Thursday's second-leg encounter between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls wasn't the first time that Bizarro World met the MLS playoffs. In fact, such visits are practically an annual occurrence. But United's unfathomable 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls, one that gave D.C. a 2-1 aggregate victory, will no doubt go down as one of the most memorable in the league's history.
It was an Eastern Conference semifinal series that had everything, including a Hurricane Sandy-induced venue reversal that cost DCU home-field advantage, and another weather-related postponement in the second leg.
There were two own goals, two missed penalty kicks and three red cards in the series. Adding to the silliness was United goalkeeper Bill Hamid -- who was shown a straight red card in the 69th minute for upending New York forward Kenny Cooper -- taking to Twitter before the game was even over to protest his ejection and have a go at NBC soccer analyst Kyle Martino.
Great leap.. GREAT LEAP.. He jumped right over me.. Hey Kyle martini please please please see your optometrist tmrw.. (@BillHamid28)
(Hamid later apologized to Martino for the tweet.)
In fact, each team did enough to lose this series half a dozen times over. Yet it is United, thanks to rookie Nick De Leon's 88th minute winner, that will advance, a just reward for the fans who twice made the trek from the nation's capital.
Meanwhile, recriminations will be showered on the Red Bulls, as they should. This is a series that will take a while for New York to live down, which is saying something, given the organization's hyper-tortured history. This is especially true for the team's Designated Players, Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez. It was Henry and Cahill, along with veteran Joel Lindpere, who were found guilty of encroaching on Cooper's 73rd-minute penalty, one that for all the world looked like a game-winner. Forced to take the spot kick again, Cooper's attempt was subsequently saved by substitute keeper Joe Willis.
No doubt the Red Bulls will howl in protest over the decision of referee Mark Geiger to order the penalty retaken, with the argument being that the presence of the New York players didn't affect the outcome. But the rules are clear and given what was at stake, it qualifies as rank stupidity to venture nearly 6 yards into the penalty area before a spot kick is taken, thus putting the team at the mercy of Geiger's discretion.
And it shouldn't have mattered anyway. Given that roughly 15 minutes remained -- plus 30 minutes of possible overtime -- New York, a man up, was still in the driver's seat. But Marquez managed to squander that advantage in the 75th minute when he was given his second yellow card of the match for a poorly timed challenge on Chris Pontius. In fact, Marquez' initial caution for an elbow to the head of Pontius is one that on another day might have earned him a straight red. It amounts to another entry in Marquez's lengthy rap sheet, and only cements his status as one of the worst Designated Player signings in MLS history.
So it was little surprise then to see De Leon grab the winner two minutes from full time, one that owed itself to some composed approach work from right back Robbie Russell. That in itself is another fascinating subplot. Russell was only playing due to the suspension of nominal right back Andy Najar, and it was thought that the loss of Najar's attacking capabilities would be a huge loss. But Russell, a savvy veteran with a championship ring from his days with Real Salt Lake, collected a cross-field pass, cut inside of New York defender Heath Pearce and slipped a clever through-ball in for De Leon to coolly deposit into the net.
There was one twist left in the tale, however. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, New York was awarded a free kick from 22 yards out. It was a moment made for Henry if there ever was one. Instead, he let journeyman defender Roy Miller -- whose own goal in the first leg was one of many gifts offered to DCU -- take the free kick, and he duly skied his attempt well over the bar.
"Well, it's a left-footed play," Henry said through a team spokesman. "The angle is different for me on that side. We talked about it or so with Roy and we wanted to surprise the goalkeeper, make him think that I was going to take it and then Roy take it. Also on that side, it's better for a left-footed player to take it. It didn't work, but the game did not come down to the free kick at the end of the game. If you analyze the game well, we should have scored several times before that."
Perhaps, but the difference in ability between the two players is huge. And the image of Henry with his head down remains a stunner, crystallizing New York's ineptitude in the series. The Red Bulls' biggest edge over United was supposed to be their experience. Yet New York's stars committed gaffe upon gaffe and fell pitifully short of the performance levels that one would expect, given their hefty salaries.
D.C. United made plenty of mistakes as well. Hamid's Jekyll-and-Hyde performances in the series would have tested the resolve of even the most battle-tested side. Yet their collective body language suggested a greater ability to fight through those moments, one borne of being forced to play without reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario for almost two months.
Young players like Perry Kitchen, Pontius and De Leon also have grown immensely during the course of the season, displaying a hunger that is perfectly in alignment with manager Ben Olsen, who continues to add to his growing reputation as one of the league's up-and-coming managers. A conference final matchup with Houston awaits, and it's clear that Olsen will have his side ready, regardless of the obstacles.
"They dominated big portions of the game," Olsen said through a spokesman. "But we hung in there ... we bailed another guy out, we bailed Bill (Hamid) out and that has been the M.O. of this team. They continue to do that, when the chips are down there is a certain spirit about them. It has nothing to do with me, these guys have just come together by themselves... They gelled and they believed and sometimes belief is enough."
Meanwhile, his opposite number, lame duck coach Hans Backe, likely has managed his last game with New York. Given how badly he was let down by some of his most experienced players, he probably won't be sad to leave his own version of Bizarro World.
Seattle slays its playoff dragon at last
For a team that is only in its fourth year of MLS existence, the Seattle Sounders have endured more than their share of playoff heartbreak. Heading into this postseason, Seattle had yet to win a playoff series and had won just one game in the MLS postseason. Yet on a blustery night in Sandy, Utah, the Sounders finally achieved a long-awaited breakthrough, beating Real Salt Lake 1-0 and on aggregate thanks to a sumptuous strike by Mario Martinez.
"We knew that it was going to be a tough, hard game," Seattle manager Sigi Schmid said. "We knew that they were going to come at us but I felt that we did a good job of not giving up too many big things on goal and not giving up too many clean chances ... I liked the way we battled. Everyone put everything forward."
Given the imperious nature of each team's defense -- not to mention the continued stellar goalkeeping of Seattle's Michael Gspurning and RSL's Nick Rimando -- it was always going to take a goal of special magnificence to break the deadlock. But Martinez's 81st-minute tally was just that, as he first-timed Fredy Montero's delicate chip and produced a searing drive that snuck just inside Rimando's left-hand post.
It was a precious moment for the Honduran international in more ways than one. Martinez had arrived in Seattle highly regarded, yet he had found playing time scarce and had yet to score. Just last month, Martinez tweeted his displeasure at his lack of minutes, but Schmid had a clear-the-air discussion with the midfielder. With Mauro Rosales unable to play in the second leg, it was left to Martinez to provide the crucial play. Afterward, Schmid's gratitude was evident as he grabbed Martinez and put him in a bear hug.
"I was a little frustrated with the idea that I wouldn't get the chance to play but we can't think about that in a game like this," Martinez said through a spokesman. "We have to focus on the opportunities that we have."
Prior to Martinez's heroics, it looked like another night where Seattle seemed set to be thwarted by more heroics from Rimando. The RSL keeper touched a 30th-minute free kick from Martinez onto the crossbar, then absolutely stoned Brad Evans just seconds into the second half, parrying away his blast from the top of the box.
Yet Seattle's defense was just as effective. Gspurning was actually the busier of the two keepers, and provided a steady supply of punches and catches to keep Real Salt Lake off the scoreboard. The understated but highly effective pairing of Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was also immense in shackling the frontline tandem of Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, a performance that should serve them well ahead of Sunday's conference final first leg against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
For RSL, manager Jason Kreis will be left to wonder where the goals went as his side was shut out in its last five competitive matches. Without question, a hamstring injury to Espindola didn't help, but it also looks like midfielder Javier Morales isn't quite the difference-maker that he was two years ago prior to his horrific ankle injury, while the likes of Paulo Junior still appear to be unable to make up for the drop-off in production. In short, it seems that the team remains far too reliant on Saborio to provide goals.
"Maybe a few decisions were wrong in the final third about where the ball needed to go and when it needed to go," Kreis said. "I think it's the typical stance that most people would take is that it falls on the forwards, but not for me, no, it falls on everybody to create good goal-scoring chances and to take goal-scoring chances."
So will this RSL side be broken up at last? Kreis would only say, "We'll see." It's not the style of Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey to make drastic changes all at once, although Morales' contract is up this year.
In the meantime, Seattle can look forward to a conference final tilt with the Galaxy, minus the mounting pressure that has come with each of its playoff failures. With one dragon slain, the Sounders look very capable of a repeat performance.