MLS Playoffs: Rimando, Gspurning Out of Their Heads, Najar Loses His

Seattle and Real Salt Lake have played each other four times this season, and only one goal separates them.

That’s because only one goal has been scored in those four games (in RSL’s 1-0 win in May). Goalkeepers Nick Rimando and Michael Gspurning ensured that on Friday night in Seattle, making nine saves between them, including several of the outstanding variety, in a 0-0 draw.

The game was in keeping with the season series, as attempts on goal finished even at 11-11, shots on target were 5-4 in Seattle’s favor, and possession was an indistinguishable 50.2% to 49.8% for Seattle.

Incredible goalkeeping highlights here:

The decisive second leg of this Western Conference semifinal kicks off on Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium.

On Saturday night in the nation’s capital, D.C. United played New York to a 1-1 draw in an Eastern Conference semifinal first-leg game that featured an unprecedented (in MLS playoffs) two own goals, a saved penalty, and a moment of madness from United’s 19-year-old wingback Andy Najar.

The rising Honduran star turned a yellow card into a red one by throwing the ball (and hitting) referee Jair Marrufo after being whistled for a professional foul in the 71st minute. He’ll miss the return leg on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.

See it all here:

The forecast for Wednesday’s game in Harrison, N.J., is calling for high winds and rain. Not exactly what the area needs right now.

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Red Bulls 2, FC Dallas 0: Galaxy’s Reward for Winning Supporters’ Shield? Facing the Team with the Highest Payroll in the League

It wasn’t always pretty—especially in the first 30 minutes or so, when their backline was under almost constant pressure—but the New York Red Bulls scraped out a 2-0 win over Dallas at Pizza Hut Park last night to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs.

New York will now take on the Los Angeles Galaxy in a two-game, total-goals series that begins on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena (3:00 ET, ESPN2).

The Galaxy might prefer a different opponent as a reward for racking up the league’s best regular-season record (19-5-10), but the well-paid, high-profile Red Bulls played with a season-long inconsistency that boxed them into the 10th and final seed in the postseason. So here they are, looming as a dangerous first matchup for the Supporters’ Shield winners.

Then again, they may not be as dangerous as they were heading into last night. New York lost right back Jan Gunnar Solli, a key component of their defense and their offense (he regularly gets forward and swings in dangerous crosses), to a red card, and they may have lost right midfielder Dax McCarty to an ankle injury. The status of striker Luke Rodgers, who missed last night’s game with knee swelling, is also in doubt.

But the Red Bulls got the result they needed last night, and once again they had Joel Lindpere to thank for the critical goal that sent them on their way. Lindpere has been the most consistent and most clutch player on the team during the past two seasons. In the 61st minute last night, he ghosted in between Dallas defenders George John and Ugo Ihemelu in the box, and slipped Mehdi Ballouchy’s cross past Kevin Hartman for a 1-0 New York lead.

After Solli’s red in the 79th, the 10-man Red Bulls bunkered in to protect their lead, then iced the game deep into stoppage time, when Henry got behind the pushed-up FCD backline and eventually finished off a breakaway.

Highlights:

Can the Red Bulls Recreate 2008?

There’s been an acute outbreak of Playoff Fever at the BP HQ. The 2011 MLS postseason kicks off tonight in Frisco, Texas, with a match between FC Dallas and our beloved, beleaguered New York Red Bulls (9:00 ET, Fox Soccer).

We profiled Dallas’s excellent coach Schellas Hyndman for the league site yesterday; please give it a read. Chances are he’ll have his side ready to go tonight, even if they stumbled a bit down the stretch as the games and the injuries piled up. Between the CONCACAF Champions League, the US Open Cup, and the MLS season, Dallas has played 47 games this season. Last year, they played 34, “MLS Cup final included,” Hyndman told us.

The Hoops rested just about every starter (including wingers Marvin Chavez and Brek Shea, Hernandez, goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, defender Zach Loyd and midfielders Daniel Cruz and Ricardo Villar) in the season finale against San Jose this past Saturday, so the core of the team should have their legs back for tonight.

The Red Bulls will have everyone available except striker Luke Rodgers, the pugnacious Englishman who has been surprisingly important to the team this year. In a stat that coach Hans Backe called “frightening,” New York is 9-4-7 with 32 goals scored when Rodgers starts, and 1-4-9 with 18 goals scored when he’s not in the lineup. He won’t be in the lineup tonight as he has knee swelling and didn’t even make the trip to Texas.

So what can we expect from New York tonight? Let’s take stock:

After a bright start to the season, the Red Bulls struggled for most of the summer, racking up a record 16 ties and generally laboring to stay above .500. There were epic collapses at big moments, an embarrassing locker room controversy, an equally embarrassing goalkeeping crisis, misbehavior from a superstar, and a sophomore slump from their promising young centerback.

Yet they bounced back somewhat down the stretch, piecing together enough wins and clutch performances to edge into the playoffs.

And now … well, it’s a brand new season. They certainly have the talent to beat any team in the league, and are capable of making a run. Considering the players they have, it wouldn’t be as surprising as their 2008 playoff odyssey, when New York went 10-11-9 during the season, squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, then knocked off Houston and Real Salt Lake to reach the championship game.

They ended up losing that game, 3-1 to Columbus, but the team had a pronounced just-happy-to-be-here attitude back then. If this group somehow gets to the final, you can bet they’ll smell blood in the water.

Of course, they have a long way to go to get there—longer than in 2008, when there were only eight teams in the playoffs.

This year, if they get by Dallas, New York will meet Los Angeles in a home-and-home total-goals series (second game at LA). If they get past that stage, it would be on to the conference final, a do-or-die single game, at either Seattle or Real Salt Lake.

A victory there would put them in the MLS Cup against either Colorado or a team from the East. It would also mean they had earned their berth in the final, having defeated three of the top four teams in the league, all on the road.

But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. It starts tonight, on the road at FCD. If New York is going to get by the first round, they’ll have to be sound defensively, and look to their big guns to snatch a goal or two.

As for the defensive part of the equation, the backline will know when they’ve slipped up, because keeper Frank Rost will revert to his native German. As Tim Ream told The Wall Street Journal, “That’s like your mom calling you by your first, middle and last name all at once. If he slips into German, everybody’s a little on edge.”

Here’s hoping Rost sticks to English all game long, and that striker Juan Agudelo gets a run—you know the 18 year old will be fired up to make a mark if given the chance in a big game like this.

DC, Portland Miss Opportunities In Playoff Chase

Playing at home, with a chance to gain an advantage over New York in the playoff race, both DC United and the Portland Timbers surrendered leads and stumbled to ties, against Chivas USA and San Jose, respectively.

In DC, the Black-and-Red took a 2-0 lead through Dwayne De Rosario and Ethan White, only to give up two second-half goals to Chivas striker Juan Pablo Angel.

De Rosario then had a penalty saved by the Goats’ superhero goalkeeper, Dan Kennedy, and the match ended 2-2, leaving DC one point behind New York in the playoff standings instead of one ahead.

At Portland’s usually impregnable fortress known as JELD-WEN Field, the home team took a 1-0 lead after rookie Darlington Nagbe set up Kenny Cooper nine minutes in. But the Timbers couldn’t add to their lead, and San Jose tied it up in the 70th on Khari Stephenson’s seeing eye shot from the top of the box.

Had they won, the Timbers would have been three points clear of New York in the tenth and final playoff spot.

As it is, they have a one-point edge heading into their pivotal visit to Red Bull Arena on Saturday night.

(DC has two games in hand on both New York and Portland. Click here for the current playoff standings.)

MLS Cup 2010: Colorado vs Dallas

An alternate heading above might be: “Big Names, Big Markets Shut Out … as Don Garber Tears (Remaining) Hair Out*.”

With the league’s two biggest stars, Landon Donovan and David Beckham, standing 90 minutes away from advancing to a second successive MLS Cup final—and representing the 2010 title game’s last best hope for major-media, major-market exposure—the Los Angeles Galaxy got routed 3-0 by FC Dallas, a team with no designated players and probably the most lukewarm fan-base in MLS.

But that’s why they play the games, as the cliché goes. (And we know MLS results are not rigged, that’s for sure.)

Dallas deserved their victory, even though they were outplayed for the first 25 minutes or so. When David Ferreira opened the scoring in the 26th, after a mixup by LA defenders Sean Franklin and Omar Gonzalez at the top of the box, the Hoops seized control of the game and never let go.

At the start of the second half they had the LA backline in total disarray, like woozy boxers on the ropes, unable to find their footing.

It was only a matter of time before Dallas delivered the knockout blows, which they did in the 54th minute through lanky defender George John (after a great cross by Brek Shea) and the 73rd, via greased-lightning winger Marvin Chavez.

On a chilly night in Commerce City, Colo., the Rapids dispatched San Jose 1-0 on a goal by right back Kosuke Kimura. Omar Cummings nearly got a touch to Kimura’s cross, which ended up bouncing into the goal on its own.

Cummings should have increased Colorado’s lead in the 65th minute after taking a great pass from midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. He rounded San Jose keeper Jon Busch and, incredibly, hit the bar from 12 yards or so, with only a Quakes defender standing in the goal.

Colorado had two other golden opportunities but despite failing to cash them in, held on for a 1-0 win and their first trip to the MLS Cup since 1997, when the tireless Chris Henderson ran the flanks for them.

For more on these games, including highlights, click here, here, and most importantly, here, where we roll out potential nicknames for Colorado keeper Matt Perkins’s strange beard, now that it’ll be on the national stage next Sunday night.

That thing gives Perkins a real ‘don’t sign for a package from me’ kind of look.

(*We know that last ‘out’ is in the wrong place, editors, but…it makes for more symmetrical phrasing in that spot.)

Colorado Takes First Leg Over Columbus, 1-0

The Columbus Crew started brightly last night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, looking like visitors determined to take the initiative in the game, and the home crowd out of it, from the opening whistle.

That lasted approximately 10 minutes.

Then Colorado started getting a grip on the match, and gradually came to dominate it, putting Columbus on its heels and controlling possession. The Crew went completely flat, looked leg-weary, and started turning the ball over at an alarming rate and frequently while under no pressure. Columbus produced just one shot in the first 45 minutes.

After the Rapids’ inevitable goal came, in the 23rd minute on a sliding shot by captain Pablo Mastroeni, it got even worse for Columbus. It looked like the Crew was playing in black-and-white while the Rapids were in high-def, living color, knocking the ball around fluidly.

The return leg is on November 6. As bad as the Crew looked for much of this one, they nearly poached a late equalizer, and they play at home next weekend with a decent shot to rally and take the series.

To do that, Columbus will have to be much sharper than they were last night, of course, but Colorado is no doubt ruing the fact that they didn’t get another goal in a game they dominated last night.

Here are the highlights:

MLS Playoffs Preview—First Round

The business of crowning Major League Soccer’s 15th champion gets under way tonight, and the Backpost World HQ, along with all satellite offices, could not be more pumped.

All four first-round matchups are intriguing—especially the Western-bracket pairings—and have the potential to produce some of the best soccer the league has ever seen.

Let’s break it down, and if you haven’t gotten your pool picks in, give this a read, then send ’em in!:

• Columbus (14-8-8) vs Colorado (12-8-10)

Tonight, at Colorado 9:00 EST, ESPN2

Nov 6, at Columbus, 4:00, TeleFutura

Season series: Split. Rapids won at home in June, 1-0; Crew won 3-1 in Columbus in August.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: The Crew slumped under a heavy late-season travel schedule, but finished the season with two straight wins (one in the CCL) and appear to have their legs back. They also have a genuine game-changer in Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

We think people—including the Rapids—are underestimating Columbus. Colorado keeper Matt Pickens told the Denver Post the other day, “I like our draw; I’ll put it that way.”

The Rapids’ strikeforce of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey combined for 27 goals and their midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni is as rugged as they come in MLS. The battles on the wings, between Columbus’s sometime U.S. internationals Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers, and Colorado’s Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan, will be something to see.

Late-breaking 411: Crew forward Emilio Renteria is out for the first game with a bruised knee. Columbus keeper Will Hesmer is out for the playoffs with a broken shoulder.

Prediction: We’re going against the grain and picking the 2008 MLS champs, Columbus.

• New York (15-9-6) vs San Jose (13-10-7)

Oct 30, at San Jose, 10:00 pm, TeleFutura, MSG+, MSG (joined in progress)

Nov 4, at New York, 8:00 pm, ESPN2

Season series: Split. Quakes beat a red-card depleted New York at home in May, 4-0; Red Bulls won 2-0 in New York in August.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: This is a series the Red Bulls should win, but that doesn’t mean they will win. Thierry Henry will not take part in the first game, which is obviously a big loss, and Rafa Marquez, who’ll be asked to orchestrate things in midfield, has battled an ankle injury for most of his time in New York. Bouna Coundoul, while a great shot stopper, can be a liability on crosses and goal kicks (that’s right, he occasionally struggles with goal kicks)—flaws that could be exposed in the playoff pressure cooker. Dane Richards’s ability to run at people on the wing will be key in this series.

San Jose was spotty down the stretch, losing games to non-playoff teams Houston and Kansas City (a 4-1 blowout), but the Quakes clinched a playoff berth with three games to play, and Chris Wondolowski, of course, is about 4,000 degrees Kelvin right now. They also welcome back veteran Ramiro Corrales, and boast three legit offensive weapons in Geovanni, Bobby Convey, and Ryan Johnson.

Key Stat: San Jose is 1-10-1 this year when conceding the first goal.

Late-breaking 411: New York’s Joel Lindpere (groin) and Salou Ibrahim (knee) both missed Tuesday’s practice. Here’s Lindpere on his injury: “I’m a man. I most likely am tough enough to play with this small injury. I can play through the pain.” Most likely, Joel?

Prediction: New York.

• Real Salt Lake (15-4-11) vs Dallas (12-4-14)

Oct 30 at Dallas, 5:00 pm, Fox Soccer Channel

Nov 6, at Real Salt Lake, 10:00 pm, Fox Soccer Channel

Season series: Split. Dallas won at home in July, 2-0, handing RSL its last loss in MLS play; RSL won 2-0 at Rio Tinto two weeks ago.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: Dallas has been hard-hit by the losses of holding midfielder Daniel Hernandez (hamstring) and first-choice keeper Kevin Hartman (knee; Merci, M. Henry). Hernandez is a stabilizing presence in front of the backline and incredibly poised on the ball. Hartman was having an MVP-like season before his injury. Dallas is simply not the same team without those two, but MVP-candidate midfielder David Ferreira is always a threat to turn a game.

Real Salt Lake has been the most consistent and probably the best team all year. But Colorado did something interesting against them before collapsing in stoppage time in the regular-season finale: they pressured RSL way up the field—we’re talking Rick Pitino–esque high pressure—and it worked. RSL was on its heels and Colorado took a 2-0 lead before the bizarre closing sequence resulted in a 2-2 draw. Don’t think Dallas, which has great team speed for tactics like that, didn’t notice.

From the Department of Disingenuousness: Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers on the playoffs:

“I’m on the Internet all day long and I still read a lot of pundits counting us out. That’s good for us. I don’t think we’re expected to win, but we in this group believe we can.”

Really Nat? Did you mean pundits like the ones writing here, here, and here?

Hey, anything to generate that us-against-the-world spirit, we suppose.

Late-breaking 411: RSL midfielder Will Johnson is questionable after limping off with a hamstring tweak during Tuesday’s practice.

Prediction: Real Salt Lake.

• Los Angeles (18-7-5) vs Seattle (14-10-6)

Oct 31, at Seattle, 8:00 pm, ESPN2

Nov 7, at Los Angeles, 9:00 pm, ESPN

Season series: Los Angeles. The Galaxy won 4-0 at Qwest Field in May, and 3-1 at the HDC in July. But those results were before Seattle caught fire in the second half of the season—and LA cooled.

Shot-from-the-Hip Analysis: The Galaxy has a matchup problem with Seattle: The Sounders are fast, and Los Angeles … isn’t, particularly. Seattle’s four-pronged attack of Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Sanna Nyassi—with Nkufo holding the ball up and the other three, speedsters all, running off of him—would trouble any team in the playoffs.

Key Matchup: Seattle winger Zakuani vs LA wingback Sean Franklin. Franklin is one Galaxy player with lots of speed, and he’ll need it to shut down the greased-lightning trickery of Zakuani, who had 10 goals and six assists this year.

Key Stat, followed by Question that May Ultimately Decide the Series: Landon Donovan has a staggering 17 goals and eight assists in 22 career playoff games. But is Landon Donovan tired? He’s played pretty much non-stop for two years now, including loan stints at Bayern Munich and Everton and a pressure-packed World Cup, and he hasn’t been his vintage self in the second half of the season. Can he rise to the occasion this year as he always has in the MLS postseason?

Prediction: Despite Seattle’s form, the Qwest Field crowd, and Sigi Schmid’s playoff pedigree (MLS Cups in 2002, 2008), we’re betting on Bruce Arena to have his boys, especially LD, ready to go. Los Angeles.