- Jeff Carlisle, Soccer
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After shooting blanks in the first leg of its Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Los Angeles Galaxy's big guns delivered when it mattered. And it was enough -- barely -- to subdue a game San Jose side that finally ran out of miracles, winning the second leg 3-1 for a 3-2 aggregate victory.
For 81 minutes, L.A. played a near-perfect game. It was solid in defense as rookie center back Tommy Meyer combined well with Omar Gonzalez. The attack was fluid and lethal, shedding a season's worth of frustration in beating San Jose for the first time this year in five tries. L.A. scored early and often thanks to two razor sharp finishes by Robbie Keane and some dazzling transition play from Landon Donovan. Oh, and Mike Magee further burnished his reputation as a clutch playoff performer with a priceless third goal that gave the Galaxy daylight and sent its already soaring confidence level up to 11.
"We were smart," said victorious head coach Bruce Arena. "We were strong in the early going, yet patient. The first goal was obviously important. The second goal San Jose put their heads down. The third goal obviously was a killer."
Was it ever. San Jose substitute Alan Gordon scrambled a home a goal with eight minutes remaining to pull the Quakes within one, suddenly springing a struggling San Jose attack to life.
Frank Yallop's side then nearly bagged the kind of late equalizer that has been their hallmark this season when another substitute, Ike Opara, was presented with a clear look at goal from ten yards late in stoppage time. But where previous games had seen the ball find the net, Opara could only sky his shot well over the bar, leaving the Galaxy to savor a satisfying victory over a rival whose style it had criticized repeatedly in recent weeks.
"It's amazing," said Gonzalez. "They did well during the year, but couldn't pull it off tonight. It just felt great to hear that whistle blow, just to finally be over with those guys. We came out on top. I thought they fought well, but they just couldn't pull it off tonight."
Arena struck an even more conciliatory tone, congratulating San Jose on its Supporters Shield-winning campaign. "They're really the champions in the league," he said about San Jose. "When you go through the entire season -- even though I'm not a great believer in the way they have the Supporters Shield -- they earned it. They're champions of the league, and we're still participating in another competition called the MLS Cup."
"I think we have a damn good team, arguably the best in the league, and we have the chance to prove it in the next series again."
For the Quakes, it marks the second time in their history that they have fallen at the first playoff hurdle after securing the league's best record. And it was a night in which just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, with the team's seemingly endless reservoir of karma finally running out. Likely league MVP Chris Wondolowski squandered three glorious chances, including one when the score was 1-0 that would have given San Jose a badly needed shot of adrenaline. Marvin Chavez could only hit the post with a free-kick.
But more critically, the defensive weaknesses in transition that plagued the team all season could not be overcome, with L.A. always a threat to score. "We had our chances to score goals," said San Jose manager Frank Yallop. "But our general football... I don't think we played well until the last 25 minutes."
The turning point came in the 12th minute when linchpin defender Victor Bernardez was forced to leave the match with a right knee sprain. Yallop said afterwards that Bernardez first injured the knee in last Sunday's playoff opener and though the defender insisted he could play, he realized early on that he couldn't last. In came the talented but erratic Opara, and a Quakes defense that was already looking wobbly crumbled under the sheer ability of Keane, Donovan, and the rest of the Galaxy attack.
"When you lose arguably your best defender, it's pretty tough," said Yallop. "You just lose a little chemistry. Ike's not played for a while, so it's not easy. I'm not blaming Ike at all. But when you lose someone of [Bernardez's] stature back there, it doesn't help."
Keane pulled the Galaxy level on aggregate in the 21st minute when the Irishman collected a pass from Magee and ran at goal. When no Quake defender closed him down -- Opara was nearest -- hit a blistering drive that caromed in off goalkeeper Jon Busch's right-hand post.
The Irish striker then doubled L.A.'s advantage in the 34th minute when Meyer's pass out from the back found Donovan in space. With the counterattack on, he picked out Keane's blindside run and Robbie easily rounded Busch to score from a tight angle.
Incredibly, L.A. wasn't done; a combination between Donovan and Sean Franklin saw the Galaxy captain break free down the right wing and square for Magee, whose first-time finish easily beat Busch for a 3-0 lead.
"They sat back and allowed us to play our game that we like to play, to get the ball into feet," said Keane. "I thought that was the difference tonight."
The Quakes did what they could to climb back into the match, but L.A.'s defense proved resolute. Even when the much anticipated matchup between Gonzalez and Quakes' forward Steven Lenhart boiled over into yellow cards for each player late in the first half, one got the sense that L.A. had at last seized the psychological advantage in addition to the one on the scoreboard.
Things calmed considerably in the second half, which suited the Galaxy just fine, content as Gonzalez & Co. were to soak up pressure and sit on its lead. In fact they would have added to it were it not for some horrific finishing from substitute Christian Wilhelmsson, who contrived to squander a hat-trick of chances.
L.A. was almost made to pay when Gordon scored and San Jose launched a full-out assault on the Galaxy goal but in the end, L.A.'s greater experience got them over the finish line. Now, it'll face the winner of Thursday's other Western Conference semifinal between Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders starting this weekend.
"We don't think we're done yet," said Donovan. "We think we have three more games, and we’re excited for Sunday."
Houston survives Kansas City's blue hell
San Jose wasn’t the only top seed to falter on Wednesday. Sporting Kansas City secured a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo but it wasn't enough to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg. Now it's Dominic Kinnear's side that will move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
It was a match that SKC dominated from start to finish, with the hosts holding an incredible 42 percentage point edge in possession. But aside from Seth Sinovic's diving header in the 64th minute, Kansas City's finishing let them down as Graham Zusi, Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong all squandered clear opportunities.
In particular Sapong's miss of a 75th minute chance, when he ballooned Peterson Joseph's low centering cross over the bar, is one he'll have nightmares about even though goalkeeper Tally Hall was quick off his line to cut down the angle.
SKC will also rue its lack of fortune as well, especially when it looked as though Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark had clattered into Chance Myers inside the box during the third minute of stoppage time.
But it is the ability to convert playoff chances into goals that divides SKC from an experienced Houston side, one that has become Kansas City’s bogey team by dumping them out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. It's a single facet of the game but the gap is a veritable chasm for SKC, leaving one to wonder how much difference a healthy Teal Bunbury or a fit Bobby Convey might have made.
On the flip side, Houston's ability to fix whatever is ailing them at precisely the moment when the playoffs start remains borderline astonishing. Houston's success -- not only the past two years, but in the early days of the Dynamo as well -- is to the point where you bet against manager Dominic Kinnear at your peril. After looking suspect defensively during the latter parts of the season, his side has tightened up in the back and with Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis playing well in support of striker Will Bruin, a shot at capturing the MLS Cup that eluded them last year is well within touching distance.