Major League Soccer's conference finals will lean heavily toward the West, as three of the four teams still alive are from the left side of the league map. Here are five things to know following Sunday's conclusion of the playoffs' first round:
1. Donovan, Donovan ... and more Donovan: When it comes to domestic soccer, it really does seem to be Landon Donovan's world. The rest of us are just hoping to score box seats at his next awards ceremony.
Donovan has done all that can be done in domestic soccer. Two or three or six times in most cases. And he's still doing it.
On Sunday, he was the greatest influence as the Galaxy squeezed past Chivas USA, helping to ensure David Beckham's continued playoff presence -- for those still concerned with such things.
|MLS Cup playoffs
Houston vs. L.A.
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
RSL vs. Chicago
Toyota Park Stadium, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET
Beckham was a larger figure Sunday than in last week's error-blighted, 2-2 opening leg of the "Hallway Series" against Chivas USA. But it was always Donovan who seemed to have the answer in Sunday's second leg as he zipped around energetically, always looking for Beckham's next pinpoint pass. Donovan and Beckham combined to help arrange the game's 73rd-minute penalty kick. Then, from the spot, Donovan got the best of goalkeeper Zach Thornton so Bruce Arena's reclamation project can live for another day.
Can the Galaxy win one more and feature Nov. 22 in Seattle at the MLS Cup? The Houston Dynamo will have something to say about that after tying off the Seattle Sounders' wondrous expansion-year story. Houston will travel Friday to Los Angeles, where it narrowly lost 1-0 to the Galaxy in June.
Donovan will have something to say about it, too. His 16th career playoff goal Sunday matched Carlos Ruiz for the most in MLS history. It came a couple of weeks after Donovan collected his record sixth Honda Player of the Year honor, which came after he helped steer the United States into another World Cup. If Donovan adds an MLS Cup trophy in a couple of weeks, he will be adding it to the three he already has.
2. A quick look ahead:
The Galaxy will have their hands full Friday. Houston striker Dominic Oduro has poor instincts and average finishing skills. But he is as fast as a nasty rumor and might have had his best day yet as a Houston Dynamo on Sunday against Seattle. Oduro didn't score, but he sure caused a ruckus. Meanwhile, Brian Ching's holdup play was as superb as his opportunistic goal in the 1-0 win.
The Galaxy midfield -- old, slow and getting slower -- will be especially pressed if Stefani Miglioranzi can't recover from a groin injury. The Galaxy's average age along the midfield Sunday was 31. (Miglioranzi is in his 30s, too, but he plays the holding role more efficiently than Dema Kovalenko does, sitting back and protecting the space more diligently so Beckham is more free to create.)
The other conference final features two managers who might suddenly feel a little more secure. Questions were being asked about whether Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis had taken his side as far as he could, having cleaned up a mess and gotten things going in the right direction. But the team rallied late to secure a playoff spot and then bravely stood up to the league's Supporters' Shield winner to claim a huge first-round upset against Columbus.
Chicago's Denis Hamlett was 1-2-1 in playoff matches before Saturday's 2-0 win over New England, which was enough to claim that aggregate-goals series.
So the RSL-Chicago conference final features a team that was terrible on the road (RSL) traveling to face a team that was oddly ineffective at home all season (Chicago). Of course, RSL won on the road in the playoffs, and Chicago came up aces at home Saturday. So all that seems pretty clear, eh?
3. Proper stadiums rule: Best thing about the weekend's results from a soccer purist's standpoint is that both conference finals will take place inside proper soccer stadiums. Last season was the first time it happened (Rio Tinto and Crew Stadium), and now we'll see it for a second consecutive season; the Eastern and Western finals will unfold at Toyota Park and the Home Depot Center, respectively.
Going into the weekend, the two possible sites in the East were Chicago and New England. So, in all honesty, a final at Toyota Park should be superior to one at Gillette Stadium in atmosphere and presentation and so many ways that can't possibly be counted.
The scene was absolutely brilliant Saturday night in Bridgeview, where a sellout crowd rocked Toyota Park. The club's passionate supporters splashed a cool fall night with a big-game feel. Flags, flares, scarves, chants and stands awash in red provided steady energy. It's the kind of scene that should provide the backdrop for every MLS playoff game.
4. The drag of CONCACAF Champions League: You wonder whether MLS clubs will begin dogging their way through CONCACAF Champions League. Even when you "win" in that tournament, you still lose. Or that's the way it appears, as evidence mounts of a heavy-legged connection between Champions League success and MLS playoff collapse.
Houston was the only MLS side to advance out of group play last year -- and it fell quickly in the MLS playoffs. Ditto this year for Columbus on both accounts. And for two years in a row, the travel and extra wear of matches contributed to D.C. United's late-season swoon.
5. Examinations ahead for the fallen: Let the recriminations begin at New England, Columbus and Chivas USA in 3, 2, 1 ...
Revolution manager Steve Nicol squeezed pretty much everything he could from that side. So now -- stop us if you've heard this before -- perhaps it's time for ownership to send the Revs' managers out with a little more than a poor man's budget.
Jay Heaps was outstanding for most of the season, but he did fade at the end, having had a terrible time against Chicago's Marco Pappa. The Revs need extra cover so his minutes can be better managed. Elsewhere, the Revs need another center back, more wing presence and a top-quality striker.
Similarly, in Columbus, veteran Frankie Hejduk came apart at the worst possible time, spilling killer mistakes all around the two-leg series. Danny O'Rourke, who had turned into a reliable center back, was back in the center of the park for the playoffs, alongside Brian Carroll. That surely was just a stopgap, and it will need to be addressed. And what to do with Robbie Rogers? That young man needs to be careful not to slip into the Justin Mapp zone, where enormous potential just fades into a cloud of insufficient production.
Alejandro Moreno's interminable flopping -- he really is the league's worst at gaming the game -- finally bit him as some of Baldomero Toledo's calls Thursday were understandably weighed against Moreno's well-earned reputation. So, that's something to be examined around Crew Stadium. Of course, the big decision will be made jointly with Guillermo Barros Schelotto -- another year for the 2008 MVP?
Meanwhile, you have to wonder whether we just saw Preki's last match at Chivas USA. (Ugly postgame antics from the Chivas USA coaching staff? Again? Sigh ... ) Again, we see that Chivas USA can grind its way into the playoffs. But again, the talent just isn't there to prevail in a postseason series. Just being physical isn't enough in the playoffs, as Chivas USA still has yet to claim a postseason series.
Seattle? Yeah, the Sounders need improvement here and there, for sure. But an expansion team that makes the playoffs and stretches Houston into a 30-minute extra time is one that's clearly headed in the right direction.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.