Monday Postgame: Center-back blunders tip the scales in opening week of MLS Cup playoffs

With the first legs in the books, all four Conference Semifinal series are teed up for some nervy finales, spring-loaded with cliffhangers.

Can New York shake off their second-half collapse against Houston and prevail at home without their best defender? Will Portland, up 2-1 on bitter rivals Seattle, close the deal in front of the frenzied faithful at JELD-WEN Field?

Can New England’s youngsters hang on and knock off favored Sporting Kansas City on the road? Will Real Salt Lake rally at home against the defending champs, who won the first leg by a 1-0 margin that could have been greater if not for some shoddy finishing?

Tune in Wednesday and Thursday nights for all the answers as the postseason whittles down its final four. 

In the meantime, here’s a lingering question from the first week of postseason play: Did someone put a curse on the league’s center backs? From the opening Knockout Round game in Seattle to Sunday night’s squeaker at StubHub Center, central defenders were on the hot seat, and more often than not, they got burned.

Some were awkwardly thrust into duty at the last minute, while others had been active, if not starting, all season. But either way, it was a tough week to be an MLS center back.

Let’s take a look.

One and Done

The trend began in earnest in last Wednesday’s elimination game in Seattle, where Colorado Rapids coach Oscar Pareja made the unexpected decision to start Germán Mera (pictured at right) – who had played a grand total of 16 minutes since August 11 – alongside Drew Moor in the center of his defense, citing a need for “some help in the air, a part of the game where the Sounders are strong.”

But 12 minutes into the game, a clearly rusty Mera made a mistake in the very department he was brought in to shore up, misplaying a Seattle goal kick and letting it bounce to a wide-open Lamar Neagle at the top of the box.

Neagle snapped a header on goal, forcing a diving, fingertips save from Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin.

Mera bookended his early mistake with a later, much costlier one, flubbing a challenge against Sounders striker Eddie Johnson and allowing the US international to slip into the box and score the game-clinching goal in Seattle’s 2-0 win.

WATCH: Rivas gets his walking papers

In Montreal’s visit to Houston, Impact coach Marco Schällibaum also decided to go with a little-used center back, starting Colombian Nelson Rivas, who hadn’t played a single minute all season.

The bold move backfired, as Rivas drew a 35th-minute yellow card (which should have been a red) and another one in the 70th, sending his team down to 10 men for the final 20 minutes of an eventual 3-0 loss.

Rivas’ center-back partner, Matteo Ferrari, didn’t fare much better: He misplayed a ball that led to Will Bruin’s opening goal in the 16th minute, and he was glaringly outpaced by Bruin on the big striker’s second goal, in the 72nd minute.

Sleeping in Seattle 

Fifteen minutes into the hotly anticipated Sounders-Timbers opener at Century Link Field, Seattle’s Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Djimi Traoré got in on the center-back follies. The duo neglected to track Portland striker Ryan Johnson as he ran to the near post and flicked Jack Jewsbury’s cross past Marcus Hahnemann for the game’s first goal.

Slightly less than an hour later, Traore failed to anticipate a run into the box by Timbers attacker Darlington Nagbe, who sidestepped the former Liverpool defender and rifled a shot into the far side netting to give Portland a 2-0 lead. The visitors held on for a 2-1 first-leg win.

Red Bull in a China Shop

The following day in Houston, the Red Bulls got goals from Tim Cahill and Eric Alexander to take a 2-0 first-half lead on the Dynamo. The visitors not only looked to be in complete control, they also looked like MLS Cup favorites.

But after surrendering some momentum, and a 51st-minute goal, New York shot themselves in the foot just after the hour mark. Holding the smoking gun was – yes – a center back.

WATCH: Olave scythes down Cummings

Jámison Olave, the Red Bulls’ best defender and an increasingly steady presence during their unbeaten stretch run, made a reckless, lunging challenge into the back of Houston striker Omar Cummings, drawing a straight red card.

Some observers questioned whether the tackle was worthy of a red, but wherever you stand on that question, there’s no denying that Olave’s lunge was as unnecessary as it was rash. Cummings was some 50 yards from goal, and facing the sideline.

The ejection put New York on their heels for the final 25 minutes of the game, and they conceded a stoppage-time equalizer, stumbling to a 2-2 tie that felt like a loss – and caused some fans to wonder if the Curse of Caricola (who was a central defender, by the way) had truly been banished with last week’s Supporters’ Shield triumph.

But while New York will be without their top defender for Wednesday’s winner-take-all second leg at Red Bull Arena, Houston will be playing their third game in seven days.

Holding it Down

But it wasn’t all bad news for MLS center backs this week. New England’s A.J. Soares and José Gonçalves acquitted themselves nicely (aided by a couple of big saves from keeper Matt Reis) in the Revs' win over Sporting Kansas City, a match in which Sporting central defender Aurélien Collin also weighed in with a late consolation goal that could prove crucial on Wednesday.

Real Salt Lake’s Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler (pictured at right) came up big against the Galaxy, limiting the damage in a 1-0 first-leg loss.

In the 42nd minute, Schuler (another sparingly used center back getting the start this week) made a tremendous sliding clearance of a Robbie Keane centering pass bound for Landon Donovan in the six-yard box, stopping a sure goal (and avoiding putting the ball in his own net, which looked to be a likely outcome).

Late in the second half, Schuler and Borchers repelled a two-on-two counter attack by Keane and Donovan – a.k.a. every MLS defense’s worst nightmare – and Borchers spent the night intercepting, blocking and clearing Galaxy attacks.

They were beaten a few times, but compared to most of their counterparts throughout the league, Borchers and Schuler were fantastic – and they did enough to give their team a fighting chance to overcome a slim margin at home on Thursday.

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