We’ve kicked around a series of questions in this space during the past several weeks, and now that the MLS Cup playoffs are narrowing down to their final two teams, some of our answers are being tucked into the back of the net — confirmed by the events of one of the great stretch runs in MLS history.
Let’s take a look, starting with the weirdest postseason series in league history, the Eastern Conference semifinal between New York and D.C.
Q: Are the Red Bulls better with or without Rafa Márquez?
A: After New York’s painful (and painfully typical for the franchise) 1-0 defeat in the second leg this past Thursday, the jury has returned a verdict.
WATCH: Márquez sent off
Sure, Thierry Henry led the stampede of Red Bulls into the box that forced referee Mark Geiger to call encroachment on Kenny Cooper’s successful spot kick, and yes, Cooper failed to convert the re-take.
Also, Henry passed the buck to Roy Miller on that crucial late free kick ...
But the main culprit in New York’s loss was Rafa Márquez.
Even after Cooper’s botched second penalty, the Red Bulls were still in control of the match. The score was tied 0-0 and New York had a man advantage with 20 minutes to find a game-winner.
Cue Márquez for a reckless lunge at the feet of Chris Pontius to earn his second yellow of the game and strip New York of the man advantage just six minutes after they received it. With that, the Red Bulls lost their grip on the game, and the 2012 season.
It’s official: The Mexican international has done more harm than good for New York.
Q: Did San Jose lean too heavily on the last-minute magic?
A: All season long, the Earthquakes laughed in the face of defeat. They practically thrived on falling behind, as evidenced by their roughly 57 stoppage-time goals (OK, 15) this season.
They were like the kid in your dorm who blew off his coursework till the night before the midterm, then stayed up all night cramming — and aced the test. Yeah, that dude.
But then the final exam came and there was too much to cover in one night. For San Jose, that exam arrived last Wednesday in the form of the defending champion LA Galaxy.
The Quakes took a 1-0 aggregate lead (on a 94th-minute winner, naturally) into the Home Depot Center, but they lost center back Víctor Bernárdez early in the second leg and were blitzed by an LA attack that has found its fifth gear this postseason.
Three goals in 18 minutes of the first half staked the Galaxy to a 3-1 aggregate lead, and though the Quakes got a customary late strike from Alan Gordon to pull within one, the clock struck midnight on their Supporters’ Shield–winning season just minutes later.
Q: What do the Sounders need to succeed in the playoffs?
A: Thanks to another three-goal barrage from LA in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship, postseason success continues to elude Seattle, and the missing ingredients remain the same as in years past: game-management skills and goals.
Seattle did get the first playoff series win in their history last Thursday, edging Real Salt Lake 1-0 to advance to the Western Conference Championship. But their big guns, Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson, remain scoreless all-time in the MLS playoffs.
WATCH: Sounders react to loss
Those two were blanked again by LA in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship on Sunday, and the Sounders unraveled, pushing forward when they should have sat back and failing to contain the margin for the second leg.
The Galaxy got two goals and an assist from Robbie Keane, two assists to Christian Wilhelmsson and a goal from Mike Magee to take a commanding 3-0 lead into the second leg at CenturyLink Field.
If the Sounders are going to reach their first MLS Cup, they’ll need their top scorers to strike early and often next Saturday.
Q: Is this the most wide-open postseason ever?
A: The top seeds are out, the four semifinalists with home-field advantage have all been eliminated and two Knockout Round teams are the odds-on favorites to reach the MLS Cup final.
Even for MLS, that’s pretty wide open.
Q: Who deserves to be Coach of the Year?
A: They don’t count postseason performance in the official balloting for this honor, but if they did, Houston coach Dominic Kinnear would be a frontrunner. After a merely adequate regular season, he has his team peaking and poised for a return to the MLS Cup final.
The Dynamo unquestionably caught a huge break against D.C. in the blown non-call on Andre Hainault, but Kinnear’s men did the business in the second half to win 3-1 with a patchwork, injury-hit group. His canny switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 launched the second half surge.
Of course, if D.C., who were hit even harder by injuries on Sunday, somehow rally in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship, forget Coach of the Year — Ben Olsen would deserve a statue of some kind.
Already missing Dwayne DeRosario (knee), Andy Najar and Bill Hamid (both suspended), Olsen’s team lost Chris Pontius (groin), Marcelo Saragosa (hamstring) and Brandon McDonald (calf) during the Houston game.
Q: Who is this year’s team of destiny?
A: All signs are pointing to an LA-Houston rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final, and fate has been with those clubs for a while now: The Dynamo are playing in their fifth conference championship in the past seven years, while LA — who’ve looked increasingly deadly in the postseason — are in their 12th in 17 years.