Monday Postgame: At halftime of the MLS playoff semis

Breaking down the semifinal first legs in the race to the MLS Cup

NEW YORK — An oft-repeated refrain echoed through MLS stadiums this week as the semifinal first-leg playoff games wrapped up:

“It’s only halftime.”

Those three words were uttered like a mantra to express hope for teams that dropped their openers and to ward off overconfidence for teams that won theirs. Because both sides know that a lot can happen in the second 90 minutes of this deceptively simple two-game format.

Just like a lot did happen in the first 90.

So let’s pass around the orange slices and break it all down: 

The Sound of Silence

Has a stadium ever gone quieter faster than Qwest Field did after Edson Buddle’s stunning strike in the 38th minute on Sunday night? It was as if Andrew Dice Clay had taken the stage at Lilith Fair.

The looping goal stood up, and turned what could have been a very scary night for the Galaxy into a sweet 1-0 win.

Facing the hottest team in the league (10-2-3 in their last 15), on the road, in front of a packed house, LA got gritty, blue-collar performances from their two glamour players, Landon Donovan and David Beckham.

The DP duo did not shy away from grunt work, tracking back ceaselessly to help the Galaxy backline shut down Seattle’s speedy wingers, Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi, and nail down a victory that put LA in the driver’s seat heading back to the Home Depot Center.

Though, of course, as Buddle said afterward, it’s only halftime.

Rapid Ascent

Before the Galaxy capped the week with a 1-0 victory, Colorado opened it with a win over Columbus by the same score. Veteran midfielder Pablo Mastroeni got the goal, the first playoff tally of his 13-year career.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a proper Rapids win without significant contributions from the team’s lethal strike force of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings—and both players were involved in the buildup to Mastroeni’s goal.

Pablo Mastroeni scores the matchwinner

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Colorado dominated large stretches of this game, but they may come to regret not putting away some of the opportunities they created to extend their lead.

Because while Columbus looked listless for much of the match, they surged in the second half, when they nearly tied it up, and they return home next weekend with a realistic chance to rally and take the series. 

Seeing Red in Texas

Alvaro Saborío gets a lot of credit in Salt Lake—and rightly so. He was the team’s leading scorer in the regular season with 12 goals and four assists. But RSL has another gem up top in Argentine Fabian Espindola.

His fifth-minute opener against FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday was a thing of beauty, and it seemed to signal a tough afternoon ahead for the hosts.

Dallas were missing backline starters Heath Pearce and George John. Beyond that, holding midfielder Daniel Hernandez and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman were playing their first games back from injury. Defender Jackson, normally an outside back, started the game in the center of defense alongside Ugo Ihemelu, who was also returning from a long injury layoff. (Jackson eventually swapped positions with starting right back Zach Loyd.)

Not exactly the ideal circumstances for facing the defending champs, who hadn’t lost a league game in more than three months.

Then again, it was Dallas who delivered that last loss, on July 17 at Pizza Hut Park, where RSL were a woeful 0-9-0 entering Saturday’s game.

Taking the latter omens as their cue, Dallas rebounded from Espindola’s goal and tied it up just before halftime. That set the stage for Eric Avila to make Schellas Hyndman look like a genius. The Dallas coach inserted Avila into the game in the 87th minute, telling him to push forward and make something happen.

No problem, coach. Less than a minute later, Avila crushed a dramatic winner into the far side netting from 15 yards.

Eric Avila strikes for FC Dallas

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Rockfight at Rio Tinto

Dallas and Real Salt Lake had traded ejections in the second half as RSL playmaker Javier Morales received a second yellow for a high boot on Dax McCarty, and Atiba Harris saw a straight red for an elbow on Will Johnson.

Morales’s second yellow is debatable—replays showed his foot contacting McCarty’s torso, not his face—but one thing is certain: It made his first one, for an undisciplined slap to the face of Hernandez, look even more ill-advised than it did originally.

A number of questions now loom over the RSL-Dallas second leg: How will Salt Lake respond to the absence of their playmaker, Morales? Will Saborío, who’s been troubled by groin and knee issues, be able to go?

Who will Dallas turn to in the absence of Harris and, most likely, attacker Milton Rodriguez, who left Saturday’s game with an adductor strain?

Can RSL rally from the one-goal deficit to keep its 32-game home unbeaten streak alive?

We’ll get the answers, and what should be a cracking good game, next Saturday night at Rio Tinto. 

Thierry Who?

The Postgame wanted to go back and adjust our MLS playoff pool picks after seeing the Red Bulls’ injury report last week.

Salou Ibrahim, Tony Tchani and superstar DP Thierry Henry were all out injured, and Joel Lindpere was carrying a groin strain. Lindpere was prepared to play, though, telling MLSsoccer.com, “I’m a man … I can play through the pain.”

Then he went out and proved he’s not only a man, but, when it comes to the Red Bulls, he’s the man.

Lindpere coolly buried the game’s only goal in the 55th minute, settling a poor San Jose clearance and beating Jon Busch to the far post. It was not the first time that Lindpere has come through for New York when no one else could.

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The Red Bulls thoroughly dominated San Jose for long stretches on Saturday, yet had nothing to show for it until Lindpere delivered.

Word is that Thierry Henry may miss the second leg as well (it would be his fourth consecutive injury absence). But if New York—and Lindpere—keep playing like this, they won’t need him.