Los Angeles Galaxy emboldened their favouritism for Major League Soccer glory by brushing past Seattle Sounders and into the last four, but the Conference semi-finals did throw up two shocks - one minor and the other major. The former was provided by FC Dallas, who edged defending champions Real Salt Lake to set up a meeting with the Galaxy, while San Jose Earthquakes seized the biggest headlines by recovering from a first-leg home loss to eliminate the celebrity-stacked New York Red Bulls. The Quakes will now meet Colorado Rapids, who hit a late goal to take their tie into extra time before beating Columbus Crew on penalties, for a place in the MLS Cup, which will unfold in Toronto on 21 November.
Quakes make waves in Big Apple, agony for Carroll
Having won the first leg of their Eastern Conference semi-finals 1-0 in California, barely anybody foresaw New York Red Bulls failing to complete the job against San Jose Earthquakes, who were the lowest-positioned side to qualify for the play-offs. However, Hans Backe’s charges did not bank on Bobby Convey - who, five years ago, was warming the Reading bench in the English second flight while Thursday evening’s opponents Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel were illuminating the Premier League - turning in arguably the performance of his career.
The 27-year-old broke the deadlock early, before thumping the ball past goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul to make it 2-0 to San Jose on the night on 76 minutes. Angel tied the aggregate scores just two minutes later but when Convey’s 40-yard pass found the head of Chris Wondolowski in the 81st minute, the man who scored the Earthquakes' last ten goals in the regular season made no mistake to silence the home supporters. The Red Bulls threw everything forward thereafter, but ultimately only one of their 23 attempts on goal was successful.
“Hearing it that quiet after I scored - besides our rooting section going nuts - was a surreal feeling,” enthused Wondolowski. “It was awesome. It’s a 90-minute game and you never know when it’s going to be your chance, if it’s the first minute or the 90th minute. You just have to be ready to take it. That’s something I always try to pride myself on. I did a lot of defensive duties today but I knew that was going to be my chance, and I knew I had to make the most of it when I did.”
Colorado Rapids took a one-goal cushion into the away leg of their tie with Columbus Crew, but found themselves heading into the last ten minutes trailing 2-1 on aggregate following goals from Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers. The visitors refused to give up, however, and Conor Casey turned in Omar Cummings’ cross on 84 minutes to send the game to extra time, which produced no winner.
Penalties ensued and, after both sides had netted their first four kicks, Julien Baudet’s conversion for the Rapids meant Brian Carroll had to score to keep the Crew alive. He didn’t, the majority of the crowd in Ohio watching in despair as the 29-year-old’s effort flew over the crossbar.
“I am so so pleased for the players,” said Colorado coach Gary Smith. “When you put in as much effort, show as much passion and play as well as they did, it’s always great to get a reward.”
That reward is a single-leg tie against the Earthquakes on Saturday, in which the Rapids will have home advantage at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
FCD surprise RSL, Beckham assists punish Sounders
Real Salt Lake may have conceded a last-gasp goal to lose 2-1 in Texas, but they were confident they would recover that narrow deficit and progress into the post-season’s last four on home soil. After all, they were the defending champions, had reached the play-offs with the second-best record from the regular season, and were unbeaten at their Rio Tinto fortress since May 2009.
And while that latter statistic stayed intact, a 1-1 draw was insufficient to deny FC Dallas advancing. Not that RSL could be criticised for a lack of effort. By contrast, they attempted 15 shots in a frenetic final 20 minutes, but ultimately only one of them - Robbie Findley’s 79th-minute equaliser - beat the superb Kevin Hartman.
For Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman, preparation was the key. “We’ve been training for nine months for this special game,” he said. “We’ve been preparing ourselves, pushing ourselves, working hard. It took a good performance to come away with the result we wanted. It was a hard-fought match, not just from beginning of the game, but in preparation going into the game.”
While the first three Conference semi-final, second legs were high on drama, Sunday night’s concluding game was always heading towards one outcome – a predictable one. Following a 1-0 win away to Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy took control of their second meeting from the outset, and it was their most high-profile star who had the biggest say in their 2-1 victory at the Home Depot Center. David Beckham set up the opening goal for Edson Buddle from a corner, and then delivered a sumptuous cross which Omar Gonzalez headed home in the 27th minute.
Two-nil up on the night and three goals to the good on aggregate, last year’s MLS Cup runners-up played the remainder of the game in cruise-control and though Steve Zakuani grabbed a late consolation for the visitors, it did not spoil the mood of the Galaxy supporters, who are confident their heroes can go one better than they did last season.
“He was terrific,” coach Bruce Arena said about Beckham. “His reputation on set-pieces is well-known, well-respected and well-earned. Tonight it was the difference in the game.”
When asked if there was anybody better than Beckham at delivering dead-balls, Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee responded: “No, not in the world, maybe not ever. When he has a set-piece he’s lethal, as he proved tonight and as he’s proved in World Cups, Champions Leagues, on the grandest stages. It’s no different here.”
And although Beckham has won some of club football’s biggest prizes, his hunger to win the MLS remains unquestionable. “I’m always driven to be successful,” he said. “I’m always driven to win. I’m 35 years old now, and I still want it as much as I did when I was 18, 19.”
The next hurdle on the English midfielder's mission to realise his American dream will take place on Sunday, when Los Angeles Galaxy host FC Dallas in the Western Conference final.