VANCOUVER, B.C. – Sometimes, the MLS schedule-makers have a sense of humor.
When the matchups for First Kick were announced in early December, the focus was rightly on the new TV deal with NBC, the unbalanced schedule and the long journey into December and MLS Cup.
What wasn’t immediately clear – and believe me, it didn’t occur to me until recently – that First Kick weekend is dripping with nice little subplots. Chief among them? That dish we all love nicely chilled: revenge.
Three of the eight matchups over the coming days feature rematches of teams eliminated during last fall’s MLS Cup Playoffs facing their vanquishers. And a fourth, as you can tell from the dateline above, with that same dynamic, but from a different knockout tournament: last spring’s Canadian Championship. Not too shabby.
Here’s a quick rundown of the four underrated rivalries on First Kick weekend:
Colorado vs. Columbus (Saturday, 6 pm ET, MLS Live)
Don’t look now, but when Robert Warzycha’s Crew take the field at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, they’re returning to the site where both of their last postseason runs fizzled. In 2010, it was a shocking penalty-kick exit at the hands of the No. 7-seeded Rapids after Conor Casey scored a late series equalizer in the second leg of their duel.
Last fall, Columbus watched in horror as Colorado rode a first-half stoppage time goal by Omar Cummings to a 1-0 victory in the Wildcard round. To make it worse, they had to endure the image of the Jamaican’s celebration: striking the pose of everyone’s favorite local hero. Wonder who’s been burned deeper into the Crew’s brain during the offseason: Cummings or Tim Tebow.
Vancouver vs. Montreal (Saturday, 6 pm ET, TSN/RDS)
This may be the first time the Canadian clubs have met at the MLS level, but they’ve got loads of bad blood between them over the years in the NASL/USL and in the Canadian Championship. In fact, they’ve met 21 times over the past four years alone.
Last year’s matchup was particularly entertaining. After Terry Dunfield’s goal in the first leg at Stade Saputo, the Whitecaps were headed home with a 1-0 aggregate lead and a priceless away goal. But Ali Gerba scored a late penalty kick at Empire Field to even matters.
In the 113th minute, Mouloud Akloul gave the ‘Caps the goal they needed to advance ... almost. In the dying moments, then-Vancouver ‘keeper Jay Nolly came up with a huge save on Gerba’s header that would have sent the Impact to the finals on aggregate. It wasn’t to be, however, as the ‘Caps moved on.
That’s a stinger of a loss the fans in La Belle Ville haven’t forgotten.
LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 10:30 pm, MLS Live)
Was there a more entertaining game last year than the Western Conference Championship? Sure, it was an eventual 3-1 win by the Galaxy, who didn’t drop a game all year at The Home Depot Center. But this one was way closer than the scoreline.
The teams traded early goals – Landon Donovan via the penalty spot, Álvaro Saborío poaching a rebound off a corner kick. And then RSL came in waves, only to be thwarted each time by the Galaxy defense and steady Josh Saunders in net.
In the end, LA’s quality won out (as did their ability to take advantage of a hobbled Salt Lake side), as the Supporters’ Shield winners vanquished the visitors and booked a spot in MLS Cup two weeks later on that same pitch. It was just the latest twist in a fascinating rivalry of contrasting teams over the past four years, beginning with that epic MLS Cup 2009 classic.
FC Dallas vs. New York (Sunday, 3 pm ET, NBC Sports)
It’s back to Frisco for MLS’ debut on the NBC Sports network, and the venue where last year’s postseason began. FC Dallas have payback on their minds for the 2-0 loss they suffered to the Red Bulls in the Wildcard round.
But there are some fun side plots going on in North Texas, not the least of which is former FCD draftee Dax McCarty coming home to face his old teammates. The diminutive Red Bulls midfielder still owns a house in Frisco, where he spent five seasons, and is still tight with much of the team. Particularly lanky Brek Shea, making for a clear oil-and-water trash-talking extravaganza.
“He’s an easy target with his hair,” McCarty told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “He’s definitely got his own style. I like to give him a ribbing, sometimes about his lack of education: He’s not the best speller in the world. He calls me small, sometimes makes comments about my red hair. He’s very unoriginal when it comes to his ability to make fun of me.”
Shea is also tight with Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo, one of his US national team and Olympic teammates. So while it may be a rivalry between bros, it’ll be all business once they got on the field.
“When we get out there,” McCarty added, almost obligatorily, “we’re enemies.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.