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Colorado ekes out penalty win over Galaxy on back of Gashi wonder strike

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- The Colorado Rapids outlasted the LA Galaxy 3-1 on penalty kicks Sunday to progress to the Western Conference finals. The Rapids claimed the second leg 1-0 thanks to a wonder strike from Shkelzen Gashi, allowing the home side to erase the 1-0 deficit from the first leg.

After extra time finished without a decider, the game went to penalty kicks, and Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard proved to be the hero, saving two Galaxy attempts. Here are three thoughts from the match.

1. Rapids use familiar script to eke out win

This match may have looked ugly at times to neutrals, but without question it looked beautiful to Colorado manager Pablo Mastroeni. It was gritty and rugged, and tackles flew all over the place. It also fit the script that Mastroeni has laid out for his side all year: Defend tough, and then let the altitude and some individual brilliance carry the team to victory.

Brilliant probably doesn't due Gashi's goal justice, as the Rapids scored on a tally straight from the soccer gods in the 36th minute. Gashi received the ball in the center of the Galaxy half, and as Marc Burch pleaded with his teammate to push the ball out wide, Gashi opted to shoot from 40 yards. What at first seemed hopeful turned herculean, as his drive caromed off keeper Brian Rowe's right-hand post and in.

Of course, the soccer gods proved fickle indeed, as Gashi rolled his right ankle just before halftime and had to be subbed. But the Rapids at least had the goal they needed and could begin dictating the game's tactics a bit more.

Colorado RapidsColorado Rapids
LA GalaxyLA Galaxy
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Leg 2Aggregate: 1 - 1Colorado Rapids wins 3-1 on Penalty Kicks.
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From there on out, the game was played mostly on Colorado's terms, and if Rapids striker Dominique Badji had been a bit more clinical in front of goal, the semifinal might have been decided after just 90 minutes. Colorado also benefited from the presence of Jermaine Jones. The U.S. international made his first start since injuring his right knee on July 4, and he provided immense energy in the Rapids' midfield, just as he did in a substitute's role in the first leg. But Jones' lack of fitness eventually showed, and he had to be subbed out after 82 eventful minutes.

The Rapids lost their way for a bit after his departure, but regrouped and created the game's better chances.

In the shootout, Howard was worth every penny of his designated-player contract while his teammates proved to be cold-blooded with their attempts. Kevin Doyle, Sebastien Le Toux and Marco Pappa all converted for Colorado. Giovani dos Santos missed the Galaxy's second attempt, and Howard then saved attempts from Ashley Cole and Jeff Larentowicz, setting off wild celebrations at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

2. LA's attack falls flat

Once Colorado equalized, the match became a battle of attrition. Fouls and tackles occurred with regularity, which suited the hosts just fine. LA, meanwhile, struggled to get much of anything going in terms of creating chances. Dos Santos was barely heard from, and the central duo of Baggio Husidic and Sebastian Lletget, while enjoying some decent spells of possession, couldn't pry open Colorado's defense.

The Galaxy weren't helped by a couple of key injuries. When coach Bruce Arena announced his starting XI for the second leg, there was a glaring omission. Emmanuel Boateng, the man whose speed the Galaxy counted on to stretch opposition defenses, was out of the lineup due to a hamstring injury he sustained in midweek during training. He was replaced by Mike Magee.

That wasn't the end of LA's injury woes, either. Landon Donovan, who has for the most part been excellent since coming out of retirement, was forced off at halftime due to what was only described as muscle tightness. He was replaced by Larentowicz, with Husidic moving wide.

Shkelzen Gashi
Shkelzen Gashi, right, scored the lone goal from open play with a sensational strike from nearly 40 yards out.

The two injuries made for an odd alignment and severely reduced the Galaxy's ability to strike quickly in transition. Not even the introduction of Robbie Keane on the hour, or Steven Gerrard with 15 minutes to go in normal time, did much to tilt the game in LA's direction.

LA battled to the end, and its defense, led by Jelle van Damme, played heroically. But an outstanding Colorado defense proved too much for LA's aging -- and injured -- attack.

3. While Colorado looks ahead, is it the end of an era in LA?

When Arena made personnel moves in midseason, in many ways it resembled a last-ditch attempt to win another MLS Cup. Arena opted to bring in more veterans on top of those already within the squad. Acquisitions like Van Damme and Cole performed well, but Keane and Gerrard didn't produce in a manner consistent with their hefty salaries and often left Arena boxed into a tactical corner.

Now it seems clear that there will be considerable turnover. Gerrard is widely expected to return to England. Keane's status is very much up in the air. At minimum it looks like he is not the lock to be a starter that he once was.

Of course, the biggest question of all surrounds Arena himself. His contract expires at the end of the year, and he has largely been mum about his future prospects. If he does decide to call it a day, the Galaxy will have a very different vibe -- and look -- when they take the field next season.

Meanwhile, Colorado has a pair of Western Conference final games to look forward to. There has been a sense all season that it was only a matter of time until the rest of MLS figured out the Rapids and broke the spell they have cast on the rest of the league. But so far, Mastroeni's side has continued to weave its magic, and a team that looks built for playoff soccer is well-positioned to take the next step.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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