Conference Finals Set As First Leg Victors Hold Serve
An interesting thing happened in the four Conference Semifinal showdowns: the team winning the first leg fended off their foes’ stout challenges and advanced. Additionally, the higher seed went 3 out of 4 in the Semifinal round, leaving the top seeds from each Conference. We can address the efficiency of this generation of the playoff format at a later date. Right now, let’s break down these second legs, and see how we’ve arrived at our penultimate matchday:
(E1) Sporting KC 2-0 (WC2) Colorado (Sporting KC wins aggregate, 4-0)
The match that led off the midweek quartet probably had the least suspense. Just before the half-hour mark, Aurélien Collin got behind the Rapids defense and beat Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens to Graham Zusi’s free kick. The French defender’s header put Kansas City up by 3 on aggregate, and that seemed to draw the life out of Colorado. The Rapids defense, playing without Kosuke Kimura, Drew Moor, and Tyrone Marshall, were exposed on set pieces throughout the match. Colorado also lacked a spark for most of the match as they mustered only four shots on net. CJ Sapong converted another Zusi free kick late in the match, this time with a powerful header from the edge of the box, and that put the exclamation point on the first playoff match in Livestrong Sporting Park history. It also ended Colorado’s bid to repeat as MLS Cup Champions, a feat that would have been impressive with so many key injuries.
(E2) Houston 1-0 (E3) Philadelphia (Houston wins aggregate, 3-1)
Houston played a very effective second leg, which they entered leading 2-1. They were able to work their main strategy to perfection, relying on a defensive mentality while earning (and converting) set pieces. Philadelphia was not in sync for much of this match, and credit should be given to the Dynamo midfield and defense for consistently pressuring the Union into lost possession. The Union also played into Houston’s hands by being overly aggressive in their own third, granting Houston the free kicks that have become Brad Davis’ calling card. He used those minutes in 1st half stoppage time and swung a bending free kick into the area. A barely-marked Brian Ching headed the ball from near the penalty spot to Faryd Mondragon’s left, and it proved to be the only goal. After a frustrating first leg in Pennsylvania, the Union never gained the confidence to make a serious run at advancing from this match. But for a second year franchise, Philadelphia exceeded expectations and gave their fans a largely unforeseen adventure into the playoffs..
(W1) Los Angeles 2-1 (WC4) New York (Los Angeles wins aggregate, 3-1)
The talk abounded all week about the Rafa Marquez/Landon Donovan/Juninho/Ryan Keel dust-up. When the rematch finally began (leading to a beautiful silence from the pundits), the Galaxy took care of business at home. New York squared the aggregate score early, when Luke Rodgers ran onto a through ball from Thierry Henry and slotted it past Josh Saunders. The Galaxy then showed why they are the class of the league this year, pouring on pressure until Mike Magee headed home a David Beckham corner kick three minutes before the half. While it was an unsung hero who broke the deadlock, star power sealed the victory. Donovan converted a penalty with fifteen minutes remaining to complete the scorecard. The penalty was awarded when NY left back Roy Miller kicked Beckham in the abdomen while the former Manchester United star was shielding the ball.
(W2) Seattle 2-0 (W3) Real Salt Lake (Real Salt Lake wins aggregate, 3-2)
Seattle had a tall mountain to climb entering the return leg of this semifinal showdown. They had ceded three goals to Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium, but they hoped a raucous crowd at CenturyLink Field would inspire them to a big result. The Sounders that everyone expected to see in the first match showed up, and were clearly the better side as they dominated this match. At the half, though, the score remained unchanged, and Seattle had used two of their three substitutions early due to injured midfielders Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans. Seattle did break through, just before the hour mark, as left back Tony Beltran pulled down Mike Fucito in the area. Osvaldo Alonso converted the penalty kick to close the goal gap to 2. Five minutes later, a low shot from early substitute Lamar Neagle skittered past Nick Rimando to bring Seattle within a goal of Real Salt Lake. That crucial third goal never materialized though, as Real’s defense withstood the barrage. Salt Lake earns their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2008.
So the Sunday Conference Final matchups are as follows (all times EDT):
(E1) Sporting Kansas City vs. (E2) Houston Dynamo, Livestrong Sporting Park, 5:30 PM, FOX Soccer
(W1) Los Angeles Galaxy vs. (W3) Real Salt Lake, Home Depot Center, 9:00 PM, ESPN2