Kick Off: Thursday's MLS Playoff games turn drama up to 11
Wow. Who isn’t exhausted? The final two MLS Conference Semifinal series finished up on Thursday night, and the drama in both New York and Salt Lake was downright Shakespearean.
Let’s start at Red Bull Arena, where D.C. United scored a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls (WATCH THE HIGHLIGHTS) in the Eastern Conference Semifinal second leg after the match was controversially postponed from Wednesday night. (Read MLS Commissioner Don Garber's letter to the fans.) The win gave the capital club a 2-1 aggregate victory that came with its very own premonition.
Rookie Nick DeLeon’s late goal after the Red Bulls dominated the match was the culmination of one of the most remarkable playoff series in MLS history. Red cards, own-goals, missed chances, saved penalties, venue switches, a hurricane, a Nor'easter — it had it all.
New York’s Tim Cahill claimed the Red Bulls “didn’t deserve to lose,” but the almost surreal events surrounding Kenny Cooper’s 72nd-minute penalty might say otherwise. First, D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid was red-carded for fouling Cooper on a break away, prompting Hamid to Tweet out his feelings minutes later from the locker room. Cooper’s first, successful penalty was called back due to encroachment from teammate Thierry Henry and others. And D.C. backup Joe Willis then saved the second attempt, reportedly thanks to assistant coach Pat Onstad's memory.
But arguably it was Rafa Márquez’s ejection that turned the match, raising a familiar ire among fans and media toward the Mexican defender that one commentator called “a terrible toxin.” Will he stay in New York or go?
United manager Ben Olsen doesn’t care where Rafa ends up. He is more concerned for D.C.’s devoted traveling fans: “Some of them are going to get fired.”
D.C. and their fans next travel to Houston for a Sunday afternoon first-leg showdown with the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium (4 pm ET, NBC Sports Network).
The Dynamo, who watched the action on Thursday from home, enjoyed their extra day of rest, and waited for news about speedster Calen Carr, who’s on the clock with a strained hamstring.
Now to the Western Conference.
The Seattle Sounders made history, winning their first-ever playoff series with a 1-0 win at Real Salt Lake (WATCH THE HIGHLIGHTS). The lone goal in the home-and-home series was scored with just nine minutes to go by Honduran midfielder Mario Martínez, who was making his first career MLS start in place of captain Mauro Rosales, who wasn’t even in the 18-man roster.
It was a veritable ˆ from the left-footed specialist (WATCH), and it elicited some high praise from his teammates. “He had his struggles here at first,” said goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. “But he’s shown tonight what kind of a player he is.”
It was a bitter pill to swallow for an RSL team, who are left wondering where the goals went. Their last goal came back on Oct. 6. “The typical stance that most people will take is it falls on the forwards, but not for me,” said manager Jason Kreis.
He also wondered aloud whether the playoffs were rewarding the right style of play: “I hope that if there’s 100 games played, I hope the team that’s willing to risk more, the team that’s willing to be more bold, the team that’s willing to set the tempo and wanting to set the tempo gets results. As we’ve seen in the past couple of days in our league that’s not happening,” he said.
Veteran defender Nat Borchers was the most critical of his RSL squad: “We’ve gotten away from what we’re good at. We’re good at being aggressive. We’re talented, we’re the best team in the league with the ball, and because of that, we sometimes get away from the physical nature of the game.”
Sounders manager Sigi Schmid is looking ahead to the first leg of the Western Conference Championship against rivals LA Galaxy (Sunday, 9 pm ET on ESPN and TSN2). And he took exception to the fact that LA issued a press release stating that they were set to play RSL in the next round: “We hate to disappoint them. That's motivation enough for us right now."
In non-playoff news, the gasp heard around Frisco, Texasm concerned the health of midfielder Brek Shea, who underwent successful surgery on Thursday to remove a sesamoid bone in his right foot. Shea, who was hobbled with injuries for crucial parts of the FCD season and was called into US national team camp last month just to be examined by a German doctor at the request of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, is expected to miss 12-14 weeks.
There’s some movement in Vancouver, where the Whitecaps began their house cleaning on Thursday by deciding not to exercise the options on three players, including Maltese striker Etienne Barbara. The moves won’t have much impact on the first team, as of the three, only Barbara had seen Major League Soccer action – and at that, only 13 minutes from two substitute appearances in 2012.
Remember the talk that Chicago Fire defender Arne Friedrich was done after one more season? He doesn’t. Sure you do, because it was earlier this week. But a day after hinting that he had one last year in the tank, he’s telling the club’s website that, “If we can work something out past 2013, I would never say no to staying with the Chicago Fire.”
Those keeping tabs on the Montreal Impact’s tour in Italy got two bits of news on Thursday: The Impact lost their tour opener to Bologna and, not surprisingly, interim head coach Mauro Biello would love to be considered for the fulltime job in 2013.
What’s going to happen to Kris Boyd up in Portland? Here’s Timbers owner Merritt Paulson on the record and talking about his big Scottish forward, and what he saw in 2012: “I would have had his goals, if I were predicting, higher than they were.”
Meanwhile, there are reports speculating that the new owner for the NASL’s Minnesota stars could potentially team up with the Minnesota Vikings to bring an MLS club to the city.