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Monday 7 November 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Semifinals (Conference Championship) – Of Conference Champions Decided, Moving on to the Cup, a Clash of Takers, some Canadian Content, a Honduran Finish, Penalty Kicks Revisited, Off the Wood, Connect Again & Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

    The final two matches in the lead up to the MLS Cup Final took place on Sunday evening as the Conference Champions were decided. The East was won first, a technical duel and contest of strength between home side Kansas City and Houston. The West followed; a run-and-gun meeting between hosts Los Angeles and Salt Lake. Six goals, one devastating injury, a penalty kick, some woodwork being struck, another goalmouth defensive header, and the final pairing are set.

    A clash of two long unbeaten sides – Kansas City seven matches; Houston eight – to decide who would take the Eastern crown and compete for the final. A rematch of the 2007 Conference Final, won by Houston by two goals - one each from Nate Jaqua and Dwayne De Rosario; the regular season dominance clouded by red cards as neither match finished with all twenty-two players on the field.

    Both teams fielded the same lineups as usual, preferring to maintain their winning sides – even a fit again Omar Bravo was left out of the Sporting eleven, though he did come on as a late attacking substitution. The Dynamo opted to go stick with their own style instead of adapting to Sporting’s 4-3-3; the match was set, a duel of the dead-ball specialists.

    The early chances fell Houston’s way after an opening volley from Kei Kamara in the second minute. The first solid chance materialized in the eighth minute, a dinked ball over the top by Luiz Camarago found Brian Ching, who could only manage to loop a chip onto the roof of the net. Camargo began the next dangerous attack as well, winning the ball in midfield before Brad Davis played Calen Carr in with a precise through-ball, only for his high shot to be denied by Jimmy Nielsen standing firm.

    Then came the decisive moment, one on which a match can turn. Houston lost their midfield talisman and distributor Brad Davis to injury. An innocuous collision between Davis and his opposite – Kansas City’s creator – Graham Zusi, resulted in a torn quadriceps and Davis having to be helped from the field, replaced by Corey Ashe who moved up from left-back as Jermaine Taylor was brought on in his stead. An innocent clash that could have swung the match in KC’s favour; drew a sly low-five between Zusi & Coach Peter Vermes at the conclusion of the half.

    Wounded but not yet beat the Dynamo came out swinging. Andre Hainault, Mr. October himself opened the scoring on a mild November afternoon. Adam Moffat stepped into Davis’ set-piece shoes, curling a right-sided free kick towards the back post, Watson directed a header down and on target, Nielsen hurled himself across to deflect it away. The ball rebounded back into the centre of the goalmouth where the Canadian defender found himself with nothing between him and the mesh netting. He bundled his finish across the line; celebrated giving his side the advantage like a crazy horse and in the process broke Sporting’s shutout streak at four-hundred and eighteen minutes.

     Houston almost doubled their lead a minute later. Corey Ashe found himself in acres of space down the left, progressing unencumbered towards his opponent’s goal. He wisely cut a square-ball across to Camargo, who could not settle the pass, watching in agony as it bumbled off his knee into the hands of Nielsen in goal.

    The set-piece efficiency that had served Sporting so well had abandoned them, the combination of towering defenders and a confident goalkeeper commanding his area stifled the clinical attack of the hosts. Both usually impervious defending of each side had their wobbles; Hainault twice misplayed a ball back to his keeper bringing about a few nervous seconds well dismissed by Hall and the usually impenetrable central defensive pairing of Aurélien Collin and Matt Besler were a step off the pace; perhaps the rigorous postseason scheduling had caught up with fitness and attention.

    Kansas City, desperate to find a way back in, pressed their opponent creating several half chances that were well dealt with by Hall. Things began to get feisty as emotions got the better of players, but the referee did a good job of keeping a lid on the match, and letting the teams play by swallowing his whistle until necessary. Keeping his own council by ignoring the shouts for penalties by the home crowd on two occasions – both rightly; enduring their howls when Hainault and Collin tangled in the box and when Davy Arnaud attempted to earn his side one as he and Ching tussled near the end-line. 

    A mad scramble in the fifty-sixth minute precipitated Sporting’s best chance to draw level; a Zusi free kick pin-balled around the box before Hall could finally collect, after preventing an own-goal with a reflex leg save.

    Throwing caution to the wind and piling on the attacking subs, Kansas City left themselves open at the back; Houston duly hit on the counter to seal the result. A sublime Camargo through-ball – the best match by far for the recent acquisition – found another newcomer Carlo Costly. The big Honduran powered ahead of the chasing defenders, holding them off and lacing a strike to the bottom left corner, in off the post, 2-0 to Houston.

    For Kansas City it was only their third home loss of the season, but a costly one, ending their Cinderella season at the shiny new ground. Coach Vermes and his young side will take some heart from a stellar second half of the campaign and hope to build towards next season with lessons learned.

    Houston, who had gone without a win in their first fifteen road matches have now won their last four – undefeated in five – away from home. A task which as Eastern Conference Champions they will face once more, as Coach Dominic Kinnear has led yet another group of players to their third final in the last six seasons.

    It was fitting that Jimmy Conrad was on the broadcast; so long a stalwart and face of the Kansas City franchise, jettisoned before they got a new home, on hand to witness their loss. Perhaps, were Jimmy a spiteful man, he would take some pleasure on his presence having jinxed his former side.

    The second conference title decider featured the two most heralded sides in the league in a rematch of the 2009 MLS Cup Final, which saw Salt Lake defeat Los Angeles 5-4 on spot kicks after a 1-1 draw.

    Los Angeles welcomed Juninho back to the starting lineup having served his suspension for the post-match incident in the first leg against New York. Salt Lake could count on one of their preferred centre-backs, with Jámison Olave returning to the pitch, though Nat Borchers could was only fit enough to make the bench.

    The match began as it would end, surprisingly open. Considering that the two teams had some of the best defensive records in the league, the amount of chances on goal was atypical.

    Chad Barrett nabbed the first opportunity, played in by Robbie Keane’s ball over the top, but could not keep his shot down, soaring it over the bar. Robbie Russell then found himself with a chance to open the scoring. A Javier Morales corner kick fell on the foot of the big right-back, but his shot from two yards was straight at Josh Saunders, who made a strong instinctive save.

    The match could have blown wide open early, but the two sides settled down shortly, falling into a tense rhythm. The catalyst for the offensive explosion that was to come was a referee’s decision; a debatable one at that.

    Andy Williams was adjudged to have fouled the strapping Omar Gonzalez from behind when his leap from behind the big centre-back sent the Galaxy defender flopping. Were he going for a defensive header the standout defender would have been sturdier, but the call was given nevertheless.

    Thoughts as to whether it was the appropriate call quickly faded as it setup a showdown between Nick Rimando in goal and Landon Donovan. The Los Angeles and American front-man, though normally excellent from the spot, had been troubled in the past by the unpredictable and agile Rimando, including skying his effort in that 2009 shootout over the bar.

    Donovan stepped up and following a moment’s reflection calmly dispatched the attempt, sending Rimando sprawling to his right as the ball flew in the opposite side of the goal. The ghost of that miss exorcised, Donovan’s second goal from the spot in this season’s playoff and a lead for the Galaxy.     

    Salt Lake, however, did not let their heads drop; instead they found a quick equalizer to draw level just two minutes later. Another troublesome Morales corner kick from the right-side was headed back in from deep at the far-post by Olave. Álvaro Saborío - scorer of two in Salt Lake’s rout of Seattle in the previous round – managed to get a touch on the delivery from the edge of the six-yard box. His flicked header eluded everyone and nestled into the netting. Game on. 

    Goose-eggs broken, the match came to life again with each side striking the woodwork before the first half came to a close. A long ball from Juninho in the midfield was headed down by Gonzalez into the path of Keane in the high slot at the left-side of the box. His low strike hit the base of the near-post and ricocheted away harmlessly, it was the third time in these playoffs that Keane had struck wood.

    Not to be outdone, Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman hit the post as well, mere moments before the referee blew the halftime whistle. His low, seeing-eye shot from the edge of the area eluded the closing defenders and the outstretched Saunders only to smack the bottom of the right upright.

    The second half began much like the first, a quick, well-worked passing attack by the Galaxy gave a rather youthful looking Barrett – he has hair and a tan – a chance to make amends for his earlier miss. The rapid counter initiated by David Beckham found Keane on the left, who lofted a ball to the far-post for Barrett to head in. Much as Tony Beltran did in the return leg in Seattle, Will Johnson rose bravely, making an incredible nose block on the effort to deny the goal.

    There was nothing any Salt Lake player could do minutes later when another majestic Beckham delivery found Mike Magee streaking goal-ward in behind his marker, Russell. The inch-perfect right-sided in-swinger landed squarely on the head of Magee in the centre of the box, his powerful header beat Rimando and for the third time in the playoffs – once in each match – the Beckham-Magee duo had created a goal. 

    Salt Lake almost responded immediately again; two minutes on Saborio’s flick-on to the left-side of the Galaxy penalty area found Fabián Espíndola, who turned quickly and lashed his hammer strike out of the reach of Saunders, but off the underside of crossbar. 

    The desperation began to set in, and as the tired legs of Salt Lake pushed forward, they began to leave spaces at the back. Another lightning counterattack undid the Royals defense and sealed the result for the Galaxy. Donovan crossing the midfield spotted a run by Keane down the left-flank; he cut through Olave as though he wasn’t there and struck a low shot across the keeper into the bottom corner of the Salt Lake net.

    Salt Lake pressed forward in search of a way back into the match, but that forward lean and the lack of fitness and cohesiveness at the back began to cause trouble. Keane went on to have several more chances to increase his tally and his side’s lead.  The Irishman looks hungry for glory despite his lack of match sharpness with only one trophy in his professional career the MLS Cup would be a welcome reward for his adaptation in his first season.

    There were a few late chances to make amends for the somewhat lop-sided score-line, but Saunders was up to the task; twice diving low to deny Morales and then the youngster Luis Gil, when their shots from distance troubled his goal.

    Beckham was subbed off late in the match to some richly deserved applause – something not regularly granted over the course of his stay in Los Angeles, but well earned now.

    A pleasant exchange between Beckham and Salt Lake Coach Jason Kreis affirmed the thoroughness of the result, as the two put aside their harsh words from the end of the last meeting in recognition of a match well played. Salt Lake confirmed their entry to the next installment of the CONCACAF Champions League, despite falling at this last hurdle, and will be happy to put an emotional season in the books.

    The 3-1 win confirmed LA’s Coach Bruce Arena as the winningest in MLS Cup history; his twenty-first playoff victory sees his side become only the third club to host a cup final in which they will be competing.

    November 20th at the Home Depot Center will see the sixteenth edition of the MLS Cup, to be contested by the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo.

    It’s been a long season, some three-hundred odd matches have been played; one remains. To see who shall be champions of the 2011 MLS season.

    Be sure to tune in, should be a classic as the extra rest due to the international break, should give both sides a chance to get healthy – more or less – in preparation for the big match.

Kansas City v Houston 0-2; Los Angeles v Salt Lake 3-1.

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