LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo give themselves big first leg advantages in MLS conference finals, leaving Seattle Sounders and DC United hills to climb in the return games at home
Different season, same nightmare
Boasting the league’s second-best defense, the last thing Sounders fans expected to see was a replay of last season’s haunting playoff display at Real Salt Lake. But that’s exactly what they got. Another first leg 0-3 defeat puts Sigi Schmid’s side under huge pressure, with Seattle’s defense capitulating after relentless pressure from the star-studded Galaxy frontline.
It could possibly have been different if Zach Scott’s early cross, which looked to have struck Sean Franklin’s hand in the box, had been called a penalty, but play was waved on. But the truth is an LA goal was coming. Still, although Seattle looked shaky at the back it seemed like they would go in level at half time but with just 20 seconds left in the first period Landon Donovan and Christian Wilhelmsson combined to set up Robbie Keane who headed home at the back post. Michael Gspurning bizarrely threw himself foot-first at the effort when perhaps he could have kept it out with his hands. Either way, Seattle’s poise was knocked just as the safety of the locker room loomed.
But Schmid was adamant the goal wouldn’t affect Seattle, as he expressed during his half time team talk. But speaking afterwards, he admitted his side were too gung-ho in the second half:
“Obviously we didn’t learn much because we did the same thing this year [as last year]. Because we talked about it – we talked at halftime, we said, ’1-0 is OK. We walk away 1-0, we’re alright.’ I think we possibly pushed a little bit when we shouldn’t have pushed to try and get the goal back, because getting the goal back wasn’t important.”
A defensive reshuffle obviously caused issues – more on Marc Burch in a moment – but it shouldn’t have caused that many problems for the Sounders. But Seattle pushed on when they didn’t need to and left themselves exposed to the fluid movement of LA’s offense.
The Sounders must cling to hope: If they can tighten up once again at the back in front of a sellout CenturyLink – where they’ve kept eight clean sheets from 17 games in the league – then Seattle could come back. They smashed six past LA with no reply during two regular-season wins. Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero should be the two up top and Mauro Rosales’ return from injury can’t come soon enough.
Defender Jeff Parke is full of positivity as he points to Seattle already beating LA 4-0 at home this season.
“It’s nothing we haven’t done. But we definitely have to be on our game and we have to be a lot better than we were tonight. It’s frustrating, it’s disappointing, but we have to forget about it and move on.”
If they could repeat that 4-0 win, it would surely go down as one of the greatest comebacks in MLS playoff history. Last season the Sounders dominated the second leg but came up a goal short, beating Salt Lake 2-0 at home but bowing out at the Conference semifinal stage 2-3 on aggregate. JPW
Robbie Keane: more than just a goal machine
“Robbie Keane, goal machine. He does it again for the Galaxy.”
Those were the words bellowed by ESPN commentator Adrian Healy after Keane’s killer-goal 20 seconds before half time on Sunday night. That just about sums up the huge impact the forward has had on the 2012 playoffs so far.
The Irishman is in red-hot form and is fired up to win a second-straight MLS Cup with four goals in four playoffs games already. But he hasn’t just flicked a switch in the playoffs, Keane has been firing on all cylinders for a while now. All credit to Mike Magee (a.k.a Mr. November) for scoring three times and coming alive in the postseason, but Keane has been LA’s lynchpin for a long time.
Perhaps his Euro 2012 disappointment spurred him on? Since returning from eastern Europe, Keane has played 23 times for LA and scored 17 goals plus eight assists. Keane’s had to step up and be the leading man for the Galaxy, with Edson Buddle injury prone and Donovan not at his best. Having said that, nine of Keane’s 20 goals have been assisted by Donovan and that understanding between the two was in full-swing on Sunday at the HDC. The intricate inter-play between the two short, speedy poachers left Hurtado and Parke in a spin. Add Magee, David Beckham, Marcelo Sarvas and Wilhelmsson buzzing around and Seattle had a problem – one they didn’t come close to dealing with.
Keane dropped deep, ran the channels and caused a general nuisance as he always does. And not only did he score twice but the 32-year-old laid through an inch-perfect ball to Franklin who slotted in Magee for the second goal on the hour. Keane has done this with ease this season, dropping 10-15 yards short of the center backs in behind the midfield, to turn and then delicately play in LA’s other attackers. In the past he played on the shoulder of the last defender but now, with his pace diminishing, Keane is carving out a new role as chief creator. It’s a new side to Keane and LA are thriving from it.
Taking a 3-0 lead to Seattle for the Western Conference final second leg is a dream scenario but the truth is LA could have had more. Donovan had a chance cleared off the line after more gorgeous interplay around the box involving Keane and ‘keeper Michael Gspurning kept the Sounders in with a shout ahead of next weekend’s second leg.
But alongside his newfound creative touch, Keane remains a poacher, as his second, and LA’s third, proved: Wilhelmsson’s flick was probably going in but Keane ran in to prod the ball home from less than a yard out:
“Listen, my coaches when I was a kid said make sure the ball hit the back of the net, so I wasn’t too sure who was around me, so I was just making sure, because they cleared a few off the line tonight, and we weren’t taking any chances.”
No need to explain Robbie. We get it. JPW
Nobody likes to see a game determined by a referee’s decision, but in the course of these playoffs DC United have seen their fortunes rise and fall around decisions made by the men in yellow. On Thursday night there was the sending off of Bill Hamid and award of a penalty by Mark Geiger, that looked to be spinning United out of the playoffs with less than 20 minutes to play. Then the same referee blew for encroachment as the first kick was scored, before (correctly) issuing a second yellow card to New York’s Rafa Marquez to tilt the game DC’s way. Afterwards DC’s Chris Pontius would argue that the Marquez sending off, more than the Cooper penalty was what won DC the game.
On Sunday afternoon, Pontius had to limp out of the action with less than 15 minutes gone, so he had to watch helplessly from the sidelines as once again, a refereeing decision had a big impact on his team’s fortunes. Ben Olsen had sent out a patched up, but strong DC United side who’d silenced the Houston attack early and actually held a lead in the last minute of the half. Then, with DC substitute Raphael Augusto ghosting in behind the Houston center back Andre Hainault, the defender seemed to bring him down, preventing what looked like an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Rather than award the foul and a red card however, Ricardo Salazar waved play on – though a minute later he did have his red card out as he sent DC assistant Pat Onstad off from the bench as he disputed the missed call. At half time the PRO head Peter Walton, in attendance, defended Salazar, to the extent that he said that even had there been a foul, Camargo was tracking back to prevent the goalscoring opportunity, but it looked pretty clear.
Of course there was a certain inevitability that as Houston stretched the DC back line and worked a short free kick round the back to force the equalizer, the man on the end of the chance was…Hainault. This was much to the ire of the DC United support, not to mention the DC United coaching staff, judging by the animated confrontation of Salazar by Olsen and remaining assistant Chad Ashton at the final whistle.
It was tough on a stretched to breaking point DC United. Steve will argue that the schedule is at least partly to blame for the way the game played out, and he has a point, as injuries took their toll, but in fairness Houston have had no less punishing a schedule and had to shuffle their pack during the game too. They also had a legitimate penalty shout turned down for an unspotted handball in the first half.
Houston should also be credited for their tactical game. A big key to the game was indirectly linked to another refereeing decision from two games ago, when Andy Najar saw two quick yellow cards after apparently throwing the ball at the referee. In his absence the experienced but slow Robbie Russell started for DC, and like a boxer working a cut opponent, Houston went for the same spot throughout the afternoon – lobbing balls into their left corner behind Russell and forcing Jakovic and McDonald out to the flanks from their central positions. Sure enough, the go ahead goal came from that position, as the lively Barnes, in for Moffat, blew past the out of position Jakovic to make the chance that led to Bruin bundling home. Had the suspended Najar been in place and tracking back, you suspect Houston would have had less joy stretching the DC defense. As it was they did their job, at home, yet again. PRO will have to decide how well Ricardo Salazar did his. GP
It’s a squad game
Maybe it was ever thus: winning titles is as much about endurance as it is about talent. And how well a team’s reserves can cope is as important as the skills of its stars.
After the last round of the playoffs we debated the harshness of the postseason schedule. On Sunday the effects were there for all to see: at times Houston and DC seemed to be playing on treacle and players were falling like trees at a lumberjacking convention. Injuries can, of course, happen at any time, but tired limbs and barely-fit players are more susceptible. DC United – playing with just two days rest after the NY snowstorm and already without Dwayne De Rosario – had lost Chris Pontius and Marcelo Saragosa within the first 45 minutes of the Eastern Conference final, while Houston lost Adam Moffat.
Meanwhile Eddie Johnson has been playing for the Sounders while looking barely match-fit, and the absence of Mauro Rosales has left Seattle lacking creativity.
On top of the injury pileup come suspensions, always a heartbreaker for players at this stage of the season. Houston exploited the absence of Andy Najar – suspended for one game for a red card, and then a further two for bringing the game into disrepute for throwing the ball at the referee. Would DC United have got a better result with Najar available? Would DC have been better off with Bill Hamid (sent off giving away a penalty in NY) between the sticks? Replacement Joe Willis saved four, but conceded three to Houston.
One suspended player who deserves no sympathy, however, is Seattle’s Marc Burch who earned himself a three-game layoff for a homophobic slur during the Real Salt Lake match. The suspension counts him out of the rest of the postseason, no matter how far Sounders progress. Burch immediately apologised but, following the three-game suspension for Houston’s Colin Clark for a similar incident earlier in the season, no less action was expected of MLS.
And, so, as the climax of the season approaches, it is almost a case of last team standing as much as winning. Twinges to Landon Donovan’s thigh muscles aside, LA Galaxy currently look the team with the least-denuded lineup.
Perhaps nothing backs up theories about the schedule than results: both teams that played on Thursday lost heavily on Sunday.SB
No rest for the vanquished
As the playoffs get to the business end and the focus narrows to the four remaining teams, elsewhere in the league turnover has been taking place among the sides already looking to the 2013 season.
The most high profile of these active sides, of course, has been New York Red Bulls, who declined to renew Coach Hans Backe’s three year contract, in the wake of his team’s third consecutive Conference semi-final loss. After the loss to DC on Thursday night, Backe deflected questions from reporters asking him about his record over the last three years, by saying that it was “too soon” to answer questions like that and that he would need to “sleep on it”. When he woke up the next morning his job was gone – the Red Bulls simultaneously announcing the appointment of Andy Roxburgh as sporting director, with a prominent endorsement from Gerard Houllier, the global football director for Red Bull.
The frontrunner for the now vacant coaching job still seems to be Gary McAllister though it’s apparently not a done deal by any means, and developments elsewhere in the league earlier in the week had one or two eyebrows raised and twos and twos being added together. Jesse Marsch left the Montreal Impact suddenly, after a year when he took his expansion team very close to the playoffs, but drew criticism for some over-ambitious defensive formations that were badly exposed on occasions, as well as never quite figuring out how best to use players like Bernier. Yet the Princeton graduate is tipped for a big future in the game and you suspect that wherever he lands, given time and the right boardroom he’ll do well. As it was, his ownership at Impact cited philosophical differences on how best to take the team forward, as the reason for his departure. You may recall that a similar line was quoted when Peter Nowak left Philadelphia – let’s hope the outcome of this particular parting of the ways ends up in slightly less litigious circumstances…
Meanwhile, just after the Backe announcement Chivas USA confirmed the long expected departure of Robin Fraser, the second year coach whose struggle to turn the side around fell apart in the home stretch. Matters were hardly helped by the speculation that accompanied the new ownership at the franchise, and Fraser was forced to see out the season knowing he was likely on his way. After what looked like smart trades for Califf and Agudelo earlier in the season, followed by a victory over their Galaxy rivals in the SuperClasico, it looked like Fraser’s team might turn the corner, but his defensive mentality ultimately undid him as his side forgot how to score. By the end it looked like too often they’d forgotten how to defend as well. Fraser’s a proud man, with a good track record as an assistant at Real Salt Lake. It’s possible that it’s as an assistant that he shows up again next – the Chivas experience has been too dispiriting and underwhelming to suggest otherwise – but Fraser still has plenty to offer. GP
We will have live coverage of both semi-final second legs at the weekend.