Players and officials cracked under the strain of the first leg conference semifinal ties, but some teams still managed to thrive.
Forget about those tense, stale encounters from midweek. The postseason well and truly arrived this weekend.
After a slate of four matches filled with dramatic events at almost every turn, one thought – a query, more exactly – supersedes all others at this point.
Can the combatants – with a few exceptions, admittedly – just take a deep breath and try to keep their heads in midweek?
The increased stakes played mind games with just about everyone this weekend. Many of the players appeared to take the field wound tighter than a typical guitar string. And that sentiment bubbled even before kickoff in most matches.
While that pressure does create some benefits for the spectacle on the whole, it also does funny things to the normally controlled – if usually a bit rugged – demeanor on the field and the already inconsistent decisions from those in charge of it all.
Take Seattle as a collective instance of the wider theme. For some reason, this hardware-collecting side from the Pacific Northwest can't seem to get over its postseason mental block.
Sigi Schmid could have chopped and changed for weeks without finding a way to avoid Sounders FC's disastrous 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake. The hottest team in MLS suddenly couldn't pass the ball a lick at Rio Tinto Stadium (65.2 percent passing percentage on the night) or stop RSL from knocking it around without much trouble. Seattle mildly frustrated RSL for much of the first half, but then Alvaro Saborio got the first goal and the flood gates opened. In a sign of the frustration teeming within the lads in Rave Green, Osvaldo Alonso lashed out at Saborio after his second goal and narrowly – and, from most viewpoints, unjustly – missed out on a backbreaking dismissal.
“We're lucky we didn't lose six-nothing,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid told the Seattle Times after the game. “We were well served by only losing three-nothing. We (did not play) well and I thought Real Salt Lake played very well. A bad time for us to choose to have a bad game. Obviously they had a very, very good game. Hats off to them.
Seattle's pervasive problems may cause issues for its playoff hopes, but Alonso's specific outburst highlighted a pervasive trend of players attempting and failing to control their emotions during the weekend.
In moments big and small, players allowed the gravity of the postseason to impact the normal course of business. Rafa Marquez's petulant post-match display – and the resulting scrum it sparked – somehow managed to appear even more egregious than any of his ill-conceived actions over the past few months.
Marquez can muster no excuse for his ball-chucking, theatrically-inspired performance given his current track record and his extensive experience at the highest levels of the game, but at least younger players like Teal Bunbury (remonstrating his way into the book for contesting a referee's decision at midfield) and Gabriel Farfan (a flying lunge that hit Danny Cruz above his collar bone...in the fourth minute, no less) can at least point to their relative inexperience (and, in Bunbury's case, a pair of goals as he channeled his displeasure elsewhere) to justify their transgressions.
Similar leeway does not extend to the always beleaguered men in the middle. Playoff matches – especially when players are chomping at the bit like they were this weekend – are notoriously difficult to manage. The referees on this particular weekend didn't always help their own causes and did not always properly rebuke those players who had erred significantly.
Two decisions, in particular, revealed a lack of gumption at an important moment. Jair Marrufo allowed the Houston-Philadelphia match to descend into something just short of a street brawl – particularly off-the-ball – with his early and unwarranted permissiveness on Gabriel Farfan's ridiculous challenge and his inconsistent attempts to steady the course after the fact, while only Mark Geiger can explain how Alonso escaped with a yellow card after diverting away from the play to have a go at Saborio.
(Note: Sterner displays from Alex Prus [two post-match red cards to Marquez and Juninho for their roles in the Harrison scuffle] and Baldomero Toledo [an unpopular, but by-the-book, sending off for Tyrone Marshall in Commerce City] provided some balance – if not perfection from the run of play – to those unseemly moments of leniency.)
While several players and a few officials struggled with the weight of the moment, there were moments and spells to suggest this widespread problem isn't universal. Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake looked like tried and tested contenders with their performances, while Houston and Sporting Kansas City restrained their dark sides long enough to emerge with away results. Cool finishes by Bunbury, Saborio and Mike Magee and fine goalkeeping displays from Kasey Keller and Josh Saunders underscored that some players even managed to keep their heads about them as the stakes increased at the sharp end.
Retaining (or acquiring) that sense of calmness remains important for all eight teams seeking to secure a positive result in midweek. With that caveat in mind, the Breakdown assesses the landscape in each of the series after this hectic weekend:
Real Salt Lake – Seattle (aggregate: Real Salt Lake, 3-0; second leg: Wednesday at Seattle, 10p.m., ESPN2/TSN2)
Midfield play told the tale in the first leg: Real Salt Lake finally located its cadence through the middle of the park, while Seattle couldn't reproduce its usual industrious efforts. Alonso and Brad Evans must find some way to disrupt the Claret-and-Cobalt's tempo during the second leg and provide the platform for Sounders FC to push forward in search of goals.
The viability of Seattle's hopes rests on the fitness of Nat Borchers (left knee strain) and Jamison Olave (right quadriceps strain). If even one of the two center backs manages to play near his regular level at CenturyLink Field, then RSL will likely find a way to go through.
New York – Los Angeles (aggregate: Los Angeles, 1-0; second leg: Thursday at Carson, Calif., 11p.m., ESPN2/TSN2)
Los Angeles' superior defensive organization ruled the day in Harrison. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the Galaxy shut down the match after Magee's early tally, but New York's persistence did present a problem or two. The home side forced Saunders into several key saves without always looking particularly threatening against a Los Angeles defense well versed in coping with crosses from the flanks. In order to rectify that concern, the Red Bulls may want to find more ways to play the ball on the ground and use their speed advantage with diagonal runs into dangerous areas.
In addition to those possible tactical tweaks, the Red Bulls may benefit from the post-match scrum and the resulting fallout. Juninho covers a lot of ground in central midfield and the Galaxy will struggle to adapt to his absence. On the other side, Dax McCarty should replace Marquez without too much trouble based on the current form of both players. New York's primary issue at this point? It will take more than one switch – and an improved showing by the statuesque Frank Rost – to overturn the first-leg result.
Philadelphia – Houston (aggregate: Houston, 2-1; second leg: Thursday at Houston, 8:30p.m., ESPN2/TSN2)
Both sides would likely prefer a calmer second leg back at Robertson Stadium. Houston probably should have put the tie beyond doubt in the second half – the squandered two-versus-Mondragon opportunity still stings – but it will return home in reasonably fine shape. If the Dynamo produce a second consecutive performance of similar quality, then it will almost certainly progress.
Philadelphia must assess its entire approach heading into the second game. Union coach Peter Nowak gambled with his tactics (Stefani Miglioranzi featured as a fifth defender at the start) and felt the consequences during a disjointed first-half performance. The switch back to a 4-4-2 setup in the second half helped, but the Union needs to improve on a rather shoddy defensive display and stop conceding fouls in poor areas to have a chance on the road.
Colorado – Sporting Kansas City (aggregate: Sporting KC, 2-0; second leg: Wednesday at Kansas City, Kan., 8:00p.m., FOX Soccer)
Colorado may struggle to field a competitive side with the rash of injuries and suspensions it has suffered over the past week. Three defenders feature in that group (with particular emphasis on the steady Drew Moor) to present real selection issues at the back, but the Rapids can't afford to defend too much given their current hole anyways. At this juncture and under these circumstances, Gary Smith may have start with a dynamic, forward-thinking group and hope for the best.
Such tactics would play into Sporting's hands perfectly. If the second leg gets stretched, then Peter Vermes' side will reap the benefits on the break. If Sporting manages to retain its poise in midweek, it will likely toil through a hard 90 minutes en route to the Eastern Conference final.
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 MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.