It was strictly business in Texas, and showtime in Southern California.
The Houston Dynamo produced a thoroughly professional performance to dismiss the Philadelphia Union 1-0 at Robertson Stadium on Thursday, while the LA Galaxy rallied to beat New York 2-1 in a sizzling return encounter at the Home Depot Center.
The results completed the conference semifinals and set the final four for the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs: Sporting Kansas City will host Houston (2:30pm PT, Fox Soccer) and LA will welcome Real Salt Lake (6:00pm PT, ESPN) in Sunday’s conference finals.
Those are one-game matchups, with the winners advancing to MLS Cup 2011 on Nov 20 at the Home Depot Center.
Let’s take another look at how we got here.
All season long, New York’s Luke Rodgers has been a hard-working, surprisingly clutch forward with a bit of an edge. On Thursday night at the Home Depot Center, he demonstrated all three qualities—within the first eight minutes of the game.
In the fourth minute, Rogers ran onto a beautiful through ball from Thierry Henry and slotted it past Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders to give New York a 1-0 lead and a dream start to this backs-against-the-wall encounter with the Supporters’ Shield winners.
Obviously fired up by his early strike, and the emotionally charged first leg of this series, Rodgers rushed David Beckham on the ensuing restart and launched a rash challenge into the legs of the LA midfielder. No sooner had he gone into the referee’s book for that than Rogers crushed a stray game ball toward the HDC stands, missing the head of a female spectator by inches.
From that point forward, the home crowd issued a familiar chant every time Rogers touched the ball, and it wasn’t the affectionate “Luuuuuuuuuuke!” he hears at Red Bull Arena—though it did sound like it.
His chippiness aside, Rogers staked New York to a crucial early lead and helped them set the tone of the game in the early stages. With Henry dropping into midfield, the Red Bulls knocked the ball around with confidence and controlled the play in the first quarter of an hour. But 16 minutes in, midfielder Teemu Tainio felt tightness in his hamstring, and had to come off.
New York were already missing suspended central midfielder Rafa Márquez, and they could ill-afford to lose Tainio, one of their steadiest and most valuable performers all season.
His replacement, Stephane Auvray, is a more defensive minded presence, lacking Tainio’s top-notch possession skills and ability to link between offense and defense.
Soon after Tainio’s exit, the Galaxy started to take control and began buzzing Red Bull keeper Frank Rost’s 18-yard box, with Robbie Keane looking especially dangerous. But it was the duo that produced the first leg’s only goal, Beckham and Mike Magee, that eventually provided the breakthrough for LA.
In the 42nd minute, Beckham swung in a corner kick, and Magee beat his marker, Dane Richards, to the ball, and headed it past Rost for his second goal of the series. The strike put the Galaxy level in the game and back on top (2-1) in the aggregate.
The Red Bulls had their moments after that, but in the 73rd minute, defender Roy Miller inexplicably shoved and kicked Beckham in the box, sending the LA star, who had his back to goal at the time, tumbling to the turf, and referee Hilario Grajeda scurrying to the spot.
Landon Donovan buried the penalty to give the Galaxy a 3-1 aggregate lead, and LA held on for the win.
In addition to setting up the first goal and drawing the penalty for the second, Beckham worked tirelessly for 79 minutes on both sides of the ball, looking much younger than his 36 years in a man-of-the-match effort.
For New York, the performance typified the season in many ways: there were passages of brilliance punctuated by glaring mental lapses, and the winning goal came, as so many did against the Red Bulls in 2011, as a result of poor set-piece defending.
Just Like they Drew it Up
Speaking of set pieces, they are the lifeblood of the Houston Dynamo, a team with a winger capable of Beckham-esque service in Brad Davis, and an array of players, from strikers to defenders, who can get on the end of balls in the box.
The formula delivered again in first-half stoppage time of the Dynamo’s second leg conference semifinal tilt with Philadelphia.
Just when the visiting Union, who trailed 2-1 on aggregate, thought they were going to make it to halftime with the score 0-0, Davis sent a spinning, dipping free kick into the box. Brian Ching was able to run onto it unobstructed, and he outjumped Danny Califf to send a header into the far corner past a sprawling Faryd Mondragón.
Closing It Out
The Dynamo took the 3-1 aggregate lead into the break, then gave a master class in seeing off an opponent in the second half. Houston kept possession on offense, shut down lanes on defense, and didn’t allow the Union much of anything in the final third.
Philly coach Peter Nowak brought on Freddy Adu, Justin Mapp, and Roger Torres just after the hour mark, but they did little to break the Dynamo stranglehold, and Houston walked off 1-0 winners, advancing to the conference final for the fourth time in six years.
Philadelphia enjoyed enough success this season to obscure the fact that this was only their second year of existence. They went out to an accomplished franchise with two titles under its belt and a number of experienced veterans, two of whom made the difference on Thursday. No shame in that.