MLS Knockout round recap, highlights: Four wild games go to the home teams

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I write this paragraph well past 1 a.m. after the second night of Major League Soccer’s playoffs. I don’t think I will find disagreement when I write that they have been highly entertaining nights. Portland, Seattle, Montreal and DC hosted the games in question, and all four won. But that is selling the spectacle short.

Portland Timbers 2-2 (7-6 penalties) Sporting Kansas City

Portland and Kansas City kicked a ball around in the middle of a street fight. When the dust and blood and penalties settled, the Timbers were alive and SKC was not.

The Timbers scored nine goals in their final two regular season games, but that was an exception to the general rule of their season. In the opening half, they looked like the team that struggled to score so often throughout the year. They produced chances, but found ways not to put the ball in the back of the net. Tim Melia deserves credit for his role in keeping things scoreless, but Portland knows that they let opportunities pass them by.

In the regular season, that trend eventually ended with SKC striking on the counter and stealing a 1-0 victory from Providence Park. On Thursday night, the Timbers refused to be denied. Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace worked the ball through a crowded space and Wallace found just enough room to take a shot that would beat Tim Melia.

After the goal, the game grew fiery. Diego Chara was not playing, but his absence didn’t stop things from becoming physical.  Krisztian Nemeth earned a yellow card for shoving Lucas Melano to the turf and then kicking the ball off of him. Melia was shook up and bloodied by a collision with Wallace, but would only later leave the game with a suspected concussion. Matt Besler was bleeding on the sideline, getting a clean jersey when Kevin Ellis headed in a cross from Graham Zusi and leveled the match.

There were just three minutes remaining in the 90, but another seven would be added for stoppage time. More would be needed.

Nemeth probably should have been sent off for the incident with Melano. He was not. In extra time, he haunted Portland once again, with a powerful goal from a narrow angle. It wasn’t as pretty as his golazo in the regular season, but he won’t care.

Portland spent most of extra time frustrated—by their lack of possession, by KC’s time-wasting antics, by the referee. But they had enough of the ball in minute 118 to muster an equalizer. Dairon Asprilla pulled off a good turn in the box, and hit a cross that found Maxi Urruti. The Argentine bashed it into the net, pushing the game towards penalties.

I don’t really have the words in me to describe the shootout that took place. If you were not awake at 1 a.m. Eastern time to watch for yourself, I am sorry. I fear you wouldn’t believe what I told you anyway. Suffice it to say that it went 11 rounds. A backup keeper made three saves. One attempt hit both posts and caromed away, never having crossed the goal line. At least one shot ended in the crowd. Said backup keeper was denied on his attempt and his team lost.

Pen

SKC won a trophy this season, and they qualified for the playoffs when many doubted their chances in the tough Western Conference. So in that respect this season can’t be viewed in too harsh a light. There were times when they would have expected to get further than the knockout round. But then, there were times when they wouldn’t have expected Jon Kempin taking a penalty.

Vancouver awaits Portland.

Seattle Sounders 3-2 LA Galaxy

In three of their first six seasons, Seattle lost in the playoffs to LA. They flipped the script in a wild match on Wednesday night.

The chaotic tenor of the first half was set just five minutes in, by the opening goal. Miscommunication between Omar Gonzalez and Donovan Ricketts led to what should have been a simple ball bouncing towards Clint Dempsey with the goal unguarded. Dempsey punished the mistake and the Sounders had an early lead.

LA was not behind long. The very next minute, following the ensuing kick off, the Galaxy broke through Seattle’s defense and equalized. A clever touch from Gyasi Zardes played Sebastian Lletget in behind, and he had just enough time to hammer a shot past Stefan Frei.

Whatever communication problems Ricketts and his back line were having were not cleared up by the 12th minute. A free kick by Andreas Ivanschitz was allowed to bounce in the box and Nelson Valdes directed it past Ricketts. There was some heated discussion among the Galaxy defenders after this one, but their attacking players would once again bail them out. Ten minutes later, Zardes hit a volley past Frei to level the match at two.

Seattle would put the ball in the net once more before halftime. The flamethrowers went off, and the team huddled around Dempsey in celebration. But the referee was having a discussion with his assistant, and called the goal back for a very late (but correct) offside. Viewers watching the game in Spanish or with Unimas’ English-language studio crew were left a little puzzled by the matter.

LA seemed to have calmed the game down with possession as the first half went on, but Seattle upped the pressure in the second. Ricketts was busy, but better. Steven Gerrard made a rare appearance to clear the ball off his own goal line.

The Sounders got the goal they were seeking through another defensive lapse by the Galaxy. The normally sure AJ DeLaGarza headed a cross straight into the air above his own box. It skidded off of Leonardo’s head on its way down and bounced to Erik Friberg, who hit it much more cleanly. The blew flew off his foot and didn’t stop until it hit the back of the net.

Fri

That goal would stand up as the winner. LA didn’t go without a fight, but Stefan Frei was up to the challenge. He made one more save than his counterpart, which is all he needed.

In LA, this will probably be remembered as a transitional year. The summer signings of Gerrard and Giovani Dos Santos promised to turn the defending champs into a dominant force the likes of which MLS hadn’t seen before. But fans were left waiting for a click that never came; the spark towards greatness was missing this year. On Wednesday night, they looked like a team that should have kept Marcelo Sarvas and Jaime Penedo.

Seattle will face Dallas in the Conference Semifinal, just as they did last year.

DC United 2-1 New England Revolution

DC overcame their recent form and a jaw-dropping early goal to eliminate New England.

The first goal of the playoffs will probably be the best goal of the playoffs. It is hard to imagine anyone topping Juan Agudelo’s bicycle kick stunner in the 15th minute. Kevin Alston put a good cross into the box, but Agudelo still had to get his body horizontal in the air in order to send the ball back across goal and beyond Bill Hamid. Some questioned Jay Heaps’ decision to start Agudelo over Charlie Davies, but his faith was rewarded.

Agudelo may have stolen the show, but the first half had plenty of non-bicycle action. Fabian Espindola missed a golden chance to equalize quickly, and Chris Rolfe banged one off the crossbar. Jermaine Jones sent a shot skidding off the outside of the post at the other end. Hamid had to make a couple stops to keep the score 1-0.

DC made a point of going after Andrew Farrell, and it paid off just before halftime. First, Rolfe got in behind the defender, who had to take a yellow card in bringing him down. On the ensuing free kick, Chris Pontius got free from Farrell and headed in the equalizer.

Things fell apart for New England in the second half. DC was exerting control even before a controversial handball call against Scott Caldwell gave the hosts a penalty in the 75th minute. Rolfe gave the Revs a reprieve by hitting the post. But DCU kept pushing, and a very pretty piece of attacking play put them in front. Nick DeLeon’s backheel freed up Espindola on an overlapping run. The cross was pulled back, to Rolfe in free space. He would not miss this time.

Rolfe

The Revs had chances at an equalizer, but Hamid made perhaps the best of his three saves to deny Jones. Things would get more frustrating for Jones when a ball that hit the arm of Sean Franklin did not earn a penalty. Jones sprinted thirty yards to Mark Geiger and placed his hands on the referee, earning himself a red card.

New England entered the season with justifiably high expectations, but they never reached the heights of last year’s remarkable run. Jones’ health was an issue, but the front office stood still in the summer when others around them made moves. They enter the offseason with a lot of question marks, not least about Jones, whose contract is up. He’ll certainly be suspended if he stays in MLS.

For DC, next up is a familiar foe. They will face the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinal for the second year in a row.

Montreal Impact 3-0 Toronto FC

After a nine-year wait, Toronto FC’s first playoff experience was over in 90 minutes. In truth, it was over before halftime. Montreal swiftly destroyed their rivals and advanced to the next round.

As has so often been the case, TFC’s defense let them down Jackson made the risky decision to try and intercept a pass in the 18th minute, and when he missed, the Impact were on a three-vs.-two break down the field. Ignacio Piatti slipped a pass through for Patrice Bernier, who finished the chance calmly. Bernier hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time at the age of 35, but his inclusion looks smart by Biello. It was perhaps fitting that a Canadian who was one of the Impact’s first MLS signings scored their first-ever playoff goal.

Things would only get worse from there for Toronto. Josh Williams slipped on what should have been a simple pass from his center back partner, and in doing so he allowed Piatti to pounce on the ball. From there, the Argentine needed one cut to provide himself a shooting angle, and he slid a shot past Chris Konopka for Montreal’s second goal.

It wouldn’t be an Impact game without Didier Drogba making his presence felt. After receiving lengthy treatment on the sideline in the first half, he returned to the field and looked very healthy scoring yet another goal. He freed Dilly Duka with a good pass, and after a lengthy sequence in the box, the ball came back his way. Bernier spotted Drogba unmarked, was able to get his cross through traffic to the scoring machine. 3-0.

There was still a second half to be played, but it felt like a formality. Toronto was shellshocked; they were never going to recover from that first half. And so a playoff season in Toronto ends before November even begins. They got the playoff monkey off their back, but having spent so much money, the bar should be higher than that.

Montreal will host Columbus this weekend as they start their conference semifinal tie. They have beaten the Crew twice this season.