Major League Soccer’s thirty-four game regular season concluded last Sunday with ten (of nineteen) clubs qualified for the playoffs. Five each reached the post-season from each geographical conference with San Jose Earthquakes taking the Supporters Shield as tops in the regular season. A shift in format for 2012 left the fourth and fifth place finishers from each conference to vie for the chance to play the top seed via a one-game, knock-out match. In the Eastern Conference, that was no. 4 Chicago Fire hosting no. 5 Houston Dynamo. The Western Conference saw MLS Cup holders LA Galaxy in at no. 4 against no. 5 Vancouver Whitecaps, the first ever Canadian club to reach the MLS playoffs. The winners moved on to the Quarterfinals which will take place over two legs this weekend.
Chicago Fire 1 – Houston Dynamo 2
The opening match of the playoffs was a curious affair. Only 10,923 showed up to Toyota Park (capacity 20,000) to witness the Fire’s first home playoff game since 2009. Just twelve minutes into the game, second year forward Will Bruin, who led Houston with a dozen regular season goals, nodded down a Brad Davis corner for a 1-0 lead for the visitors. Less than a minute after half-time, Bruin struck again, springing forward after an unforced Fire turnover and firing across goal for a 2-0 lead. Stunned to be down two goals at home, Chicago came to life in the second half, forcing Tally Hall to make several fine saves, the most notable of which came on a sweeping shot in the 74th minute by Patrick Nyarko. The Fire pulled one back when Alex snuck into the box and shot across Hall’s goal in the 83rd minute, but that was all the home side could muster in a disappointing performance and quick exit. The Dynamo will have a difficult tie with Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City in the Quarterfinals, though Houston did upset Sporting to reach last season’s MLS Cup final.
LA Galaxy 2 – Vancouver Whitecaps 1
As the first Canadian side to reach the MLS playoffs (Montreal Impact were an expansion team in 2012 and Toronto FC a six-year disaster of the highest order), Vancouver were forced to travel to Los Angeles to take on the star-studded Cup holders. Yet it was rookie Darren Mattocks of the Whitecaps who poked in the game’s opening goal after a sublime sideline move by midfielder Matt Watson. Like in Chicago, the crowd in LA was disappointing (14,703), yet those who did bother to arrive by the third minute were quickly silenced by Vancouver’s Jamaican star in the making. Yet when given the opportunity to double their advantage, Vancouver could not do the job. The most glaring failures came through Designated Players Kenny Miller and Barry Robson. Finally, immediately after the Scotsmen combined to miss, Mike Magee scored the equalizer for the Galaxy on a terrific volley in the 69th minute. Two minutes later, after Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit was forced to sit down with an injury, his replacement, Martin Bonjour, took down Landon Donovan in the box and gave the Galaxy captain the chance to win the game from the penalty spot. As he so often does, Donovan easily converted to carry LA into a Quarterfinal tie against long time foes San Jose Earthquakes.