Images: USA Today
LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena summed up the tenuous state of the MLS Conference Semifinal ties in his typically succinct way on Sunday night.
“I’d rather be the team ahead,” Arena told reporters after his side claimed a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in Carson, Calif. “These are always difficult matches. All the games in the league are all competitive going into the second game. It’s going to be difficult. Obviously, having the one goal is a real plus, but it’s going to take a heck of an effort in the next 90 minutes.”
It took plenty of energy to even reach the halfway point in these series, truth be told. All eight teams enter midweek with genuine hopes of booking a place in the final four, but they must heed the lessons learned from a nervy weekend in order to claim it:
New England 2 – Sporting Kansas City 1
Precision provides Revolution with a foothold: New England ceded possession by design (38 percent accrued on the night, according to Opta statistics) in this first leg in a bid to draw Sporting out and exploit the ensuing space. Sporting, for the most part, resisted those urges and retained its shape superbly, but two lapses – one iffy clearance, one instance of poor closing through midfield – invited the Revs to attack swiftly. The tidiness displayed in those sequences – particularly the sumptuous second rounded off by Kelyn Rowe’s outside of the foot finish – punished Sporting for its modest letdowns. If the Revs can produce similarly neat combination play as Sporting eventually commits numbers into the attack on Wednesday night, then they could book a place in the Eastern Conference championship.
Seattle 1 – Portland 2
Shoddy defending again leaves Seattle at a loss: All of the focus on the attacking options at CenturyLink Field rather obscures the lingering and potentially fatal issues at the back. This personnel group – and it changed constantly throughout the year – often drops its concentration levels and fails to mark clever runs through the penalty area. Both flaws rose to the fore against the Timbers as Ryan Johnson ghosted toward the near post to turn home the first with minimal resistance and Darlington Nagbe received a diagonal pass at his feet inside the penalty area before wonderfully finishing the second. At this stage of the season, the Sounders – even with Clint Dempsey sparking to life a bit in this game – cannot afford those sorts of lapses.
Houston 2 – New York 2
Jamison Olave’s rash challenge could turn this series: Olave needed to exercise more caution when he drifted out to the touch line to address Omar Cummings shortly after the hour mark. His ensuing challenge – a two-footed, scissors-style lunge to scythe Cummings to the ground – deserved the subsequent red card and placed the Red Bulls in a difficult spot heading into the second leg. Much of the Red Bulls’ defensive structure leans on his unique abilities: Olave masks Markus Holgersson’s inherent, pace-related flaws at right back with his ability to cover ground and sweep away any mistakes. New York coach Mike Petke must devise a plan to compensate for Holgersson’s deficiencies (likely by sliding him into the middle and inserting Brandon Barklage at right back) or face the consequences of Olave’s potentially catastrophic decision.
LA Galaxy 1 – Real Salt Lake 0
Will the Galaxy rue its inability to take its chances?: Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis signaled his intent for this tie when he named a 4-2-3-1 setup and tasked his players with restricting the time and space afforded to Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. The tactics didn’t quite yield the expected dividends (RSL didn’t keep the ball well or shut off the supply to the front two in the first half), but Keane provided the visitors with a reprieve with some uncharacteristic wastefulness. RSL conceded in the second half through a Sean Franklin first-time strike, but its overall improvement – aided by three influential substitutions and a return to the more traditional 4-4-2 diamond shape – after the break ensured the escape did not go to waste.