Soccer fans in the U.S. have long debated whether playoffs should be part of the beautiful game.  Yesterday’s Real Salt Lake/FC Dallas match showed exactly why the MLS playoffs can be special, as the lower-seeded Dallas knocked off the defending MLS champions with a 1-1 draw, 3-2 win on aggregate.  Real Salt Lake came into the match knowing they needed a win outright and played like it the entire game, but failed to convert numerous chances in the second half.

As could be expected, the match began with Real Salt Lake on the attack and Dallas looking to score off the counter.  And it looked like they would do that in the 4th minute as Jeff Cunningham crossed it to an open Brek Shea who finished, but was called just a step offsides.  Colorado had problems maintaining possession the entire first half and every time it seemed as if they would string together a couple of passes and get into an offensive rhythm, Dallas would force a turnover.  When Real Salt Lake did have chances, they were primarily started by Fabian Espindola who was able to beat Jackson repeatedly.  His teammates, however, failed to do the same with the rest of the Dallas defense.

In the 17th minute, Dallas again attacked on the counter.  This time, MVP candidate David Ferreira sent in a cross from the right that Shea chested down to McCarty who pushed the ball past Rimando for the 1-0 lead.  This increased the intensity of the Real attack but Dallas consistently disrupted Real scoring chances and pressured the home team’s defense  with counterattacks.  RSL had their best chance in the 40th minute when Grabavoy had a good shot from distance that Hartman knocked right to Espindola.  Hartman had fallen on the punch and Espindola, who had an almost open net but was accelerating toward the ball, kicked the ball over the net.  Will Johnson had another long shot that just missed the next at the end of the half, bu Martin Chavez also missed a chance to put Dallas up even more in the 45th minute.  He was released on a pass by Cunningham but he just pushed his shot wide.

The second half saw much of the same, except Real Salt Lake was able to string together possession and get some quality chances on goal.  The problem for the home team was Kevin Hartman decided to make his case for why he should have been Goalkeeper of the Year.  For example, in the 49th minute, Espindola gets a pass over the top and with just Hartman between him and an equalizer, Hartman makes a great save with his foot to knock the ball out of play.  In the 73rd minute RSL again had a great opportunity as a ball in deflects away from Hartman who was off his line, except as the ball bounced toward the net no one in claret could finish the chance, and Dallas cleared.

The home club finally got on the board on the 80th minute when Borcher passed a free kick to sub Robbie Findley who kicked it past Hartman.  Findley was very close to being offside but there was no call, and RSL finally found something that would stick.  Findley would be the center of the home team’s attack as he was constantly targeted with passes into the box in the waining minutes, but he failed to convert.  A Beckerman pass over the top failed to find Findley’s head in the 88th minute that looked to be an automatic goal.  But the best save of the night may have been at the 90th minute.  RSL continued its pressure and got a shot which was redirected at the last second by Espindola, yet Hartman made the save off his legs.

The man of the match was certainly Kevin Hartman, who at times was the only player keeping FC Dallas in the match.  As so many other visiting teams have experienced, the Dallas players were absolutely gassed toward the end of the match due in part to the altitude.  Hartman covered any mistakes (except for the one Findley goal) and played just out of his mind.  The visitors were also lucky their keeper was not hurt more seriously on a 77th minute collision that saw him receive treatment.

For the defending champions, the loss of Javier Morales hurt more than I thought it would.  Despite many attempts on goal, they simply could not convert quality chances in the second half.  A perfect example was a cross by Warner in the 89th minute through the box and through the Dallas defense that found no Real players; it was perfect for that second goal.  By the time RSL began to string enough passes together and create opportunities, Hartman and the Dallas defense were making great stops and growing with confidence.

Kudos to a great crowd, as always, at Rio Tinto tonight.  The sold-out stadium was noisy and into the match, even when the team fell behind early.  But for the third year in a row the defending champion fails to repeats, and this year all three lower seeds have advanced to the next round.  That must make Bruce Arena a bit uneasy.