Western conference semi previews
New York vs. Los Angeles, RSL vs. Seattle
In a two-game aggregate goals series, fireworks are usually reserved for the second leg. The personnel and tactics have been sorted, and the intensity begins to rise as a team's playoff fate comes more into focus.
But in this case, the first legs of the Western Conference semifinals delivered plenty of talking points, albeit in unexpected fashion. Real Salt Lake took apart high-flying Seattle 3-0 with a midfield display that was shocking in terms of its dominance, leaving the Sounders to face very long odds of reaching the conference championships.
Back in New York, much of the drama unfolded after the final whistle. The L.A. Galaxy delivered a textbook display for defending on the road to grab a 1-0 advantage over the Red Bulls, only for tempers to boil over afterwards. New York defender Rafa Marquez sparked a postmatch melee by pegging L.A.'s Landon Donovan with the ball, resulting in red cards to Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho. So while the Galaxy appear to be in the driver's seat, the bad blood generated should make for compelling viewing when the second leg kicks off on Thursday.
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders FC (RSL leads 3-0 on aggregate)
Seattle needs a miracle to advance, but MLS history is littered with enough incredible playoff fight-backs to prevent the Sounders from being completely written off.
The gold standard of MLS playoff drama remains the 2003 series between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy. On that occasion, the Galaxy, up 2-0 from the first leg, scored twice in the first 13 minutes of the return encounter, giving them a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 lead. But San Jose staged a furious comeback, scoring two goals in each half to tie the match, before winning in overtime on a golden goal by Rodrigo Faria.
The head coach for the Galaxy on that day? None other than current Seattle manager Sigi Schmid, who certainly wouldn't mind seeing his current side emulate the Quakes' achievement from eight years ago.
"That's our objective," he told the Seattle Times, "to create a game you're not going to forget."
Schmid needs a few miracles to happen off the field before a ball is even kicked on Wednesday, but so far, the soccer deities are sending mixed messages. Injured midfielder Mauro Rosales has been ruled out of Wednesday's clash, according to Schmid via a team spokesman.
On the other hand, RSL could be without starting center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, who both sustained quadriceps injuries. They will be game-time decisions, although the fact that both players had to leave Saturday's first leg doesn't bode well for Real. Chris Schuler and Rauwshan McKenzie, the latter of whom has played just two league games this season, are poised to fill in. Another option is for an outside back like Robbie Russell or Chris Wingert to slide in centrally, giving the team more experience in a key part of the field.
The conference semifinals conclude with the return legs on Wednesday and Thursday to decide which four teams reach the conference championships. You can watch three of the four matches on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN3.
SKC vs. Colorado
Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer
Seattle vs. RSL
Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3
Houston vs. Philly
Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3
L.A. vs. New York
Thursday, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3
But more than anything, Seattle needs to create its own breaks, and that starts with a more aggressive mindset, especially in midfield where RSL's Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson had their way with their Seattle counterparts in the first leg. The hope is that will translate into improvement in terms of the team's passing.
"There were too many times where we won the ball and we gave the ball away," said Schmid. "So we have to do a much better job of keeping the ball."
As for RSL, it has no intention of being on the business end of a miracle. The 2009 champs just have to manage the game, but that's an approach which invites all kinds of psychological traps. The need to simply prevent goals could cede the initiative to Seattle, and with a raucous crowd behind the Sounders, RSL might find itself doing nothing but defending on a night when its backline depth is already thin.
"It's important that we recognize that [trap], face it, and don't hide from it," said RSL manager Jason Kreis after Tuesday's training session. "It's something that I've already brought up with the players and it will be brought up again. We need to handle this game in a certain fashion. If we go into it still patting our backs about the result we had the other night we're going to be in very big trouble."
That's where the midfield quartet of Beckerman, Johnson, Andy Williams and Javier Morales will need to step to the fore and possess the ball enough so that RSL can control some of the game's tempo, and if circumstances allow, nail Seattle on the break.
"We know how difficult it is to play [in Seattle]," said RSL manager Jason Kreis after the first leg. "We're going to need 90 more minutes of very committed soccer to make sure we advance in this round."
And kill off any hope of a once-in-a-decade comeback.
Los Angeles Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls (L.A. leads 1-0 on aggregate)
The first leg mostly went according to plan for the Galaxy. Sure, there were the occasional chances generated by the Red Bulls, but the early goal scored by Mike Magee provided a sufficient cushion for the Galaxy to sit back and absorb pressure. And with the second game set to be played at the Home Depot Center, where L.A. is unbeaten this year, the Galaxy are in prime position to advance.
Not that you'd know it from the attitudes of the coaches. New York manager Hans Backe was so upbeat afterward you would have thought his team had won the first leg.
"It was a great performance," said Backe. "One of our absolutely better games by far for a couple of months. Totally controlled the game, dictated the game, and four huge chances to tie the game. And for me, this is totally wide open. If we can perform like this on Thursday -- we have won before in L.A. and we can do it again. If we just stay on this level, we will win the game. We had four or five 100 percent scoring chances, and that's a lot against L.A. There is no idea to force it or to play hectic. It's a lot of time, 90 minutes; 1-0, it's in a way nothing."
L.A. counterpart Bruce Arena was more circumspect. "Thursday is going to be a hard game," he said. "When you go on the road, you want to be in this kind of position to go home with the three points. It's a good position to be in, but this series is far from over."
Upon closer inspection, the posture of both coaches is understandable. For L.A., the ejections and subsequent suspensions of Marquez and Juninho have had the effect of tilting the scales in New York's direction a bit. A debate has been raging for months over whether the Red Bulls are a better team without the Mexico international than with him. Certainly the numbers point to his loss as being anything but a crippling blow. New York's record with Marquez this season is 6-6-8 (4-3-8 without him). And while the Red Bulls' attack showed some life when Marquez started hitting long balls over the L.A. defense, on the vast expanses of the Home Depot Center, the tenacity and work rate of Dax McCarty seems a better fit than the lumbering Marquez.
But what will likely hurt L.A. more is the loss of Juninho. The Brazilian has proved to be the backbone of the Galaxy midfield, doing much of the defensive dirty work, which has allowed Donovan and David Beckham to focus more on contributing to the attack. Chris Birchall is the leading candidate to step in, but while the Trinidad & Tobago international is tough in the tackle, he's not quite as mobile as Juninho. That may force other elements of L.A.'s midfield, like Mike Magee, to keep their attacking forays to a minimum. Michael Stephens is another option who is better on the ball, but not as good defensively has Birchall.
"[Birchall] is an experienced player who's played in the center of midfield for us in a number of games," said Arena. "He and David [Beckham] know how to play together. We have three or four guys I think we'll consider for that spot."
That said, this is L.A.'s series to lose. Defensively, the Galaxy were the best team in MLS this season, especially at home where they conceded eight goals in 17 games, which is why Arena isn't troubling himself too much with what New York will bring.
He said, "Whatever they do, they do, you know? It's all part of it. You can't make this too scientific. We've got to go out and play and we know we're going to try to get a result."
If L.A. can manage to keep its composure in the face of increasing desperation from the Red Bulls -- no small feat given the heated nature of the first leg -- a home match in the Western Conference final awaits.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.