Forget that old cliché about a 2-0 lead: The most dangerous lead in soccer is a one-goal margin heading into the second game of a two-leg series.
It’s also the most thrilling.
That’s the main thing we learned after this week’s round of high-energy seesaw playoff games set the MLS Cup final four and eliminated three of the four higher seeds, including the defending champs.
All four second legs featured one-goal leads, fertile breeding grounds for complacency.
The extent to which teams maintained urgency—and recognized the potential danger in their slim edges—determined how successful they were.
Let’s play it back.
Beckham: Watch and Learn
Golfers often talk about “going to school” on tricky holes by watching other players in their group tackle them first, and learning from their mistakes.
In his postgame interview after the Galaxy’s series-clinching 2-1 win over Seattle on Sunday night, David Beckham said that Los Angeles did just that this week. Going last in this round, so to speak, the Galaxy took the opportunity to watch all the other games, and saw who struggled with what in the pressure-packed second legs.
David Beckham talks to MLSsoccer.com's Jackie Pickering
Los Angeles definitely learned their lessons, and Beckham was at the head of the class. He set up both Galaxy goals, worked tirelessly on defense (as he did in the first leg) and pinged long-range passes all over the field.
It was his first Man-of-the-Match performance in awhile, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for LA.
Afterward, the English icon lauded the Galaxy’s “character” and “professionalism” in getting the job done, and talked about how they’d wanted to avoid complacency—having seen others fail to do so in the previous few days.
The Rapids took a 1-0 lead into their second-leg game with Columbus, and after surrendering an early goal to Eddie Gaven and a late one to Robbie Rogers, appeared to be teetering on the edge of the same pitfall that swallowed New York.
But there was joy in Commerce City when Conor Casey got on the end of a cross by Omar Cummings (sound familiar?) and poked home an 84th-minute goal to tie the aggregate score at 2-2.
Following 30 minutes of extra time, the teams went to penalties, and after eight of those, there was still nothing separating them. Colorado’s hulking defender Julien Baudet buried his team’s fifth attempt, leaving midfielder Brian Carroll to equalize for Columbus. Carroll skied his attempt over the bar, and the Crew (along with the entire Eastern Conference) were done.
Casey strikes for Colorado
Sidenote: The eyes and ears of the Postgame were at the British Bulldog pub in Denver, where 200 Rapids fans spent the entire two hours singing (“The Ginger Ninja” for midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, and “One more home game!”—which they’ll get—among other ditties).
When Casey struck his goal, the place exploded.
Not content with their one-goal, first-leg lead over Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas took the initiative to widen it at Rio Tinto. They succeeded, getting the goal of the weekend in the 17th-minute from Dax McCarty.
David Ferreira served a looping cross in to Brek Shea, who chested the ball into McCarty’s path in the box. The veteran midfielder deftly headed it down and past RSL keeper Nick Rimando before turning and firing it home to give Dallas a 3-1 aggregate edge.
McCarty scores FCD's vital goal
Curiously, it was RSL that appeared overconfident heading into this one, despite losing the opening game. “We’ll move on,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman had told MLSsoccer.com after that the first leg. “Nothing to worry about.”
This from a team that was missing its central midfield catalyst, Javier Morales, who was suspended for the game.
Down two goals after the McCarty goal, Beckerman and RSL had plenty to worry about.
They pulled one back through Robbie Findley in the 80th minute, but some spectacular goalkeeping from Kevin Hartman preserved a 1-1 tie and 3-2 aggregate win for Dallas, continuing a magical season for Dallas and ending a memorable one in Utah.
Red Bulls Rocked
New York began their second leg with the Earthquakes as if all the heavy lifting had been done in San Jose the week before, when the Red Bulls produced a solid 1-0 win.
All they had to do to dispatch eighth-seeded San Jose—and get on with the business of hosting the Eastern Conference Championship in their sparkling new stadium—was show up, right?
Wrong. Just ask the Earthquakes winger Bobby Convey. The former US international played two positions, scored two goals and set up the third in San Jose’s 3-1 win in New York as the Quakes eked out a 3-2 aggregate victory.
The series-winning goal came off the head of MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski, in the 80th minute—just two minutes after Juan Pablo Angel had tied the aggregate score for New York, heading home a skillful chip from 17-year-old Juan Agudelo.
The Red Bulls dominated much of the game but, tellingly, of the 23 shots they took (to San Jose’s 11), only four were on frame. They lacked the playoff sharpness they showed in the first leg.
Final Four Power Rankings
Los Angeles: Say what you will about the aesthetics of the Galaxy’s triumph over Seattle, you can’t deny that LA dictated the terms in both games and clipped the wings of the league’s highest-flying team entering the playoffs. Also: Beckham is healthy, hungry and on the rise.
Dallas: They’ve had their share of doubters, but they’re still standing, they just knocked off the defending champs and they’ve only been beaten four times all year.
Colorado: Did you see Jeff Larentowicz clang the crossbar from 35 yards on Saturday? The Rapids generally go as Casey and Cummings do, but don’t discount the Ginger Ninja’s contributions.
San Jose: Wondolowski can lie dormant for 89 minutes, then change a game with one flash of brilliance—just ask New York—but this team is not as balanced as Colorado.
The Galaxy face FC Dallas in the Western Conference Championship on Sunday, November 14 at 6 p.m. at The Home Depot Center. Tickets are available as low as $20! BUY TICKETS