With the LA Galaxy carrying a three-goal lead into the second leg of their conference final matchup against the Seattle Sounders and the Houston Dynamo carrying a two-goal lead into the second leg of their conference final matchup against DC United, one might have expected two ho-hum games.
Instead, both games had their fair share of excitement as both DC and Seattle gave Houston and LA plenty to worry about.
Here are six thoughts from the conference finals.
Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall had to fend off a peppy DC United attack in the early minutes of the Houston-DC conference final.
Playing in front of a boisterous home crowd, DC United pressed the game early and an early goal from DC could have easily thrown the Dynamo into a panic.
However, Hall was big when he needed to be, fending off a tremendous blast from Chris Korb in the 10th minute.
Then, in the 67th minute, Hall came off his line well to stop Hamdi Salihi, who was in on a breakaway.
If Houston had conceded early, DC, backed by its home crowd, certainly would have given the Dynamo much more of a challenge.
In the end, the Dynamo advanced 4-2 on aggregate.
With a two-goal advantage heading into the game, the Dynamo knew that if they could even manage one goal, it would almost definitely send them through to the MLS Cup final.
In the 34th minute, Brad Davis made a strong run into the DC penalty box and, surrounded by United defenders, somehow found teammate Boniek Garcia with a deft outside-of-the-boot pass. Garcia, who had made a great run across the United defense, rifled the chance past United keeper Bill Hamid and effectively sent the Houston through to the final.
Dynamo fans have been saying for years that Davis is the hidden gem of American soccer; his assist against DC showed why.
EJ, who was huge for the USMNT in their last set of World Cup qualifiers, continued his good form on Sunday night.
In the 11th minute, Johnson scored the opening goal, nicely finishing a pass from Christian Tiffert. However, the goal was incorrectly ruled offsides.
Then, just a minute later, Johnson fended off Omar Gonzalez (arguably the best center-back in Major League Soccer the last two years) to score again.
Gonzalez did everything he could to hold Johnson off, but Johnson showed a great combination of power, pace and skill to outrun and outmuscle Gonzalez before neatly finishing the chance near post past Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders.
Omar Gonzalez, who has been put forth as a possible solution to the USMNT’s center-back troubles by many pundits (me included), struggled for most of the game to handle Seattle’s high-pressure attack.
While Gonzalez has been a huge part of the Galaxy’s midseason turnaround and has looked outstanding all playoffs long, he could not get into the flow of the game on Sunday night.
Gonzalez was beat for pace and strength by Eddie Johnson on Seattle’s early goal, uncharacteristically had multiple poor clearances and struggled in possession with Seattle pressing LA’s back line all night.
Gonzalez even struggled in the air against Fredy Montero, despite the fact that Gonzalez is a full eight inches taller than Montero.
Say what you might about Landon Donovan, but he has been absolutely vital to LA’s playoff success this season.
On Sunday night, Donovan was a surprise scratch (hamstring tightness) from LA’s lineup.
While it seems like it wouldn’t have worried LA head coach Bruce Arena or too many LA fans seeing that the Galaxy held a three-goal lead coming into the game, Donovan’s absence effectively neutered the Galaxy’s attack.
With Seattle having to press the game trailing by three goals from the first leg, the game was tailor made for Donovan’s ability to hit quickly on the counter.
Donovan has also shown an almost telepathic connection with Robbie Keane. On Sunday, without Donovan, Keane was largely invisible.
The MLS conference finals had plenty of moments of bad officiating that largely benefited the LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo.
Since the Dynamo and the Galaxy were both in the MLS Cup last year, there was a sense that a rematch between those squads would make a more tantalizing final this year than if either DC United or the Seattle Sounders would have advanced.
In the DC-Dynamo first leg, Dynamo defender Andre Hainault got away with a foul that should have resulted in his sending off. Instead, no foul or card was given and it was, ironically, Hainault who scored the first goal in that series.
In last night’s Sounders-Galaxy game, the Sounders had a legitimate goal disallowed while the Galaxy were given a penalty on a handball call that Sounders players and fans were adamant should not have been given.
The penalty was converted by Robbie Keane, effectively ending any chance of the Sounders advancing to the finals.
While two out of those three calls were simply the result of bad officiating, many Sounders and DC United fans are undoubtedly waking up this morning feeling cheated.
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