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).

Is Steven Lenhart the Dennis Rodman of Major League Soccer?

Following Sunday night’s 2-2 draw between Los Angeles and San Jose at Buck Shaw Stadium, Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez made some unusually pointed comments to the league website about the physical style of San Jose in general and Quakes striker Steven Lenhart in particular:

“I think those guys are a bunch of jokes, the way they play the game. It was just obnoxious. And, you know, it wasn’t even fun out there. It was terrible.”

Gonzalez continued, zeroing in on a play where he and Lenhart had contact and Gonzalez was whistled for a foul that led to a free-kick goal by Marvin Chavez in the 60th minute:

“I would say it was a foul on me—like I got fouled. Because my eyes were directly on the ball, and I’m just running back and, all of a sudden, I got hit. But Jair [Marrufo, the referee] said I fell on him.”

That’s a scenario that will ring a bell with Real Salt Lake fans. Check out this play from earlier in the season, when Lenhart vied for a ball over the top with RSL center back Jamison Olave:

Kind of reminds us of this, from Game 1 of the 1996 NBA Finals:

But back to LA’s Gonzalez, who was just getting warmed up with the comments above. He went on:

“It all starts when the ball’s on the other side of the field, and you’re just running and all of a sudden you get blindsided. You just get checked by Lenhart or something. It’s just dumb s*** like that happens every time, and that’s not the way the game should be played. It’s embarrassing.”

Of course Lenhart’s shenanigans, like Rodman’s back in the day, are not limited to off-the-ball provocations. Sometimes he’ll pull a prank in full view of everyone, and get away with it:

That one kind of reminds us of this less successful stunt by Rodman:

As for the San Jose camp, Quakes coach Frank Yallop wasn’t fazed by Gonzalez’s comments. Here he is yesterday, on ExtraTime Radio:

“He’s entitled to his opinion. But we go about business like we do. Do I want our players fouling and playing dirty? No, I don’t. But hey, it’s give-and-take. He can make his comments, whatever he wants to say about our team. But I will say that we try hard. We give 100% every time we step on the field and yesterday was no different….

“It’s for other people to judge us. And I’m not saying his comments are wrong. Because obviously, he’s free to make his own judgment. But we just go about business like we do, and hopefully it’s enough to go all the way this year.”

Regarding the Quakes’ style and other accusations of off-the-ball gamesmanship, Yallop ignored the gamesmanship part, but said that he’s always liked playing with a target forward, from Ronald Cerritos to Brian Ching to his current tandem of Lenhart and Alan Gordon. The Quakes’ style, he said, speaks for itself:

“People talk about our style—scoring 70-odd goals is a pretty good style.”

San Jose leads the league with 71 goals scored, 20 more than the nearest competitor.

If Gonzalez and Los Angeles can get by sub-.500 Vancouver in the play-in game, they’ll meet San Jose in the Western Conference semifinals.

MLS fans can only hope that matchup happens.

Marcus Tracy Signs with MLS, Lands in San Jose via Weighted Lottery

Former Wake Forest standout and 2008 Hermann Trophy winner Marcus Tracy signed with MLS on Tuesday and was allocated to the San Jose Earthquakes following a weighted lottery today.

The athletic, 6′ 1″ striker began his pro career in Denmark (where he was a teammate of Chicago’s Chris Rolfe), but a series of knee injuries hampered his progress. Now 25, he returns to the league he spurned upon leaving Wake Forest in 2009.

The Quakes had only a 4.6% chance of landing Tracy, the second-longest odds of all the teams participating in the lottery, but as with much this season, things broke their way. Some observers have wondered if they’ll trade the player, or add him to an already full stable of strikers that includes Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart, and Alan Gordon.

Another question concerns Tracy’s health and abilities following the litany of injuries he’s battled. A big part of his game has been his explosive athleticism and leaping ability on set pieces. It remains to be seen whether those qualities will be intact as he joins San Jose, where he should be comfortable: Current Quakes Sam Cronin and Ike Opara won an NCAA championship with Tracy at Wake Forest in 2007.

Here’s a clip from Tracy’s brief spell at Danish side Aalborg. He’s No. 19, and nine seconds in, takes a pass from Rolfe, cuts back and shoots on goal. He later scores on a leaping header:

Tracy, who grew up in Chestnut Hill, PA, had been training with the Philadelphia Union in recent weeks.

Lenhart’s Postgame ‘Goonies’ Reference Inspires SJ–LA Promo

After San Jose scored three goals in the last 15 minutes to upend the Galaxy 3-2 on May 23, Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart, aka Big Bird, was asked about the team’s ability to rally late in games (they’ve scored four stoppage-time winners this season). “Goonies never say die,” said the springy-haired striker.

Cut to this week’s promotional spot for Saturday’s rematch with the Galaxy:

The game, which is at 50,000-seat Stanford Stadium, is sold out.

Alan Gordon Scores Third Straight Late Goal, Prompts ‘Goonies’ Reference from Steven Lenhart

San Jose’s reserve striker Alan Gordon took advantage of some slack defending by his former team, the LA Galaxy, to nod in a dramatic, 94th-minute goal and lift the Earthquakes to a come-from-behind 3-2 win at the Home Depot Center last night.

The Galaxy took a 2-0 lead on goals by Hector Jiminez and Mike Magee, and held that advantage into the 75th minute, despite being down a man after Jiminez was red-carded at the hour mark for a studs up challenge on San Jose defender Steven Beitashour.

But in the 76th, San Jose turned the tide.

Highlights here:

In his previous two games, Gordon bagged tying goals in the 88th and 90th minutes. This latest last-gasper marks the fifth time this year that the Quakes have scored in the 88th minute or later, with four of those games ending in either a win or a tie.

As Lenhart told Soccer by Ives:

“We just like to make the game exciting. Goonies never say die. I think we are prepared this year. We have put in the work in training and we like each other, we show up every day and we all know we are committing to the 90 minutes, to play together and work for each other. It may not look that pretty but we know we are going to get the most out of our guys at the end of the day.”

We appreciate that Goonies reference:

Wonder if he and Jimmy Conrad have discussed this before.

In any event, the Quakes, who were missing U.S. national teamer Chris Wondolowski, roll on with the win, taking over sole possession of first place in the West with an 8-2-3 record.

For LA, which fielded a reserve-heavy lineup in this one (Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane are both with their respective national teams), things can hardly get worse: The Galaxy drop to 3-7-2 with the defeat and continue to prop up the Western Conference table.

They’ve officially entered crisis mode.

Andy Gruenebaum Was Unconscious vs San Jose On Saturday

The San Jose Earthquakes struggled for 90 minutes to solve Columbus keeper Andy Gruenebaum—much like the San Jose announcers struggled with the pronunciation of the Crew backup’s name all game long.

After seven saves from the 29-year-old University of Kentucky graduate, the Quakes finally got it right, thanks to a superhero sequence from substitute forward Alan Gordon in the 90th minute:

With the result, San Jose (7-2-3) held on to sole possession of second place in the West, while Columbus (3-4-3) moved ahead of Montreal on goal difference and into seventh in the East.

MLS Had Itself Quite an Entertaining Wednesday

There was a highlight-filled, eight-goal thriller in San Jose, another goal for EJ and a 35-yard golazo from Fredy Montero in Seattle, and a solid bounce-back in New England.

First, the San Jose–DC United carnival of soccer fun, which went to the Quakes 5-3, and included Dwayne De Rosario’s curling one-timer, his spectacular bicycle kick that was saved—even more spectacularly—by Jon Busch, his devastating late assist to Hamdi Salihi, and Daniel Woolard’s diving header.

That was just from the losing team. The winners got two goals apiece from Big Bird, aka Steven Lenhart, and league scoring leader Chris Wondolowski; some slick work from speedy winger Marvin Chavez, and a sweet passing sequence in the DC box to set up Wondo’s first goal.

Enjoy:

In Seattle, the Sounders blanked a second-choice Los Angeles side 2-0 behind Fredy Montero’s magical 48th-minute strike.

Take a look:

In Foxboro, the up-and-down Revolution rediscovered their goal-scoring touch to rally from a 1-0 deficit and defeat Colorado 2-1 behind a pair of fine goals from Saer Sene and first-time starter Fernando Cardenas.

Highlights:

Not a bad night. The league will try to top it when this round of play resumes on Friday night, with Chivas USA taking on Chicago. Week 9 continues through the weekend, with seven games on Saturday and one on Sunday.

You Seem Like A Regular Joe, Does this Look Like A Foul to You?

Real Salt Lake defender Jamison Olave was shown a straight red for the following play against San Jose striker Steven Lenhart (at the 55-second mark):

Leaving aside the homerism of the local broadcast team (we watched it originally on the San Jose feed, where there was little to no questioning of the call), we do think the ref got this one wrong.

It’s just two big, fast guys in pursuit of the ball, and the contact—apart from Lenhart’s shorts-grab—is shoulder-to-shoulder. Okay, Olave is slightly behind, and puts his shoulder into the back of Lenhart’s shoulder, but still, there’s not much from Olave that’s out of the range of normal jostling-for-possession on the play.

Indeed, Lenhart bounces right back up and shoots on goal—not necessarily the action of a man who believes he’s been denied an obvious goalscoring chance by the last defender back. That, of course, is the language of the rulebook that dictates a red card be shown to said defender. Which is exactly what happened: Olave was sent off; and it was RSL’s second red of the night, reducing them to nine men and opening the door for San Jose to score twice in stoppage time and win the game 3-1.

It’s a tough call to make in real time, chasing the play (the linesman was playing catch-up, too), and the officiating crew got it wrong. Seems to us that Lenhart drew this foul and card, Dennis Rodman–style.

Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments.

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.

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.)