Lone tally not what Revs, Fire expected
After what transpired in last year's wild Eastern Conference Championship game, the New England Revolution players knew better.
With everything on the line, goals are often scored at the same rate as your average FIFA 2006 game on the PS2. It doesn't matter what league or what country you're talking about either. Just look at the Champions League final between A.C. Milan and Liverpool last May that went to penalty kicks after six goals were amassed.
Such was also the case in that epic 3-3 match between New England and D.C. United last fall that ended in a dramatic penalty kick shootout.
So when Shalrie Joseph and Clint Dempsey stunned the Chicago Fire backline by hooking up for a quick strike less than four minutes into Sunday's Eastern Conference Championship match, it hardly seemed like a tally that was going to stand up. It looked more like the beginning of yet another epic MLS playoff battle rather than a goal that would decide who would move on to play in MLS Cup next Sunday.
"I thought it was going to open the game up a lot more," said Dempsey. "I thought there were going to be a lot more chances and a lot more goals. But that's how soccer is sometimes. Last week they had four goals, and this week they had none. It's just one of those things. You're hot and cold, and you're up and down."
To call Dempsey's goal a "strike" seems foolish. In fact, his goal somewhat served as a microcosm of what was seen during the 90-plus minutes of soccer played at Gillette Stadium.
In a word, it was "ugly."
Joseph's slow roller to the far post was hit with the same amount of pace as the ball that Mookie Wilson hit through Bill Buckner's legs in '86. All Dempsey had to do was make contact with the ball in any way before anyone on the Fire did to make sure it would travel just over the goal line. As the second-year midfielder ran down the middle of the penalty box, the stunned backline of the Fire seemed frozen in quicksand, while goalkeeper Zach Thornton was already out of the play after having to defend Joseph's breakaway.
"I didn't know if it was going to go in or not," said Dempsey of his first career postseason goal. "It looked like it was going (too) slow. I didn't do a very good job with it. I think I hit it with my butt to go in, but it still went in."
At the time, the Chicago players looked up at the clock, saw an eternity remaining, and simply went back to work, believing that they would get it back at some point over 86-plus minutes. It was only after the final whistle did they look back at that unlikely goal, wishing they had played it better.
Standing along the edge of the penalty area, center back Jim Curtin said he and right back C.J. Brown were sorting out which players were going to mark Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan. But there was a little confusion because both defenders were waiting for Nate Jaqua to get back and defend from his striker position to match up with Joseph since it was a pre-arranged matchup for dead-ball situations.
Normally when the ball is sitting there about 35 yards out from goal, a player on the defending team jumps a few yards in front of the ball to hold up the play. More often than not, a striker performs this task. It's a bit of gamesmanship that's always followed with the requisite yelling by the attacking player standing over the ball until the referee backs him up the necessary 10 yards. By the time that bit of cat-and-mouse unfolds, the defense is usually set.
Unfortunately for the Fire, this "stall" tactic never happened, and Daniel Hernandez took full advantage by slotting a quick ball to a wide-open Joseph.
"Three things happened," said Fire head coach Dave Sarachan. "When the foul was committed, we didn't get over the ball to stop a quick free kick. Secondly, Nate Jaqua is marked up with Shalrie, but Nate's a forward and, where it happened, Nate couldn't get back. Third, we didn't have enough guys in the back that just said, 'All right, I'll deal with Shalrie.' So we fell asleep quite frankly."
It put Thornton in an awkward spot, as he was forced to come out and defend Joseph on the right side since there wasn't a defender between him and the goal.
"I think we were all caught by surprise," he said.
A dejected Jesse Marsch said he thought his side pushed the game and was the better team for long stretches in the match, making the lone goal even that more of a tough pill to swallow.
"It's a tough way to lose," he said.
Sarachan also said after the match that he thought his side was better at holding possession and dictating the overall play during the game. In a way, he's correct, as the diminutive Thiago weaved in and out of the midfield and was adept at keeping the ball moving. But according to the Eastern Conference champions, the visitors just weren't very dangerous and didn't create a lot of opportunities in their attacking third.
"They were only really dangerous at the end," said right back Jay Heaps, recalling the stoppage-time goal scored by Gonzalo Segares that was called back because he was ruled to be offside. "I think (our defense) did a good job on their strikers because service to them was shut down."
It didn't help Chicago's cause at all when Jaqua was forced to leave the game shortly before halftime with a concussion after knocking heads with Heaps on a 50-50 ball moments earlier. Sarachan's side was already without captain Chris Armas (torn ACL) and deceptive winger Justin Mapp (hamstring). Losing Jaqua limited their attacking options greatly.
That only gave the Revolution confidence, as Jaqua was one of the players they had keyed on during the week, while Mapp was only ruled out of the match less than 24 hours before the start after making the trip to Massachusetts with the team on Saturday.
"We just felt like we were going to win," said Dempsey. "They had some chances, but there really was no conviction. There really wasn't too many scary opportunities that they had. It just felt like one of those games where things weren't going right for them and we never thought we weren't going to get the win. It was a close call at the end, but for the most part, we felt luck was on our side."
One year to the day of Sunday's match, the same couldn't be said. On that night, Dempsey watched his penalty kick get gobbled up by Nick Rimando before he was mobbed by his teammates to celebrate a berth in the MLS Cup.
This year, it was Dempsey's turn. Even if it came on the ugliest of goals.
Marc Connolly is a freelance writer covering soccer for several publications and regularly writes for MLSnet.com. Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.