Best and Worst from 1st Leg of the MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinal
The best action from the first leg of the MLS Cup playoffs conference semifinal was highlighted by the Portland Timbers and Sean Franklin, but what about the worst?
Plenty of candidates met the criteria this weekend. Referees improperly officiated. Defenders took the football lines a bit too literal when making their challenges. MLS' perception took a hit.
Each of the four scheduled matches from the weekend will be featured in this playoff edition of MLS' best and worst.
Read on to find out why.
Best: Sean Franklin's Game-Winner
An unlikely hero took center stage at the StubHub Center Sunday night.
He boasts 13,647 minutes and only five career goals, but that's all it took for the Los Angeles Galaxy to defeat Real Salt Lake in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal. A 1-0 victory put the two-time defending champions just 90 minutes from their fifth consecutive conference final appearance.
But it wasn't Robbie Keane or Landon Donovan who saved the day. The dynamic duo failed to connect on either of their six attempts.
Sean Franklin connected on his.
Twenty-seven yards out. One-time. With pace.
The superlative shot was so devastatingly delivered, that even the blinking eye would fail to appreciate it. That's not hyperbole. Even Franklin himself admitted it following the match: "Once I opened my eyes, the ball was in the back of the net. I'm just glad it went in."
And so is the rest of Galaxy nation, Sean.
Chances were squandered on the evening, but now even a draw is enough to see Los Angeles through to the next round.
Worst: Jamison Olave Is Seeing Red
This is football...just not the other kind, Jamison Olave.
You can tackle, just make sure you don't "tackle."
But that's exactly what the 32-year-old defender did in the 65th minute of Sunday's 2-2 draw with the Houston Dynamo. Referee Ricardo Salazar had no choice but to give the Colombian his marching orders. The New York Red Bulls would be forced to finish the match up a goal but down a man.
The Dynamo would make them pay.
Omar Cummings delivered the equalizer in the second minute of stoppage time. A jubilant crowd celebrated what felt like a game-winning strike, but it was only enough to salvage a result. The Dynamo are still in search of their first victory over New York this season.
They have failed miserably in their previous four attempts.
Three came at home.
According to MLS' official website, Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty is optimistic about his club's chances headed into Wednesday:
We have to stay positive because we are in a favorable position. It's not like it's the end of the world...I feel like we've been in Houston for the past couple of months, so now we finally get to go back home and have them on our home field and obviously we're going to be better on our home field...We're mature enough, we're experienced enough team to bounce back from conceding a late goal and I think we'll be all right for Wednesday.
New York is in a "favorable" position headed into the second leg.
The club boasts an 11-2-4 record at home this season. One of those victories came in Week 18 when the Red Bulls dropped the Dynamo 2-0. A repeat performance would be enough to see New York through to the conference finals for the first time since 2008.
You can't get them all right. Salazar failed to award Houston a clear penalty just seconds after Cummings' equalizer.
Best: Portland's Counter
It didn't take long for the Portland Timbers to flex their playoff muscle.
The club's first-ever playoff match was met by the club's first-ever playoff victory after just 90 minutes. The dream scenario was only sweetened by the opposition. The Timbers didn't just capture a 2-1 victory on Saturday, they captured it against the Seattle Sounders...on the road.
It doesn't get much sweeter than that.
A simple tactical decision sealed Seattle's fate Saturday night. As the statisticians at WhoScored point out, Portland finished the season with the third-highest possession percentage (54.3). Head coach Caleb Porter saw his opportunity to alter his club's ways.
For 90 minutes, they were altered to perfection.
Coach Porter—through Dan Itel on MLS' official website—offered his tactical adjustments following the match:
We want to move on in this playoff tournament. Seattle is the team we drew, and now we're one step away...[We] let them have a little bit more of the ball so we could roast them on the counter attacks. I thought we were very dangerous on the counter all day long and I thought we were organized.
And "roasted" they were, Caleb.
The ball belonged to the Sounders for 59.8 percent of the match. The Timbers finished the first leg with only half of Seattle's attempts (20-10) and 72 fewer passes in the attacking half. But they doubled the scoreline before the final whistle blew.
The rookie head coach got it right on his first try.
Worst: You're Missing Something, Coach Vermes
Um...where's Claudio Bieler?
A better question: Where's the designated player who led Sporting Kansas City in scoring (10) and shots (70) this season?
According to Andrew Wiebe, head coach Peter Vermes' decision to leave Claudio Bieler in Kansas City was a "tactical" one. The club's leading goalscorer didn't even travel with the team for the first leg of Eastern Conference semifinal.
The 29-year-old has failed to record a start since Week 28. Oddly enough, Bieler finished that 76-minute shift with a goal and an assist. A slight groin strain took him out of the lineup the following week.
He hasn't returned to the starting XI since.
So, shall we break down the "tactics?"
SKC averaged one goal per match the final six weeks of the season. That's nearly half a goal fewer than their average entering Week 29 (1.46). True to form, the club chased an equalizing goal in the final 21 minutes of the match on Saturday. It never came.
The equalizing goal never came with SKC's leading goal scorer not even in the same state.
Better "tactical" decisions will be needed if Coach Vermes hopes to avoid being bounced in the first round...again.
Everywhere you looked this weekend, football lines tortured you. Three of the four playoff matches in the first leg of the conference semifinals were played with the gridiron plaguing its reputation.
When is enough enough?
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