On a night Dempsey and Donovan went quietly, coaching stars take spotlight

Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey combined for no goals or assists in Thursday's decisive MLS quarterfinal second legs, while Caleb Porter and Jason Kreis made all the right moves
PORTLAND -- On a night when two of the biggest American soccer stars saw their MLS seasons end after disappointing performances, a pair of young American coaches enjoyed victories that could go a long way toward defining the early parts of their careers.

Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan combined for zero goals and assists in their Western Conference semifinal series, and neither could keep their teams from being eliminated from the playoffs.

Caleb Porter and Jason Kreis enjoyed far better nights, each orchestrating significant victories to set up a Western Conference final series that will lack star power, but not quality soccer.

For Kreis, 40, and Porter, 37, the evening not only allowed them to lead their teams to club-defining victories, those wins also came against two of the most successful coaches in MLS history. Porter’s Timbers put on an absolute clinic in beating up the Seattle Sounders early in Thursday’s second legs, and only a second-half rally kept the match from being a drubbing of historic proportions.

Kreis’ win against LA's Bruce Arena didn’t make history because Kreis beat Arena. He did that before in the 2009 MLS Cup Final. Thursday’s overtime victory carried significance because it finally gave Real Salt Lake a signature win at home after a half dozen failed attempts to record an important elimination/final victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.

For Porter, he continued his Coach of the Year-caliber season with the type of emphatic series win that left little doubt which team was better. Not only did the Timbers match the league record for goals in a two-leg playoff series (5) against Seattle, they were the only team in the 2013 conference semifinals to win both matches. The Timbers imposed their will and thoroughly out-played the big-spending Sounders, ending Seattle's season and very possibly ending Sigi Schmid's tenure as the team's head coach.

While Kreis and Porter were blazing new trails, Dempsey and Donovan were finishing two thoroughly disappointing playoff campaigns.

The night was especially rough for Dempsey, who saw his first season back in MLS end abruptly. The U.S. star never did settle in well and heads into the offseason seen as a major disappointment for a Seattle Sounders squad that paraded him around like the team’s savior.

The final tally on Dempsey’s first season in Seattle was one goal and one assist in 11 total games, including the playoffs. Seattle’s record in those matches was 4-6-1, including an 1-5-1 slide in the final seven matches with Dempsey.

Those are hardly the numbers Seattle was banking on when it broke the bank to bring him from Tottenham, and even though there is a strong likelihood that Dempsey will do significantly better in 2014 once he has a full preseason with the team, the lingering feeling in Seattle about the Dempsey Experiment is that it has been a big disappointment.

Donovan’s departure from the playoffs wasn’t all about Donovan, but more about a misfiring Galaxy team that never did fully recover from the departures of Mike Magee and David Beckham. Donovan and Robbie Keane were forced to essentially carry the Galaxy for much of the 2013 season and when neither could deliver goals or assists in the team’s Western Conference semifinal series against Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy were doomed to fall.

The Galaxy’s failure to become the first MLS team to win three titles will be blamed on one signature moment: the team’s trading of Magee for Robbie Rogers. Whether you believe the notion that Magee made the trade happen because he wanted to go home to Chicago or buy into the conspiracy theory that MLS forced the Galaxy to make the deal in order for Rogers to be a groundbreaking figure in a major media market as an openly gay athlete, the trade can only be called an outright disaster.

Arena will ultimately take the blame for the trade, even though there is a good chance he made it for altruistic reasons. He won titles with Magee and saw a chance to grant a player he respected a chance to go home, so Arena made a trade he had to know could end up being a dud.

The final tally is a harsh one. Magee went on to have an MVP-caliber season with the Chicago Fire, notching 21 total goals, while Rogers finished the season with zero goals and one assists in 13 total appearances.

Without Magee, and with Beckham a distant memory, the Galaxy were a two-trick pony relying far too much on Keane and Donovan to work their magic. When Keane uncharacteristically missed a plethora of chances in the first-leg against RSL, there was nobody else to pick up the slack. And when the Galaxy looked flat in the second leg, an early exit seemed inevitable.

The 2013 MLS playoffs will go on now without two more high-profile teams, and two more of the league’s biggest stars, with Dempsey and Donovan joining Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and the New York Red Bulls in taking early vacations.

What the league is left with is four tough teams all capable of winning a title and two Western Conference teams led by two impressive young American coaches who should get more of the spotlight than they normally do. They have their teams playing attractive soccer that should keep the MLS playoffs entertaining even with so many of the league’s star players having already gone home for the holidays.

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