Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from four weekend playoff matches:
1. The Red Bull mirage: Home teams had a tough time in the MLS conference semifinal round, with just one win among the foursome. Real Salt Lake's surprisingly easy takedown of previously high-flying Seattle represented the lone home triumph. But is it all so perplexing?
Colorado's home loss to Sporting Kansas City is no shocker considering an injury occurrence in Denver suggesting displeased spirits have put an actual curse on Gary Smith's team. Philadelphia's conservative tactics early spelled doom at home against in-form Houston.
But the least surprising perhaps (to anyone paying attention) was Los Angeles' 1-0 triumph at New York. If you counted yourself among the brigade who felt the Red Bulls' small sample of recent success was of the smoke and mirror variety, do take a second to congratulate yourself.
Aside from forcing a few saves from surprise starting goalkeeper Josh Saunders, these were the little Bulls seen Sunday -- hardly the big, bad, raging Bulls. Bruce Arena's Galaxy always bide their time, letting the other guy make the mistakes. They win a lot like this, highly effective but rarely looking overwhelming.
That the Red Bulls didn't have it in them to answer shouldn't be a surprise. Hans Backe's team clinched a berth by beating a Philadelphia side struggling for offensive ideas. Then the Red Bulls survived the wild-card round by downing Dallas, a side worn to the nub and a side -- heard this before? -- struggling for offensive ideas.
In the Red Bull quality win department, an Oct. 4 in a victory over Los Angeles has been it lately for New York. Even that one came with an asterisk; Two of the Galaxy's three DPs, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, were missing.
None of the flaws seen through the Red Bull's bummer summer have disappeared, although Luke Rodgers' recent return restored some offensive punch. So does anyone like the Red Bulls, with just two road wins this year (in 17 chances) to overcome a Galaxy team without a loss all year at the Home Depot Center?
2. Rafa Marquez just can't stop making news: Red Bulls' polarizing midfielder Rafa Marquez may have done his club a truly wonderful service; he handed the Red Bulls an opportunity to save them from themselves.
Marquez went all WWE after the Red Bulls loss, earning the rare (and always ridiculous) postgame red card. Marquez instigated the donnybrook by throwing the ball at Landon Donovan. (Nice arm, Rafa! But didn't you recently call some of teammate Tim Ream's decisions "infantile?")
Marquez now takes a key decision out of Hans Backe's hands; the coach must use someone else as Teemu Tainio's central midfield partner, probably Dax McCarty. But this is exactly what so many wanted Backe to do long ago with the league's third-highest earner: stick him on the bench and tell him to keep quiet.
If they do miss Marquez's technical craft, McCarty (or anyone else, really) can make up with the added effort that Marquez, 32, now seems incapable of generating. Any remaining Red Bulls playoff chances will hinge on grit and spit, on a higher level of commitment in terms of tracking, tackling, repositioning for second balls, etc.
Plus, the postgame scrum at Red Bull Arena claimed two victims. The Galaxy's Juninho, Beckham's season-long, highly capable central midfield partner, also saw red. Marquez for Juninho? That's not an exchange the Galaxy would prefer. Meanwhile, in their private moments, you have to wonder how many Red Bulls secretly believe their chances in this series just improved?
3. Playoff curse for the Sounders?: As for the result out of Utah (the outcome wasn't crazy surprising, but the size of Seattle's 3-0 hole is), let's consider a few points before penning any rough drafts of the Sounders' 2011 obituary:
Sigi Schmid's team has ample offensive armament for its rally quest Wednesday in Seattle. It won't be easy; no team has faced such a deficit during 32 home-and-away aggregate goals series in MLS postseason history. Still, this RSL center back situation certainly must be disconcerting, with both starters now questionable. If Seattle grabs an early goal, another massive crowd at CenturyLink will make downtown Seattle a miserable place for the visitors.
Plus, Seattle's isn't even the most dire of current second leg situations. Just ask the Colorado Rapids.
All that said, talk of a playoff curse is gathering steam in Seattle. For everything accomplished so far in U.S. Open Cup competition and in CONCACAF Champions League, the young Sounders franchise has yet to claim an MLS playoff series, now 0-4-1 in postseason matches. They fell immediately to Houston in 2009 and to Los Angeles last year.
In more cogent analysis, you'd remember that Real Salt Lake, with its first choice starting 11 available for the first time since May, remains a premium MLS side. RSL's midfield outworked and outthought Seattle's, plain and simple. Plus, Seattle's racehorse of an attack is attached to a slightly lesser beast along the back line.
Finally, Schmid's choices on Saturday night must be questioned: Rather than go into "shut down" mode when down 2-0, the Sounders pressed to make up the deficit, probably emboldened by RSL's deteriorating center back situation. It backfired as Ned Grabavoy supplied the 88th minute, third strike for RSL.
4. Keep calm, carry on: Marquez wasn't the only bad boy of the first round. Colorado's Tyrone Marshall was sent off (a bit harshly) against Sporting Kansas City.
Meanwhile, invaluable Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso may have seen red on another day for putting his hands on Alvaro Saborio's neck and pushing him to the ground. It's only due to referee Mark Geiger's leniency or lack of courage that now sees Alonso available for the return leg. He wasn't the only Sounder losing control as things unraveled at Rio Tinto,
Temperatures also went into the red zone in away-from-the-ball incidents in Philadelphia and Colorado. For instance, Kansas City's Kei Kamara and Colorado's Matt Pickens were lucky to escape bookings for their completely useless little dust-up early at DSG Park. Houston's Adam Moffat is now dragging a yellow card into the return leg for a retaliatory swipe.
Thierry Henry and Co. did enough to elicit this postgame haymaker from Landon Donovan: "In all my years in this league, I have not played against a cheaper team. And they've been doing it all year."
So here's the thing: MLS refereeing may be a perennial whipping boy, but much of the stuff we saw over the weekend is the players' fault. Keeping your playoff cool is part of the deal.
A year ago, a pair of bookings (including one for a hands-on-face incident) left Javier Morales unavailable for his team's playoff Waterloo. But it looks like plenty of MLS aren't concerning themselves with these little details of history.
5. Center backs prevailing: Brad Davis, David Beckham, Alvaro Saborio and other stars did shine. But peel back an analytical layer and know this: those big boys in the back, the less acclaimed center backs, were often the difference.
Real Salt Lake has a mountain-sized problem after both starting center backs limped off Saturday. But for their time on the field, Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers were immense. Olave manhandled young Seattle striker Sammy Ochoa before departing after 32 minutes. Young Chris Schuler may not have been as dominant, but he held his own. Meanwhile, Nat Borchers was unimpeachable before his late, injury-related exit. Protected by Kyle Beckerman in front, they helped hold Seattle to zero shots on target.
Houston Dynamo center backs Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron were big, brave and sure in the late moments as Philadelphia woke up and pressed the game, finally getting enough bodies forward to ask some questions of the visitors' defense. (Behind them, goalkeeper Tally Hall had another nice match in a season full of them.)
And what more can you say about the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez, who had another strong match for Los Angeles? Presumably, Jurgen Klinsmann is watching.
Alongside Gonzalez, something really needs to be said about A.J. DeLaGarza and his rarely recognized contributions at the Home Depot Center. He's played right back, left back, center back and in the midfield for Bruce Arena and never looks out of place. DeLaGarza once again looked like a cop on the beat over 90 highly professional minutes at center back Sunday in New York. There are flaws in his game, to be sure, but who wouldn't want a guy like that around?