allowing the teams to play – called numerous fouls.  Despite losing two starters – Álvaro Fernández and Brad Evans; both to hamstring injuries - Seattle began to dominate the proceedings.

    Seattle peppered the Salt Lake net, outshooting their opponent seventeen to four (on target), though nine of those attempts were desperately blocked by the well-worked Salt Lake defense. They also racked up ten corner kicks throughout the match, seven of which came in the first half.

    The most important of those blocked shots came in the thirty-sixth minute; the second phase of a ball from deep in midfield put back into the box fell to Jeff Parke on the edge of the penalty area. The defender swung a right-boot expertly at the ball, connecting well to volley it towards the gaping goal. Beltran, backing up his keeper - who had gone to punch the initial delivery - acrobatically leapt like the proverbial salmon, desperately contorting his body to nod the danger over the bar.

    A game-saving goal-line clearance by the fit again left-back may have been the turning point of the match. Had Seattle taken a lead in the first half, things most likely would have been very different.

    The relentless pressure continued into halftime, and picked up again to start the second.

    Seattle were then handed a life-line by the man who had just robbed them of a sure opening goal. Beltran and Wingert tangled with Mike Fucito, neither defender managing to get a strong clearing boot to the ball. The striker touched it past his markers only to be wrestled to the ground as he tried to move past. The referee had no choice but to point to the spot.

    Osvaldo Alonso – lucky to be included after a red card offense last match – stepped up to the spot to convert the penalty kick, striking it low and hard straight down the middle. Salt Lake keeper, Nick Rimando would have loved another chance that penalty, as had he simply stood his ground and used his feet, rather than attempt to drop down quickly he surely would have prevented the goal.

    The crowd urged on the Sounders, who duly replied by grabbing a second goal five minutes later, taking advantage of a disjointed back-line who switched off momentarily under the endless pressure. Alonso headed down a half-clearance for Montero to collect just inside the right-edge of the penalty area. The Columbian striker played a wonderful ball across the box, through a maze of legs to an unmarked Neagle, whose low one-timer across the keeper nestled in the far-netting.

    Salt Lake, unfazed by the second goal proceeded to shut down the Seattle offense, their sole intent was to defend from then on. Having previously brought on Ned Grabavoy for Andy Williams - to freshen up the right-flank - they then removed Álvaro Saborío - replacing a striker with a second defensive midfielder – for Yordany Álvarez, to tighten up the middle of the park.

    Stymied by the reinforced Salt Lake midfield, and pressing numbers forward in a desperate attempt to find the equalizer. Seattle were hit on the counter in the seventy-ninth minute when Fabián Espíndola broke through the middle of the park, and surged in unfettered on goal. Kasey Keller, yet to face a single shot on target, was forced into making one last huge save to preserve hope, pawing away the strike with a strong right-hand. 

    But Seattle could not find that equalizing goal to stretch the tie into extra time, and Salt Lake, despite losing 2-0 on the night, move on with a 2-3 aggregate victory.

    The final whistle brought relief for Salt Lake Coach Jason Kreis, who was forced to endure the final half hour as nervously as his counterpart Schmid did. The latter could barely watch the final minutes as his side sought desperately for one more goal.

    For Mr. Keller in the Seattle goal, it was the disappointing end to a fantastic professional career, though he did record yet another clean sheet, his tenth of the season, and give his side every opportunity with that final save. Expect to see him pop up either in the media or in a front office position in due time.

    Seattle and their fans must take solace in a third straight US Open Cup title and progression to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, while Salt Lake move on to the next round where they will meet the winners of the Los Angeles-New York tie.

    The other two sides joining Kansas City and Salt Lake will be decided tonight (Thursday, November 3rd) as both Houston and Los Angeles return home with a one-goal advantage - to host Philadelphia and New York respectively.

    With both matches balanced by such a fine margin, expect more drama tonight, especially given the brewing animosity between the combatants.

Kansas City v Colorado 2-0 (4-0 Aggregate); Seattle v Salt Lake 2-0 (2-3 Agg.).

*Correction – Made a mistake on the details of this tie, San Jose lost the first leg 2-0 at Los Angeles, then fell behind by a further two goals early at home in the return leg. They then replied with five unanswered goals, the last of which was a ninety-sixth minute sudden death extra time winner to win 5-4 on aggregate. 

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