Know your MLS -- Five things we learned from the opening legs of the MLS playoff series:
1. L.A. Galaxy looks up for the job -- Maybe Bruce Arena's L.A. Galaxy have been playing possum. Or maybe his men were just bored over the last couple of months, having built such a cushy margin early in the season.
For whatever reason, wobbly form recently had everyone questioning whether Arena's side was up for the job in the playoffs.
Well, no more. Los Angeles deserved its 1-0 win Sunday at Seattle's combustible Qwest Field, where a couple of the home team's key attackers never released the hand brake. We are looking at you, Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani.
Montero got near the ball at least, although he did little with it once again in a season that, apparently, was drained of life about two months ago. More from Montero probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. Los Angeles just looked like a side more prepared for the big occasion. The Galaxy looked like prize fighters ready to brawl -- and they started hitting while the Sounders still had their robes on.
The Galaxy were willing to take the big shot (a la Edson Buddle's beauty from 35 yards). They were quicker and more aggressive into the challenge. They were faster to get the second or third defender around the ball. They were more committed overall to the elements of defending. And they were smarter about how to work referee Ricardo Salazar.
It wasn't just the grinders, either. David Beckham and, especially, Landon Donovan were never shy about applying the gritty work. On the sidelines, Arena's choice of A.J. DeLaGarza as Omar Gonzalez's central partner in defense proved spot-on; the versatile sophomore defender had a great night.
In short, L.A. was the better team, even if it was a disheveled ragamuffin of a match. "Pretty classic playoff game where you go on the road and defend and try to get out of here," Arena said.
Since MLS adopted the current playoff format in 2003, the home team has lost an opener just five times -- and come back to claim the series just once.
2. The champs might be in trouble -- Whereas Buddle's fantastic moment helped turn the Seattle-L.A. series, one bad moment could have turned the Real Salt Lake-FC Dallas series.
The defending champs carry a 2-1 deficit back to Rio Tinto, where FC Dallas needs only a tie to secure the first-round upset. Of course, that's hardly a piece of cake considering RSL's 11-0-4 record and plus-24 goals against average at home.
Coach Jason Kreis' team must cope with the loss of Javier Morales, whose high kick drew a second yellow and ended his participation in this series.
Dallas would soon be playing with 10 as well as Atiba Harris drew red for doing something that happens 10 times in every MLS match; referee Kevin Stott might have done well to consult a nearby assistant referee rather than reacting as he did. Stott almost had the red in his hand before Will Johnson, the other body involved in the collision near the team benches, hit the ground.
As for Morales, the yellow card in question wasn't his high boot that rattled Dax McCarthy's teeth. That's a dangerous action and Stott was correct to show a second yellow. But what about the needless first? Morales and Dallas captain Daniel Hernandez engaged in some boyish high jinks, giving each other a little slap. It may have been just a misdemeanor, but it's a cautionable offense. It underscores why, in a playoff game, team leaders simply cannot react in such a way. The threat of a series-turning second yellow is always out there.
It all served to open up the field, and when Dallas' David Ferreira held off three big challenges near midfield, he helped arrange Eric Avila's tremendous, late game-winner.
A Dallas side that went into Saturday's contest in a world of injury hurt now has hope and belief. (The injury situation will improve only slightly. Heath Pearce's hamstring injury will keep him out of the playoffs unless the Red Stripes reach the MLS Cup, coach Schellas Hyndman told me late Saturday. Even then, there's only a chance he could play.)
But goalkeeper Kevin Hartman and Hernandez, both just off the shelf, do get another week to heal. Meanwhile, highly effective RSL target man Alvaro Saborio, a top candidate for league Newcomer of the Year, is dealing with an ongoing knee ailment. He left the field in obvious distress Saturday and if he can't play in Utah, that removes RSL's two top offensive threats.
"Now all the pressure is on them," Hernandez said. "We're not going to go in there looking for a tie. We're going in looking for a win."
3. The champs are in trouble ... aren't they? -- Real Salt Lake has dealt without Morales before. Don't forget that Kreis' team coped quite well without its playmaker for more than 100 minutes in last year's MLS Cup final, a penalty kick tiebreaker win over Los Angeles.
And here's a dirty little secret whispered around Rio Tinto: Morales hasn't been particularly good lately. Just like some other playmakers around the league, the long season seems to have caught up Real Salt Lake's top assist man.
Montero is in the same boat, without a goal and with just one assist for the last nine MLS matches for Seattle. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has been similarly muted lately for Columbus. But removing such influential players is tough stuff for managers.
Back to RSL: Andy Williams will probably man the top of its midfield diamond. He started on the outside Saturday (opposite Ned Grabavoy on the other side) as RSL preferred to use Will Johnson, who was nursing a sore hamstring, as only a sub. Johnson said afterward he could have started and should be fine for 90 minutes this weekend. So, he feels OK about Saturday's return leg. So does Kreis, even if his team was just 2-2-1 in the five league matches Morales didn't start this year.
"We believe in this group and what we've built here, and we don't believe next week will be any different," Kreis said. "This team over the last two year, two or three years, has been put into an incredibly big number of difficult situations. I don't think this is any different."
4. Keeping tabs on Wonder Wondo -- We know now that Chris Wondolowski can't do it all. MLS' outta-nowhere Golden Boot winner came close a couple of times in Saturday's 1-0 loss to New York, but he couldn't slip away from Red Bulls center backs Carlos Mendes and Tim Ream for much more than a pair of desperation pokes.
He could still play a vital role as the total-goal series moves to Red Bull Arena this week. And make no mistake, San Jose has a chance because it is a good road side, having earned 22 points on the road and 24 at home this season.
"I had three good chances in the box, and I didn't put any of them on frame," Wondolowski said afterward. "So that's not good, that's not good enough, especially in the playoffs."
While the league's scoring champ bravely took responsibility, there is something else to consider: You could also make the argument that what Wondolowski couldn't do Saturday was save San Jose from itself.
Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop had a plan to attack the Red Bulls. He wanted lots of direct play with lots of crosses. Nothing terribly unusual there -- except he rearranged the team to apply what he hoped would be maximum pressure. Yallop pulled Geovanni out of his usual slot beneath striker Ryan Johnson, moving the Brazilian attacker on the right side of the 4-4-2 instead. That moved Wondolowski out of that right-sided spot, where he has been so hard for defenders to track lately during his goal-scoring barrage.
As tactical gambits go, it wasn't exactly dropping Schelotto from the lineup in the playoff opener, as Columbus coach Robert Warzycha did last year. Still, the Earthquakes' adjustment didn't really work. Yallop and others around Buck Shaw seemed to feel OK about the night, insisting they got off crosses and that crosses will lead to opportunities and that sooner or later crosses and opportunities will reap scoreboard rewards. Well, OK. But they didn't. And now the Earthquakes are in a pickle.
Getting shut out at home to open a home-and-away series just isn't good enough. And if Jon Busch had been less outstanding in San Jose's goal, the Red Bulls could be returning home with a two- or three-goal margin.
5. Men of the moment -- While a few figures shrank in the opening legs, a few rose majestically.
Red Bulls midfielder Joel Lindpere reminded everyone once again that while Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry have been the splashy new additions, adding the Estonian's bob-to-box presence has been coach Hans Backe's true personnel master stroke this year.
Lindpere had been mostly working the wide channels since Marquez came aboard, applying his industry on the left. Lately, Backe has adjudged that Tony Tchani, for all his rookie impressiveness, just wasn't applying enough bite alongside Marquez. So Lindpere has been used centrally, and his presence there Saturday (with Mehdi Ballouchy on the left, but with permission to come inside to create) helped to tilt the series in New York's direction. It wasn't just Lindpere's well-taken goal; it was everything around it.
Everyone along the Red Bulls' back line found ways to elevate their game, while no one in a San Jose kit outside of Busch appeared to do the same.
Colorado's Brian Mullan was a man on a mission Thursday as the Rapids took a 1-0 lead against Columbus. We all hear a lot about Rapids strikers Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, but Mullan's work rate set the standard. He did the same for Houston last year, saving something extra for the postseason.
"It's the way I try to play every game, just give my all," he told the Denver Post. "I think the team inspired me. Everyone was working so hard. You have a team working for each other like that and it inspires everybody, raises everybody's game."