The MLS play-offs got under way last weekend and the old adage that the play-offs are a different and new season holds true, based on the outcomes so far. Teams that did well in the regular season aren’t guaranteed continued success in the ‘new season’ and this was evident. Conversely, teams that struggle to get into the play-offs realize their new lease on life and seem to come into their own and develop a positive momentum, which is clear in the case of the Houston Dynamo.
Houston embodies the play-off adage. The Dynamo, which backed into the play-offs when it managed to capture the last and fifth-place berth in the Eastern Conference, seems to be peaking in this new season and playing its best soccer now. It had to travel to fourth-place Chicago, which had one of its best seasons since its early years from 1996-2000 and was in second place in the East throughout most of the season, but the Dynamo stopped the favorites at home with a 1-0 victory a week ago last Thursday.
Houston rode the victory wave back home and regrouped for the home-and-away Eastern Conference semifinal series against another highly favored team in Conference champion Sporting Kansas City, which sat atop the Conference throughout the season. Houston was a bad host to Sporting when it ran out 2-0 winners against the favorites. The Dynamo, with its new stadium adorned in the team’s orange colors as reflected in the stadium seats and in a host of other team memorabilia, shut down the high-powered Kansas City team. Houston controlled the midfield on its way to a convincing victory in front of a sell-out home crowd.
Adam Moffat’s first-half strike from about 30 yards, and Will Bruin’s second-half tap-in late in the game were the difference. Houston’s post-season momentum, only two games old, is just beginning to rev up and was expected to be still revving when the orange-clad machine arrived in Kansas City last Wednesday for the return match. The two-game series in the MLS play-offs is won by the teams which score the most goals.
In the other Eastern Conference semifinal, second-place DC United had the opportunity to set back the New York Red Bulls when it was granted the opportunity to host the first game because of Hurricane Sandy’s damage to Red Bull Arena. The host failed to grab the bull by the horns when forward Chris Pontius missed a first half penalty kick that would have put DC United ahead early in the game; and although an own goal by defender Roy Miller gave DC the lead in the second half, the host failed to expand on it, instead, DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s mistake gave New York a 1-1 tie.
So here again, second-place DC United, who enjoyed its best season since its early years in the late 1990s when it won two MLS Cup, was stymied by the Red Bulls, an inconsistent team in the regular season which bounced around the standings sitting in third, fourth and at times fifth place for most of the year. New York was handed a life line in this new season as it was expected to overcome DC United at home last Wednesday, Nov. 7, in Red Bull Arena.
In the Western Conference, the defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy is in danger of being stripped of the title. The Galaxy’s late surge overcame a 1-0 deficit to emerge 2-1 winners over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Conference one-off, play-in game: an equalizer by Mike Magee and a Landon Donovan winner from the penalty spot did the trick.
In the first leg of the two-game semi-final against Conference leader San Jose Earthquakes, the Galaxy fought hard at home in Home Depot Center, but came up short when Earthquakes defender Victor Bernardez’s 31-yard free kick in stoppage time made the 1-0 difference. Now the Galaxy must travel to San Jose and win by two goals to have a chance to retain its MLS title. The winner meets the winner of the other semifinal winner, either Real Salt Lake or the Seattle Sounders, both of which played to a goalless draw in their first leg semifinal. The Conference championships, with second leg games on the weekend of Nov. 17-18, are also a two-game affair, but MLS Cup, the 2012 championship game on Saturday, Dec. 1, is a one-game contest hosted by the higher seeded team of the two finalists.
Trinidad and Tobago will host Group Six at the Dwight Yorke Stadium in Tobago in the qualifying semifinal round of the 2012 Digicel Caribbean Championship, beginning Wednesday, Nov. 14-18, 2012. Trinidad will play St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the first day, preceded by Cuba versus Suriname. On the second day, Friday, Nov. 16, St. Vincent and the Grenadines takes on Cuba, followed by the host versus Suriname. On the final day, Sunday, Nov. 18, St. Vincent and the Grenadines plays Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago battle against Cuba.
In Group Eight, play will be on the same days in Grenada. On the first day, Haiti plays Guyana followed by Grenada versus French Guyana. On the second day, Haiti goes against French Guyana and Grenada takes on Guyana. On the final day, Sunday, Nov. 18, Guyana plays French Guyana and the host takes on Haiti. Games are scheduled for 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. local time each day.
The top two finishers from each group will qualify for the eight-team Caribbean Cup finals to be held in Antigua and Barbuda in mid-December, 2012. The four teams that already qualified for the finals are hosts Antigua and Barbuda and defending champion Jamaica; from Group Seven, Martinique and the Dominican Republic advanced.