Major League Soccer’s conference final series are now set, with LA Galaxy taking on Seattle Sounders in the West and DC United, surprise conquerors of the New York Red Bulls, meeting Houston Dynamo in the East.
San Jose Earthquakes and their scoring sensation Chris Wondolowski were the team to beat heading into the post-season, but as is so often the case in MLS play-offs, it’s rarely regular season form that tips the balance. Often, it’s the intangibles that count in the frenzied maelstrom of the post-season.
After a disappointing run in the regular season, defending champions LA Galaxy recovered in a big way to grind out a gritty 2-1 win over Vancouver Whitecaps, setting up a two-legged – and all-California – Western Conference semi-final series with San Jose that had soccer fans across the country drooling.
Things seemed to be going according to plan when San Jose stole a late winner on the road in LA’s Home Depot Center for a 1-0 edge in the first leg. When all was fading, and with everything on the line in hostile territory, the Galaxy showed the spirit of champions on Wednesday night with a 3-1 win in the second leg to book their place in the conference final, creating the kind of momentum that helped win them last year’s MLS title.
Galaxy’s stars align
The star-studded side from Southern California put on a master-class in that return game, building up a 3-0 lead before half-time. Their international pedigree shone through, too, with Landon Donovan and David Beckham spraying passes with aplomb and Irish international poacher Robbie Keane finding the net twice.
The result sets up an enticing clash with Seattle Sounders, who are led by re-born USA international striking hero Eddie Johnson. After a goalless draw in the their semi-final first leg, Mario Martinez tucked home a lone goal to see off 2009 champions Real Salt Lake at their Rio Tinto stadium, a ground where they rarely concede goals or lose games.
LA coach Bruce Arena was far from coy as he looked ahead to their date with the slick-passing Sounders, saying: “We’ve been the best team in MLS since July.” San Jose’s Wondolowski, who has been tipped by many to be named top player of 2012 thanks to his record-equalling 27 goals in the regular season, was in a different kind of mood. “I missed three good chances [against LA],” he admitted, head low. “I let the team down.”
Faves stunned in the East
On the other side of the States, another top seed fell in the form of Sporting Kansas City, who finished top in the East in the regular season, but couldn’t handle the fire-power of Houston Dynamo. The men from Texas beat Chicago Fire in their play-in game before besting SKC 2-1 in the aggregate. It caps a proud record for the 2006/7 champions and their coach Dominic Kinnear was full of praise: “Five conference finals in seven years is something to be proud of,” he said.
Dynamo, led by stalwart Brian Ching and Brad Davis, will now meet DC United, who edged East Coast glamour boys New York Red Bulls 2-1 on aggregate. The series opened with a thrilling 1-1 draw in DC and then, after a one day postponement because of a foot of snow in the New York area, DC managed a slim 1-0 win over Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and co in a game that produced two red cards, one missed penalty kick and some spicy action in the Big Apple.
“We came out today to try to prove something about the credit we deserve,” said Nick DeLeon, the 22-year-old scorer of the 88th-minute winner for the men from the nation’s capital. “We’re going to keep proving people wrong.That’s what we’re here to do.”
Both conference final series first legs will be played on Sunday, with Seattle travelling to LA and Houston hosting DC United. The return legs will be played on 18 November. The winner of the series will meet in the one-off final, MLS Cup, on 1 December to determine who will be crowned Major League Soccer champions for 2012.