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Friday 4 November 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Quarterfinals: Second Leg – Night Two – Of Leaving as You Came, Familiar Territory, Experience Gained, Words Turned to Action, the Golden Ageless Midfielder, & Home Sweet Home.

    The final two quarterfinals ties were decided on Thursday night, as both Houston and Los Angeles took one-goal leads back home where they hosted Philadelphia and New York respectively. Four goals, two home wins – without any further handbags or red cards, two more teams see their season’s end, while the four teams to contest the semifinals (conference finals) are set.

    A fine evening double-header of MLS matches began in Texas. The final match to be played by Houston at Robertson Stadium – their home since moving from San Jose at the end of the 2005 season – saw the home side, riding a seven-match unbeaten run, face off against a Philadelphia side who have yet to lose in Houston - having won by the odd-goal in five last season and via a single Danny Califf strike back in March.

    Union Coach Piotr Nowak again made several changes to his starting eleven, dropping the surprise sweeper from last match - Stefani Miglioranzi, reverting to a diamond midfield, shifting Sébastien Le Toux to the left-wing and inserting Jack McInerney to pair up top with Danny Mwanga – who, despite the revolving selection of attackers in Philly, had never before been paired together. Dominic Kinnear - Houston’s coach - neither fiddled with a successful system, nor was forced into changes through injury.

    It was a physical battle that favoured the much larger and more experienced Dynamo, though the youthful speed of the Union’s attack should cause some difficulty. Despite having an added attacking impetus – both of need and formation – the Union had difficulty maintaining possession, and proceeded to snatch hurriedly at whatever chances they did create.

    In an ill-tempered match the referee did his best to let the play on the field decide the outcome, though at times the bad-blood carried over from the first leg threatened to blow over. 

    Houston found the killer goal they needed deep in first half stoppage time. Following a senseless foul around forty yards from goal on the left-side, Brad Davis served one of his pinpoint deliveries into the centre of the Philadelphia box. Brian Ching peeled away from the melee in front of the goal to prod the ball from above the penalty spot, sending his effort across the helpless Faryd Mondragón - caught off balance and in two-minds, considering whether to come collect or hold firm.

    Ching, the club captain, opened Robertson by scoring the first – one of his four goals on the night in April of 2006 – and it was fitting that he got the last at the home of the dynasty that has been the Dynamo since moving from San Jose.

    Despite an injury-plagued season that has seen his production diminish, he’s been able to step up for the important playoff matches. Prior to the postseason, he had not scored since August 20th, but he played the ball that sent Calen Carr in to score the winner in the first leg and grabbed it himself here.

    The Union came out intent on finding an equalizer, sustaining pressure on an impenetrable Dynamo defense. A triple-substitution in the sixty-sixth minute threw numbers forward and continued that pressure, without creating any quality chances.

    The Dynamo was intent on seeing out the match in a professional manner; goalkeeper Tally Hall was exemplary in stifling the Union’s momentum. In the fifty-ninth he stopped and held a tricky Veljko Paunović shot that had it been spilled, would surely have led to an equalizer with Union attackers lurking nearby.

    Along with his centre-backs, he dominated the box aerially, collecting whenever possible and slowing the tempo of the match to a crawl. A left-sided Le Toux corner kick caused some trouble, but a low double-save from Hall snuffed it out; a Sheanon Williams low, driven goalmouth cross found space behind the backline, but could not find a recipient, skidding harmlessly away.

    With twenty minutes remaining Houston began to bunker in earnest, hoofing the ball up-field to relieve pressure whenever possible.

    Ching was suitably saluted as he was subbed in the eighty-first minute to a standing ovation; Carlo Costly, in his stead, gobbled up one of those long clearances to create one final chance to ice the game. After a surging run his shot sailed high, but was of little concern; his effort had run down the clock and gained some positive yardage between the ball and the Houston net. 

    Houston saw out the 1-0 win, and now find themselves unbeaten in eight matches; though ominously that last defeat was to Kansas City at Livestrong Sporting Park.

    The Dynamo progress to the next round 3-1 on aggregate and must now prepare to face Sporting in the MLS Cup Semifinals (Conference Final). It is the club’s fourth Semifinals (Conference Final) in the last six seasons – especially sweet having missed the playoffs after an abysmal campaign last season.

    The Union, must take solace in the experience a defeat at the hands of one of the better playoff performers of the modern-era of MLS will grant their core of rising stars. Though laced with experienced heads, Nowak has built a team to contend for the future; this lesson will serve them well.

    The second match of the night started shortly thereafter.

    In spite of a limited attendance – due to contractual agreements with the college campus that houses the ground – of twenty-thousand the second leg between Los Angeles and New York promised to be special.

    The fracas at the end of the last match wrought changes to both lineups. With Juninho and Rafa Márquez suspended, they were replaced by Chris Birchall and Dax McCarty respectively, while Jan Gunnar Solli was able to return to the pitch, leaving his turntables and headphones to the side, having served his one-match ban for the tackle on red card in the Wildcard match versus Dallas. 

    For the Galaxy, missing their unsung midfield workhorse promised to be a difficult task; without Juninho on the pitch the Red Bulls were granted far too much space in the midfield. Thierry Henry in particular, was able to find vast pockets within which to roam, virtually hampered by his opponents.

    Henry’s ability to find space, combined with a perfectly weighted through-ball led to the opening goal of the match. He spotted Luke Rodgers making a run behind Omar Gonzalez, who had dozed off allowing the Englishman to get on the wrong side of him. Rodgers collected the pass, fought off the recovering defenders and slotted his finish coolly past the onrushing Josh Saunders.

    The early goal breathed life into the tie, drawing the sides’ level at a goal apiece, but sometimes it is possible to score too early, as it decreases the urgency, and things can get sloppy. Rodgers’ energy was quickly subdued by a yellow card from the restart after a foolish tackle on David Beckham, which meant he had to straddle that fine line, lest he be dismissed.

    Both sides exchanged half-chances before the first death knell was sounded for New York. In the sixteenth minute their defensive midfield pacemaker, Teemu Tainio, was forced off with a hamstring strain. His removal handed the domination of the midfield that New York had enjoyed back to LA.   

    Chances started to come, particularly for Robbie Keane; a potential penalty kick for a shove was overlooked by the referee, but minutes later some clever close control saw Keane work his way to the end-line and hammer a low shot on goal. The ball could not squeak by Frank Rost in the Red Bull goal, but slammed off the base of the post.

    Beckham in particular was immense, covering every blade of grass, working hard for his side despite pre-match back spasms that had threatened his inclusion. After an awkward collision with Dane Richards, it seemed that Beckham would not be able to continue, but after a momentary break he was back on the pitch.

    As the half was nearing completion Rost was called upon to save his team. A Birchall shot from long-range was well-saved by the big German, but he could only parry the rebound into the slot. Keane was on it like a flash, and but for a miraculous diving save, the Galaxy would have had their goal.

    But they had it soon enough. Late in the first half former Red Bull Mike Magee found the equalizer - on the night, go-ahead in the tie.

    A left-sided Beckham in-swinging corner kick to the top of the six-yard box at the near-post found the head of Magee, who had side-stepped his marker – Richards – to beat him to the ball; the second death knell had rung.

    A minor flare up at start of second half, after Landon Donovan threw a shoulder check on Rost, saw the Galaxy midfielder earn himself a yellow card, and echoed the dislike between the two sides.

    The match stalled slightly, as the vulnerable balance of each side prevented either from taking undue risks.

    The Red Bulls began to push through the tense crawl; knowing they were in need of another goal to re-equalize the aggregate score. A few half-chances breathed life into the match, though neither a goalmouth Richards cross for Rodgers – well defended by Donovan who intercepted – nor another splicing run and shot by Rodgers – who could only find the side-netting – found any grace.

    Juan Agudelo was brought on; New York looked in the ascendency, but Los Angeles continued to hold firm. Then the final knell sounded. A silly, attack of impatience grant the Galaxy a penalty and sealed the Bulls doom.

    Roy Miller inexplicably, shoved and kicked Beckham in one foul movement; a needless attack with Beckham facing the wrong way and with very little by way of support. Donovan stepped to the spot, following a moment’s reflection, to convert the kick.

    Rost attempted to outmaneuver him, but succeeded in only diving out of position; he faked to his right before diving left, only to see the ball whisk past him in the opposite direction.

    A second goal for Los Angeles put the result out of reach for New York, who meekly tried in desperation to find a way back into the match, but it was not to be.

    Los Angeles’ flawless home record remains intact with the 2-1 victory on the night; collecting their sixteenth win at the Home Depot Center. Good fortune smiles upon them as the remaining route to the cup will all be played at home; with Beckham showing the class and courage that made him famous, it’s difficult to see past them winning it all.

    Another disappointing season for New York, spared the blushes of not making the playoffs, only to fall to the cup favourites will be a disappointment, but not one as drastic as it could have been. Los Angeles progress 3-1 on aggregate, winning both matches outright, to meet Salt Lake – in a rematch of the 2009 MLS Cup Final - in the next round.

    Both Semifinals (Conference Finals) are set to kick off on Sunday evening, with the East going at 5:30 pm EST and the West at 9 pm EST.

Houston v Philadelphia 1-0 (3-1 Aggregate); Los Angeles v New York 2-1 (3-1 Agg.).

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