Friday, November 4, 2011

Football Americana: Conference Semi-Finals

Round one proper of the Major League Soccer playoffs is done, and we now know which four teams will compete in the Conference Finals.


Real Salt Lake took a 3-0 advantage in the first leg of their semi-final against Seattle Sounders at Rio Tinto Stadium. Alvaro Saborio made the difference in the first match, scoring the first two goals. The first came just after the break and was a simple tap-in after good work by Javier Morales and Chris Wingert, and the second was a delicious backheel seven minutes into the second half. Ned Grabavoy's late goal looked to have the tie won before a single minute had been played at CenturyLink Field.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the second leg in Seattle provided the most drama of the four, with the Sounders getting two of the three goals they required around the hour mark. Referee Jair Marrufo disallowed Seattle's apparent breakthrough goal before the break for a foul on goalkeeper Nick Rimando, and the hosts had to wait. Mike Fucito was dragged down by Tony Beltran in the 54th minute to win a penalty for Seattle which was lashed in by Osvaldo Alonso to make the score 3-1 on aggregate. Lamar Neagle's tidy back-post finish made it 3-2, but even with 30 minutes remaining the Sounders couldn't find the crucial third in Kasey Keller's final match.

New York Red Bulls are guests in the Western Conference Playoffs and received a bitter welcome from LA Galaxy, who defeated them 1-0 at Red Bull Arena in the first leg of their semi-final. Mike Magee's scored some vital post-season goals for LA, and his 15th minute half-volley from a brilliant pass by David Beckham was right up there in terms of importance. Both teams went into the second leg with a player suspended thanks to an altercation after the final whistle. Rafa Marquez was the key culprit in a pathetic confrontation between the two sides, with Juninho of LA also seeing red.

In the second leg at Home Depot Center the Red Bulls got the dream start. In just the fourth minute Luke Rodgers nipped in between the Galaxy defenders and slipped the ball past Josh Saunders to level the tie. LA had other ideas, though, and regained the advantage with Magee's equaliser at the end of the first half, a header again set up by Beckham - this time from the corner quadrant. Landon Donovan put the semi-final beyond New York from the spot in the second half, calmly finishing after Beckham had been clumsily and aggressively bundled over in the box by Roy Miller.


The goals came early in Houston Dynamo's first leg win at Philadelphia Union. Andre Hainault headed Houston in front after just four minutes and 35 seconds but the lead lasted even fewer minutes than had parity. Sebastien Le Toux raced onto a deflected pass to equalise with a simple finish on six minutes. Calen Carr scored the winner for the Dynamo after half an hour, finishing tidily after Brian Ching's through pass.

A single goal from Ching was enough to settle the second leg in favour of Houston and send them into the Eastern Conference final. Brad Davis typically played a big part, swinging in a superb free kick for Ching to head home in first half stoppage time.

Colorado Rapids lost their home leg against Sporting Kansas City as they looked to defend their MLS Cup championship. Teal Bunbury was Sporting Club's hero on the night, scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory. He broke the deadlock just after the break, flying clear of the defence and stroking the ball past Matt Pickens. It all fell apart ten minutes later for the Rapids, when Tyrone Marshall hauled Bunbury down and was heading for the shower as the USA striker eased in the penalty.

KC's dominance continued into the second leg, which they also won 2-0 at Livestrong Sporting Park. Defender Aurelien Collin effectively killed the semi-final with a header past stranded 'keeper Pickens just before the 30-minute mark, and the exceptional first-year player CJ Sapong made it 4-0 on aggregate with a header of his own less than 15 minutes from time. Graham Zusi's delivery played a big part in both goals and KC cruise into the Eastern Conference final.

And so, the single-leg conference finals are set. In the East, it's Sporting Kansas City v Housto Dynamo, who meet at Livestrong Sporting Park on Sunday. In the West it's LA Galaxy v Real Salt Lake, a repeat of the 2009 MLS Cup, at HDC.

The respective winners will meet in 2011 MLS Cup at HDC on 20th November.

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