Houston, Los Angeles Advance, Set Up Rematch of 2011 MLS Cup Final

We’ve been buried with day-job stuff this week but we’re back now with a few words and pictures on this past Sunday’s eventful MLS Conference Final second legs, which set up a rematch of last year’s championship game between the Galaxy and the Dynamo.

In Sunday’s opener, Houston took a 3-1 first-leg lead into D.C., and got a pivotal goal just before halftime from Oscar Boniek Garcia* to all but kill off the series. Brad Davis set up Garcia with an incisive solo run down the right channel before stabbing it back to the Honduran with his favored left foot.

D.C. pulled one back late to make it 4-2 on aggregate, but this was Houston’s game, and series. They looked wholly professional, and will be a formidable opponent in the final.

Highlights:

In the nightcap, the Galaxy took a 3-0 first-leg lead into Seattle’s jam-packed CenturyLink Field, where the hosts would look to get off to a fast start against an LA team resting Landon Donovan (hamstring) and Juninho (Achilles).

The Sounders did just that, threatening early and often through Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero. Johnson had a goal called back (incorrectly, replays showed) in the 11th minute, and then scored the opener in the 12th.

When Zach Scott powered in a near-post header in the 57th minute to make it 3-2 on aggregate, it was game on.

And then, well … click here for the highlights of what came next. (We’d embed the video, but it was an ESPN game and the WWL is a little stingy when it comes to posting stuff to the WWW.)

Click here to see the piece we wrote on the handball controversy for the MLS site.

Seattle’s 2-1 win was not enough to overturn their aggregate deficit, and LA advanced with a 4-2 total-goals victory. They’ll meet Houston on Saturday, Dec 1, at the Home Depot Center (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET) to try to win their second straight MLS Cup title and send David Beckham out in style (more on that shortly).

*Garcia’s parents gave him the middle name Boniek in honor of legendary Polish player Zbigniew Boniek (check his Juventus highlights here). We will never tire of how cool that is. The back of Garcia’s Dynamo jersey reads “Boniek.”

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D.C. 1, Red Bulls 0: Hardest ‘Gut-Punch Loss’ in New York’s History?

Game 1 of this two-game aggregate playoff series featured two own goals, a red card, and a missed penalty.

What could Game 2 do to top that in terms of strangeness? Well, after being pushed back a day by a November Nor’easter that dumped five inches of snow on the field, how about two red cards, a mass encroachment infraction that led to a retaken penalty that was then saved, and an 88th-minute winner against the run of play?

Welcome to another bitter, but—incredibly—not atypical, New York loss:

The Red Bulls were poised for a potential game-winning goal when Kenny Cooper was taken down in the box and D.C. keeper Bill Hamid was sent off in the 69th minute. Cooper tucked away the spot kick and New York looked to play out the final 20 minutes with a man advantage. Game over, right?

Not so fast: Referee Mark Geiger ordered the penalty retaken because several Red Bulls (and at least one D.C. player) poured into the box before Cooper took his shot.

United’s backup keeper, Joe Willis, saved the re-take and the teams stayed level at 0-0 (1-1 aggregate). For Red Bulls fans, that was bad, but hey, they still had a man advantage, they were controlling the game, and they 20 minutes to find a game-winner. They were still poised to win the game and advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Enter Rafa Marquez, the same Rafa Marquez who threw a ball at Landon Donovan in last year’s playoffs, the same Rafa Marquez who committed assault and battery on Cobi Jones at the 2002 World Cup, the same guy who criticized teammates in the press, slacked off in games, and the same Rafa Marquez who earns $4.6 million a year from Red Bull.

That guy.

A scant five minutes after New York got the man advantage, Marquez gave it back, recklessly slide-tackling D.C.’s Chris Pontius to pick up his second yellow.

With the teams back on even numbers at 10 v 10, United got a late goal from Nick DeLeon and then watched as Thierry Henry let Roy Miller —Roy Miller, who hadn’t taken a free kick all season—take a last-minute free kick from just outside the box. The Costa Rican defender skied it to the 20th row and New York’s season ended in a 1-0 loss.

The franchise made several front-office changes in the wake of the crushing loss, hiring a new GM and announcing that head coach Hans Backe would not return next season. More on those later.

MLS Playoffs: Josh Saunders Had a Robert Green Moment, Houston Had No Problem with KC

San Jose and Sporting Kansas City both began their playoff campaigns as the favorites to reach MLS Cup 2012. By the time they finished their first games, though, only one of them retained that status, as Kansas City was soundly beaten by Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium, and the Earthquakes caught a late (very late), lucky break to squeak past Los Angeles 1-0 at the Home Depot Center.

First up, the LA-San Jose highlights, wherein the hosts squander several chances before their goalkeeper (with a little help from defender Omar Gonzalez) squanders the game in the 94th minute:

The Quakes will take their 1-0 lead home to Buck Shaw Stadium, where the two teams will meet on Wednesday (ESPN2, 11:00 ET) for the second leg of their two-game, total-goals series.

Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has his team executing with precision at just the right time. Last Wednesday, they went into Chicago and smothered the Fire in the Knockout Round, exiting with a 2-1 victory after allowing Chicago very few chances.

This past Sunday, they disrupted the high-flying game of Eastern Conference champs Kansas City, and got two excellent goals—a scorcher from Adam Moffat and fine finish from Will Bruin, nicely served up by Calen Carr—en route to a solid 2-0 win.

Highlights here:

Kansas City will try to rally from the 2-0 deficit when the teams meet in the second leg at Livestrong Sporting Park on Wednesday (MLS Live, DirectKick, 9:00).

Sounders FC Comes ThisClose to Miracle Rally

Even though they lost two players to injury in the first 20 minutes of the game, Seattle’s plan for rallying from a 3-0 aggregate deficit was on track against Real Salt Lake late in the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal last night at CenturyLink Field.

Sixty minutes in, they had scored two goals, and had the game exactly where they wanted it: They were up 2-0, piling on the pressure, and seemingly on the brink of getting the goal that would tie the aggregate score at three and force the series into extra time.

Lamar Neagle scored the second goal (Osvaldo Alonso got the first, from the penalty spot) and he came close to getting the third on several occasions during the home team’s furious push down the stretch.

They ultimately fell short, losing the series 3-2 on aggregate, and sending legendary U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller to his retirement a little earlier than he’d expected.

Click here to watch the highlights.

And here for Keller’s thoughts at the end of his 21-year career:

At Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City downed an injury-depleted Colorado side 2-0 to win their Eastern Conference semifinal 4-0 and advance to the conference final, which they will host, against either Philadelphia or Houston, on Sunday.

For more on both games, see here.

Seattle’s Pregame Viewing Material

Trailing Real Salt Lake 3-0 heading into tonight’s Western Conference semifinal second leg (1o:00 ET, ESPN2), Seattle Sounders FC will need an extraordinary result to advance.

Coach Sigi Schmid told MLS’s Matt Doyle that he’s been talking to his players about famous recent comebacks, such as Liverpool’s three-goal blitzkrieg of a rally against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.

Oddly, though, Schmid says he hasn’t talked to his team about the greatest comeback in MLS history, one that he was involved in, albeit on the wrong side.

In second leg of the 2003 Western Conference semis, Schmid’s LA Galaxy held a 2-0 lead over Landon Donovan, Jeff Agoos, and the San Jose Earthquakes. They quickly increased that to 4-0 on aggregate, scoring two goals in the first 13 minutes of the second leg.

Curtains for LD and Co., right? Unbelievably, no: Agoos and Donovan each scored before halftime, and San Jose added two more—including a 90th-minute (180th, really) equalizer by Chris Roner–to force extra time. Quakes striker Rodrigo Faria completed the sensational rally with a goal six minutes into the extra session.

Here are the (grainy) highlights:

There’s another reason Schmid’s men may want to take their cue from the 2003 Quakes. After completing the historic comeback, San Jose went on to win the MLS Cup that year.

Seattle’s task will be made more difficult by the absence of Mauro Rosales, the team leader in assists (13), who was ruled out today because of a knee strain. But it’s not impossible—as Schmid knows better than most.

Red Bulls Lose Match, Draw Postgame Donnybrook

The Red Bulls gave up a 15th-minute goal to former New York attacker Mike Magee, and despite a furious effort, could not find an equalizer over the remaining 75 minutes, falling 1-0 to Los Angeles in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal series at Red Bull Arena yesterday afternoon.

The Galaxy backline, ably anchored by keeper Josh Saunders—who made five saves, three of them outstanding ones—bent but did not break and succeeded in frustrating New York.

Most frustrated of all was midfielder Rafa Marquez, who had a point blank volley stuffed by Saunders in stoppage time, and then boiled over after the final whistle. The Mexico captain fired the game ball at Landon Donovan as the LA midfielder walked near midfield, sparking a full-blown fracas near the halfway line.

Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho were red-carded for their roles in the dustup, and will miss the second leg on Thursday. We’d say that’s a push in terms of personnel losses for the two sides.

Here’s the incident:

(We enjoyed Harkes‘s “maybe a fly went into his eye” comment.)

And here are the very entertaining match highlights:

The return leg should be something to see, that much you can be sure of. It’s on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET on ESPN2.

We put on our MLS press fedora and went into the Galaxy locker room after the game to get some quotes on both the melee and the performance of LA keeper  Saunders.

Donovan told us some very interesting things. Go check them out here, and see here for the Galaxy’s take on Saunders’ game-saving turn between the pipes.

The New York–LA clash led a pretty spectacular weekend of MLS playoff action, including more feistiness in Philly, a shocker in Salt Lake, and a freakish plague of injuries in Colorado. Catch up on all of that right here.

MLS Roundup: El Pescadito Returns; Playoffs Revamped

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Union announced the signing of well-traveled 31-year-old Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who had been training with the club in presesason.

Ruiz comes to Philly on loan from Greek club Aris, and if he can recapture even 50% of his 2002 form with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he’ll be great value for the Union.

That season, El Pescadito scored a blazing 24 goals in 26 regular-season games, then added an MLS playoff-record eight goals and two assists in the postseason to lead the Galaxy to the final against New England. LA won the title game 1-0 with Ruiz scoring the goal in overtime.

His MLS Cup–winner is not on the InterWebs for some reason (the Backpost intern couldn’t find it anyway), but here’s Ruiz scoring a hat-trick for the Galaxy in a 2008 exhibition against Shanghai, with the first one coming off an effortless, inch-perfect chip from David Beckham:

That was from Ruiz’s second stint with Los Angeles; his first one ended in 2005, after which he went to FC Dallas for three years.

His return to Los Angeles was hampered by a knee injury, and the Galaxy traded him to Toronto FC in August of 2008. The Reds released him at the end of that season, and he’s since had stints with Olimpia Asuncion of Paraguay, Mexican side Puebla, and Aris.

On Wednesday, MLS unveiled its expanded playoff format, which looks like this:

The top three teams in each conference will get automatic bids to the postseason, and then the next four best teams—regardless of conference affiliation—will play one-game, wild-card play-in matches (seven-seed vs ten; eight vs nine). The wild cards will then get re-seeded, if necessary, so that the lowest surviving seed meets the Supporters’ Shield winner (top overall seed) in the conference semifinals.

Got that?

As before, the conference semifinals will be home-and-away aggregate series, and the conference finals and MLS Cup will be one-game battles.

Many, many people have a huge problem with the new format and with the MLS playoffs in general. We don’t. Until MLS gets promotion-relegation (and perhaps another extra-league competition beyond the CONCACAF Champions League), playoffs are the way to go. Otherwise you risk loads of meaningless games late in the season.

Soccer America‘s Paul Gardner makes a nice case for what’s right and what’s wrong about the MLS playoffs right here.

We don’t often agree with Gardner—whose columns sometimes read like a series of “harrumph, harrumph harrumphs” to us—but we think he nailed it on this one, especially regarding the arbitrary geographic designations of the conferences.

Worried that an Eastern team might win the Western Conference title due to the quirky nature of the MLS playoffs? Rename the conferences, sans geography, and … problem solved.

In other MLS news, the league is reviewing the incident that got New England players Shalrie Joseph and Kevin Alston sent home from training camp last weekend. Apparently, Joseph was arrested for trespassing at the team hotel. Details remain scarce, but the plot thickens slightly.