Fortune favored the brave last night as Real Salt Lake ousted defending MLS Cup champions Columbus with a 3-2 victory (4-2 on aggregate) over the Crew in Columbus.
In contrast to Columbus' conservative approach in RSL's 1-0 opening leg victory at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL wanted to obtain possession and get numbers forward when possible at Crew Stadium. Javier Morales' excellent night sparked RSL going forward, allowing Jason Kreis' side to combine smoothly in the attacking third and create enough chances to yield surprisingly effective results.
All of that endeavor wouldn't have mattered a bit without the character to respond in the face of adversity. RSL arguably enjoyed the better of the play in the first 35 minutes, yet found itself down two goals after Guillermo Barros Schelotto bounced home a free kick and sliced inside to fire home at the far post. Instead of folding up shop or dropping their heads, RSL struck back twice before the break through Morales (who capped off a stellar bit of combination work by poking home) and a Robbie Findley penalty (after Frankie Hejduk needlessly dragged Fabian Espindola to the ground) to reclaim the momentum and enter the break on level terms. Andy Williams' opportunistic second half strike from Morales' short corner provided the reward after a couple of good chances went begging and ultimately sealed the series victory.
A bit of luck certainly helped RSL's cause. RSL rode through several nervous moments from Jamison Olave, a couple of legitimate penalty shouts for the home side (Olave's clumsy challenge on Alejandro Moreno after eight minutes and Williams' apparent handball on 55 minutes) and a decent but impotent Columbus push during the second half.
Then again, it's also about making your own luck at this point in the season. By stepping on the field with belief and displaying that confidence in its play, Real Salt Lake advanced to its second consecutive conference final and condemned Columbus to the world of wondering what could and should have been. On the balance of play over the two legs, RSL earned it.
Real Salt Lake isn't the only entity to cast an indifferent regular season off to side and ramp up its game for the playoffs. The Forecast responded to the playoff pressure by posting an unblemished record last week. Will the purple patch continue as the conference semifinals wind to a close?
Last week: 3/3 (100%)
Playoffs: 3/3 (100%)
Final tally for the season: 88/195 (45%)
New England @ Chicago – 8:30p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel) – Goal.com Preview
New England leads 2-1 after first leg
Shalrie Joseph's late winner handed the Revs a narrow advantage to take back to Toyota Park. Can they make it hold up as both sides tussle for the right to host RSL next Saturday? Much will depend on the health of New England striker Edgaras Jankauskas (bronchitis), who trained intermittently this week but should probably be able to go. New England will need Joseph in midfield for as long as possible to help gum up the works for Cuauhtemoc Blanco, so the veteran forward needs to find a way to drag himself onto the pitch. As for the home side, the Fire certainly showed in the first leg that there will be goals for the taking, but are the cards of fate cast against them once again? Wilman Conde (hip) hasn't trained much, if at all, this week, Gonzalo Segares (knee) ruled himself out before Fire coach Denis Hamlett ruled him in (maybe) and Tim Ward (foot) still looks unlikely to play. Chicago could really use at least two of those three players in the lineup to strengthen a defense that conceded too many free kicks in and around the penalty area last week and struggled to contain New England's speedy wingers. At least John Thorrington (athletic pubalgia) should be back to add some range and bite in central midfield. The chalk and the history (6-0-0 in home playoff games v. N.E.) says Chicago, but something – a mixture of the injuries, the lack of match fitness for the returning walking wounded and the Fire's indifferent home form during the regular season, perhaps – feels just a bit off kilter for the Fire. An upset then, perhaps with the Revs grabbing a goal off a set piece.
Prediction: Draw, New England to advance.
Seattle @ Houston – 3:00p.m. (Telefutura) – Goal.com Preview
0-0 after first leg
The best of the first legs (at least from a neutral's perspective) ended scoreless at Qwest Field, setting the stage for an enticing finale at a packed Robertson Stadium. The bumper crowd should give Houston an added push, but there are several causes for concern for the Dynamo. As the home team, Houston will have to grasp the initiative from the outset, but too much aggressiveness in the attacking third could leave the Dynamo susceptible to Freddie Ljungberg and Steve Zakuani heading the other way with ample room to roam. Houston also marked shoddily on its set pieces in the first leg, a flaw that may not go unpunished the second time around. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Houston will be the mental one. New York came into Robertson Stadium and thrashed the Dynamo at this stage last season by using its pace to tear the home side apart on the counter. Combine those mental scars with a similarly constructed (but superior) Seattle team boasting an impressive record on the road recently and the sum total may be too much for the Dynamo to overcome. I pegged Houston to win it all prior to the season, but the road may just end for the Dynamo at this stage even with its considerable experience and the home field advantage.
Prediction: Seattle win, Seattle to advance.
Los Angeles @ Chivas USA – 7:30p.m. (ESPN2) – Goal.com Preview
2-2 after first leg
Expect a considerably different second leg than the error-riddled opening tie last Sunday. That isn't to say that the things that worked last week won't work again – Chivas USA's pace over the top and Los Angeles' ability to dominate in possession and work the ball around despite the Red-and-White's pressure – but that the match should be somewhat cleaner in the second leg, In a match with more rhythm (and presumably less in-match tactical tinkering), the balance swings towards Los Angeles. Given the performance displayed in the first leg, the Galaxy should express delight at the thought of entering the second leg on level terms and with little possibility of handing in a similarly off-key performance. In order to emerge with the victory, L.A. will have to keep Sacha Kljestan (a significant factor in the first leg) in check and find ways to get David Beckham and Landon Donovan into space. A Galaxy loss at this stage would prove quite the anticlimax. Fortunately for those who favor the Hollywood ending, L.A. should have enough to exploit Chivas USA's rickety play at the back and progress onwards to the Western Conference final.
Prediction: Los Angeles win, Los Angeles to advance.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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