The first wild-card playoff round in MLS history is in the books, and now we head to the Conference Semifinals, which kick off Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium, where Real Salt Lake host Seattle (7 pm PT, FOX Soccer).
While there was nothing wild about the scorelines (2-0 and 1-0) that got us here, this play-in round did live up to its name: Coaches in both matches played wild-cards, for better in one case, for worse in the other.
At Pizza Hut Park, there was the introduction of an unexpected second-half sub who created a goal on his first touch, while at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a surprise starter and a new lineup were trumped.
Let’s turn ’em all over and break it down.
Into the Fire
Tony Tchani was traded from New York to Toronto FC in April, and then from Toronto to Columbus in mid-July. He saw his last action for the Reds on July 9, when he injured his knee against Houston.
The 6-foot-4 Cameroonian developed chronic pain in the knee, and in late August, before he could play even a single game for the Crew, he underwent arthroscopic surgery.
Tchani didn’t play in September or October, either, and he was listed as questionable for Thursday night’s do-or-die, wild card game at Colorado. So it was more than a little surprising to see his name on Thursday night, smack in the middle of Crew coach Robert Warzycha’s starting XI.
If that wild card play weren’t unexpected enough, Warzycha also held back one of his aces, keeping Venezuelan striker Emilio Rentería (8 goals in 18 appearances) on the bench to start and going with a 4-5-1 with Andrés Mendoza as his lone striker.
Those were puzzling calls with a winner-take-all pot on the line, but the new lineup did look promising at the start. Columbus made several forays in the opening 15 minutes, with Eddie Gaven, Dilly Duka and Robbie Rogers all getting decent looks on goal.
But Tchani showed signs of rust, struggling to complete passes in midfield, and, in the 31st minute, after a bad giveaway, he kicked the turf in frustration. It was a harbinger of sorts, as Colorado started to take control.
Omar Cummings and Sanna Nyassi got in gear, and Brian Mullan, playing in his 11th consecutive postseason, showed why he has five championship rings.
Right before the break, Mullan played Kosuke Kimura to the end line with a perfectly weighted pass. Kimura cut the ball back for Cummings, who buried it past Will Hesmer for a 1-0 halftime lead.
Shuffling the Deck
The Crew huffed and puffed. They nearly snagged an equalizer in the 54th minute, when Mendoza crushed a shot off the Rapids’ crossbar. Warzycha brought on Rentería in the 65th minute and all-time MLS leading scorer Jeff Cunningham in the 70th—only to remove him 15 minutes later.
None of it made a difference. The Cummings goal stood up, and, for the second year in a row, the Rapids ousted the Crew.
The Rapids continue their title defense on Sunday, when they host Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (4:30 pm PT, FOX Soccer).
Ebb and Flow
In the other wild-card match, New York traveled to Pizza Hut Park to take on FC Dallas on Wednesday night.
The Red Bulls said their strategy was to sit back and try to choke off service to the Hoops’ speedy wingers, Brek Shea and Marvin Chávez. They hoped to absorb some pressure without conceding a goal, and then try to turn the tables when leg-weary Dallas tired.
New York did sit back, but for the first 30 minutes they didn’t stifle many attacks. Dallas stormed Frank Rost’s goal in waves, and Jackson and Chávez came within inches of scoring.
Calling the Right Number
But after the half-hour mark, the tables turned. It didn’t amount to much, though, until the second half.
Here, RBNY coach Hans Backe, a man compulsively reluctant to make early substitutions, called on a surprise benchwarmer to replace the injured Dax McCarty: midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy.
While many New York fans howled at their TVs, no doubt screaming for Juan Agudelo instead, Ballouchy didn’t give them enough time to throw their I [Heart] NY pint glasses at the flat screens before he set up the game-winning goal.
The Moroccan midfielder cut back on the left flank and sent in a low cross that Joel Lindpere redirected past Kevin Hartman for a 1-0 New York lead.
Fact: Lindpere has been the Red Bulls’ most influential player all season. He had seven goals and seven assists this year, and was frequently at the center of big moments for the club.
Yet media types routinely refer to him as “the most underrated player in the league.”
The truth is he’s rated accurately—as one of the most steady and valuable midfielders in the league.
But the Postgame has a theory as to why Lindpere gets the “underrated” tag. He doesn’t look the part. He’s kind of herky-jerky on the ball; he doesn’t make it look easy, and this unorthodox style skews perception to the point that people have to remind themselves that yes, that guy huffing and puffing out there is actually one of the most effective players on the field.
He’s also a primary reason why the Red Bulls enter their conference semifinal against the LA Galaxy (Sunday, 12 pm PT, ESPN2) as a suddenly dangerous proposition.