No obvious US champions
6 November ~ This year in MLS is the 100th season of FIFA-sanctioned football in the US and Canada. Yet after the first leg of the Conference play-off semi-finals, we are no closer to guessing the eventual winners of a centenary season. There's another two-legged final for both the Eastern and Western divisions to go, before the MLS Cup game on December 1. This round of games was tense, cautious and physical but there were plenty of signs that there could be an eventful ending to the North American season.
On Sunday night, the superstars of LA Galaxy grimaced and groaned around the Home Depot Center against the San Jose Earthquakes, who won the Supporters' Shield impressively in the regular season. A tetchy Californian derby looked to be heading towards a fully-deserved 0-0 draw when imposing San Jose defender Victor Bernardez made an exaggerated long run-up for a free-kick, around 31 yards out, in the 94th minute. His low, hard shot went through the wall, before squirming under the grasp of LA goalkeeper Josh Saunders. It was San Jose's tenth injury-time goal of 2012 and the Earthquakes are a good team, finishing 12 points above Galaxy in the league. David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane face a stern test in defending their MLS title away from home on Wednesday.
Earlier on Sunday, Houston Dynamo convincingly beat Eastern Conference winners Sporting Kansas City 2-0. Despite an excellent season, Kansas now haven't won in their last eight visits to Houston. It never really looked like happening this weekend after the former Ross County and Elgin City midfielder Adam Moffat hit an impressive long-range shot past veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen in the 18th minute. Houston then effectively controlled the game and scored what could be a vital second in the 75th minute. The 23-year-old forward Will Bruin (who opted against his "dancing bear" celebration on this occasion) scored his 12th goal of the season with a neat finish but this tie seems far from over.
On Saturday, the match between DC United and the New York Red Bulls was livened up by a bizarre second half with two own goals and a silly sending-off. New York defender Roy Miller finished smartly into his own net after 61 minutes. In reply, DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid caught the ball and kept holding it while falling backwards over the goalline. United were on top with 20 minutes left before their 19-year-old winger, Andy Najar, got booked for a trip. Najar reacted by throwing the ball at the referee before the official had even got his yellow card in the air. A red card quickly followed. The Red Bulls then sat back with 11 men, seemingly happy with a draw and not being caught on the break.
The last game of the quartet was a third 0-0 draw of the season between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake. These are two of the best teams in MLS but this game was more notable for defensive prowess and the excellent performance of RSL keeper Rick Rimando. He made a number of impressive and unlikely stops, prompting his manager Jason Kreis to describe it as "One of the single best individual performances by any player who's ever worn an RSL jersey".
Every tie is now delicately balanced for the second legs. Three of the matches are on Wednesday, before Salt Lake and Seattle will be forced to break their deadlock a day later. With less of the cautious attitude and a similar dose of calamity, there will hopefully be lots of entertaining football to come. Ed Upright