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American Column: Newly added away goals rules, play-offs take shape & more

A brand new feature on this website is the introduction of weekly & fortnightly columns focusing on various leagues, countries and regions across the World. James Bufton documents the latest talking points in American soccer.

 New England Rev

Individual brilliance guides New England to victory over Columbus

Columbus and New England headed into their semi-final first leg brimming with confidence, both losing only once since August in ties against each other. Much of the discussion before the game forecast a close match-up between the second and third placed Eastern Conference outfits, however the electric Revs made sure that prophecy did not eventuate on Saturday, running out emphatic 4-2 victors on a typically overcast afternoon in Ohio. The Crew’s performance reflected the melancholy conditions somewhat, their impressive surge up the standings appeared light years away as the fantastic energy to Gregg Berhalter’s team was nowhere to be seen.

Spectators were treated to an exhibition in individual pieces of genius though, from Chris Tierney’s sublime free-kick effort to Federico Higuaín’s casually crucial penalty, there was an abundance of delightful, easy on the eye moments to applaud. Nonetheless, other than the audacity on show, the home fans had very little to cheer about, and were tormented all day by the perilous work-rate of a certain resurgent front-man.

Observers have attached so much praise to the Revolution’s success this season in large part because of how head coach Jay Heaps has coped without an outstanding goalscorer leading the line, however no such claim could be made after Charlie Davies’ performance this weekend. It was the 28-year-old’s 34th minute opener, ghosting through the uninspiring Crew to meet Kelyn Rowe’s beautifully delivered free-kick, which instigated the rout and his second of the day which truly sentenced the hosts to disappointment, guiding his long range effort into the back of the net as if without effort.

Lee Nguyen was put under immense pressure to save his side on countless occasions in the regular season, and he certainly delivered with nine game-winning goals, however that sort of responsibility can be regarded as detrimental in the playoffs and Davies’ form is a huge incentive for encouragement where New England are concerned. Berhalter will have to pay meticulous attention to detail to the Manchester, New Hampshire native if Columbus are to have any chance of rectifying their home defeat, but right now even that might not suffice.

RSL & LA play out entertaining stalemate

Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy contested one of the more memorable clashes of last year’s postseason – Jason Kreis’ men ending the hopes of a three-peat in Los Angeles – at the same stage as they meet each other this term, and the hotly anticipated rematch failed to disappoint. The conditions were hardly favourable for either side to gain impetus, simple passes over hit by Mother Nature, and we weren’t treated to a single goal, yet the dynamic for the second leg at the StubHub Center couldn’t be more fascinating.

Jaime Penedo stole the post-match headlines for his display on the road, denying every effort directed towards his goal, and engaged in a particularly interesting battle with RSL creative maestro Javier Morales, who came painfully close to breaking the deadlock from a corner, free-kick and a late lofted effort. It was very impressive how the first year MLS shot-stopper responded to his humiliating mistake at CenturyLink Field, wherein Marco Pappa picked his pocket to net Seattle’s second, and it would be fair to suggest that he made amends at Rio Tinto Stadium. Álvaro Saborio and Joao Plata will need to travel with their shooting boots and perhaps some better fortune if they are to enjoy any success against the very much in form Panamanian.

Major League Soccer’s introduction of the away goals rule only adds to the tension building up ahead of the second leg and with a scored draw enough to ensure progression for RSL, Landon Donovan’s final match may arrive sooner than initially expected. LA were unable to beat Nick Rimando on the night, but, worse than that, were unable to reciprocate anywhere near the same rhythm as their opposition in and around the attacking third.

Robbie Keane didn’t play as if he was at full capacity with regards to fitness, Gyasi Zardes lacked the sustained impact necessary to frustrate Nat Borchers and Matt Schuler, though was unlucky to have a seemingly valid opener ruled out by the assistant official’s flag, and Donovan couldn’t produce his best outing himself. It should be a different story at home, but without the most active help from the middle of the park in transition, the attacking trident have to improve if Landon is to head out in a blaze of glory rather than the anticlimactic disappointment of defeat at the first hurdle. I would like to make a note of Tony Beltran’s superb showing, Donovan had little room to manoeuvre on the left flank and was denied a breakthrough at every opportunity. Should we witness more of the same from Beltrannext Sunday I’m not sure it’ll be Galaxy and their heroic leader who advance beyond this round.

Theirry Henry & Bradley Wright-Phillips continue to impress with the NYRB

New York Red Bulls have impressed, and surprised, many over the last week, defeating Sporting KC in back-to-back fixtures to set up a meeting with the number one seed in the East, D.C. United. Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry have combined irresistibly throughout the year, however have reached a new level in their partnership with so much at stake and the pair combined to make the difference once again in Harrison, NJ on the weekend.

Henry may be 37 years of age and on the cusp of hanging up his boots, but that didn’t deter him from assisting BWP for the lead in vintage Henry fashion. If you had thought that him receiving a powerfully weighted pass at an awkward angle, surrounded by three black shirts, would spell the end of the danger threatened on Bill Hamid’s goal you would have been sorely mistaken. Instead, Thierry eliminated all three of the defenders on his tail with a sensational back-heeled ball across the area to Wright-Phillips, who duly converted his 30th goal of 2014 at the 40th minute mark. He wasn’t done there though, as he split DCU in half with a perfectly executed lofted pass and found the often incumbent feet of Peguy Luyindula inch perfectly, who subsequently managed to squeeze his effort between Hamid’s legs to double the advantage. Another masterclass from the legendary #14.

Ben Olsen leads the Coach of the Year discussion for good reason, his single season turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable, and it will take more of the same form if D.C. are to stage a comeback at RFK Stadium. It’s a constant theme among the column inches dedicated to this round of action, but the introduction of the away goals rule cannot be overstated and without that strike in the first leg the odds have to be in New York’s favour. It’s going to take something special to rejuvenate his dejected roster and overturn the impetus RBNY gained from their victory, however if there is any manager capable of doing just that it’s definitely Olsen.

All of their hard work to reach this point, improving on their 2013 points tally by 42, will mean for nothing if the team are to bow out of the playoffs after meeting only one opponent. It’s going to be of paramount importance that DCU start strongly as an early goal would alleviate the mammoth task of turning around the 2-0 deficit a great deal. This would inject a sense of newfound positivity to the anxious crow and making the most of the home field advantage gifted – obtained as a reward for their regular season prowess – could have a decisive influence on proceedings.

Sounders avoid defeat and claim invaluable away goal in Frisco

FC Dallas entered the first leg of their Western Conference semi-final covered in controversy, having defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps in the knockout round thanks to a very questionable and highly scrutinised penalty call from the much maligned Mark Geiger. This wasn’t a victory that will go down in the record books as one of tremendous aesthetic value, yet vitally restored the wind in the Hoops’ sales after they fell 2-0 at home to the Portland Timbers and, by any stretch, didn’t offer the most enthusiastic proposition to the Supporters’ Shield holders.

It had started so well for the hosts, Andres Escobar – filing in for the suspended Mauro Diaz – won a first half penalty at the hands of last week’s hero for Seattle, Marco Pappa. There was a lot of doubt surrounding their late spot-kick against Vancouver, but none whatsoever regarding Pappa’s cynically needless challenge. Michel stepped up to dispatch his second goal of the week from twelve yards out and FCD claimed a surprise lead early on, much to the delight of the Toyota Stadium faithful. After making the most of the interval to regroup, Seattle played with better purpose and after winning a free-kick early in the second half equalised when the ‘Honey Badger’, Ossie Alonso, met Pappa’s delivery to steer the ball past a hapless Raul Fernandez. There were no more goals to report thereafter as the teams began to shift the focus to the second leg, which already promises tremendous entertainment value.

Much like the other semi-final in the West it was man between the sticks who preserved the result for the visitors, this time Stefan Frei enjoying his first MLS postseason appearance as he prevented the plethora of dynamic Dallas attackers from adding to their opener from the spot. It was his last gasp stop to deny Fabian Castillo which will be most remembered however, reaching at full stretch to save the tie, evidence of his sustained concentration throughout the ninety minutes. Chad Marshall and Zack Scott played an instrumental part in the conservation effort, winning 81% of their aerial duels and allowing only seven shots on goal as they sounded out the omnipresent threat presented by Blas Pérez and company. The pairing instilled composure from the back and when Seattle were susceptible to periods of high pressure it was arguably that collected presence of mind from the heart of the defence which kept the scoreline level. It’s going to be immensely difficult for Oscar Pareja to find a way around Marshall and Scott, more so with the boisterous home support in the Emerald City.

Talent Radar MLS Player of the Week

It’s no surprise that Tesho Akindele features heavily in the Rookie of the Year conversation and his opener against the Whitecaps on Tuesday underlined his prodigious talent. Mauro Diaz embarked on a mazy run down the left flank and with all of the attention of Vancouver’s back-line afforded to his dribble, Akindele went under the radar coming in from the right, in so much that when Diaz found him with the pass he had ample time to compose himself before taking a shot on goal. As it turned out, the strike was well directed and beat David Ousted to end the away side’s 433 minute spell without conceding. He continued to cause problems and because of that featured in the starting line-up against Seattle, again representing a potent asset within the final third, even if unable to beat Frei.

If ever there were an opportune time for him to truly cement his place as the next big thing, the second leg at CenturyLink Field is surely the ideal platform for him to do so, be it from the starting line-up or off the bench as a potential game-changing substitute. Per, it appears that the 22-year-old is on the verge of attaining US citizenship, thus giving him the chance to play for the USMNT at international level, an option he is said to be considering having moved to Colorado and adopted America as his home from a young age. He is also eligible to represent Canada, where he was born, however recently rejected their approach in order to focus on the push for the playoffs. It’s a situation which will likely continue into the offseason, but immediately it is imperative that he focuses on his aspirations in the postseason and continues to generate hype through that medium.

Written by James Bufton.

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