It was a bad night for the favorites as the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas each fell by two goals in the first/away leg of the MLS Conference Finals on Sunday, with New York downed 2-0 by Columbus while Dallas stumbled to a 3-1 loss in Portland.
In the first of Sunday’s remarkably similar results the Red Bulls never really recovered from Justin Meram’s goal after just nine seconds, the fastest ever in MLS playoffs, going on to lose 2-0 to Columbus.
The Supporters Shield winners came into the match determined to impose its will on the Crew with its much discussed high press, but when Meram beat MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles on the game’s opening play New York was badly shaken.
That a simple ball floated at the heart of the defense from the game’s opening kick can end up in the back of the net was “incredible,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch admitted afterward.
Marsch added, “you just wonder how something like that can happen in a big game like this.” What happened is that Wil Trapp’s long pass was won by Kei Kamara over Ronald Zubar, and flicked goalward. Kemar Lawrence and Matt Miazga reacted slowly and Ethan Finlay moved the ball onto Meram before being wiped out by Miazga. Meram buried his chance and the Red Bulls were reeling.
New York tried to battle back, but the team’s key midfield trio of Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe Martins were dominated by its Crew opponents, with only Martins showing well.
The raucous packed house shook the aluminum bleachers at MAPFRE Stadium as the sides went end to end with only some last ditch defending and goalkeeping inhibiting the scoreline.
Columbus midfield maestro Federico Higuain was impeccable as he pulled the strings that unraveled New York all match long and he could have had a goal, but on the miss of the night an indecisive Finlay was stopped by an outstanding Felipe defensive play, with Higuain running free in on Robles.
Normally very creative with its set pieces New York were unable to convert any of it 10 corner kick attempts, although the Red Bulls defended the same number from Columbus.
The high tempo from both teams continued through the second half but with a 1-0 final beginning to look likely heading back to Red Bull Arena, when Columbus substitute Cedric Mabwati put New York in a deep hole with a moment of magic in the 85th minute.
An 80th-minute substitute, Mabwati set up Kamara’s game winner in the Conference semifinal win over Montreal, and he played his part again Sunday night.
The midseason acquisition ran rings around three Red Bull defenders, mesmerizing the rest of the New York defense and drawing a fantastic save from Luis Robles, who could do nothing but watch Kei Kamara tap home a potential backbreaker.
It was a remarkably similar story in the opener of the Western Conference Finals where the Portland Timbers scored early (although not as early as Meram) and late (stoppage time) to seize control of the series, in this case topping Dallas 3-1.
In front of its expected rabid crowd, the Timbers came flying out of the gate pressuring the Western Conference regular season champions FC Dallas from the start.
Portland was without influential attackers Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace because of yellow card accumulation and coach Caleb Porter elected to bypass captain Will Johnson in favor of Jack Jewsbury giving the Timbers a defensive posture.
Despite that seemingly defensive set up the Timbers piled the pressure on Dallas from the opening whistle. Newly minted U.S. international Darlington Nagbe led the way with able and eager assistants Asprilla, Lucas Melano and, Fanendo Adi.
Porter was rewarded with a disciplined two-way effort from his team, one that limited the dangerous FCD counter attack with fine individual and collective defense.
A prime example was the job the Timbers did in limiting Dallas burner Fabian Castillo. Fullback Jorge Villafana bore the brunt of the task and he stuck to his task admirably before Castillo switched wings in the second half.
But Villafana had help when he needed it from midfielders Diego Chara and Jewsbury in particular. Alvas Powell was on the spot in the second half when Casillo swapped wings and while he looked somewhat less assured that Villafana had, Powell held up.
Portland looked to be on easy street when winger Dairon Asprilla beat Jesse Gonzalez with a swerving wonder strike in the 53rd minute, but Dallas responded with its best play of the match.
Knowing a 2-0 deficit would leave them a mountain to climb next Sunday in Frisco, Texas FCD turned up the heat on Portland, and benefitting from a Timbers injury sliced the deficit in two.
Timbers Center back Liam Ridgewell left with a leg injury that he later termed not too serious, but it certainly was serious when Dallas striker David Texeira eluded his replacement Norberto Paparatto and buried his chance.
But Dallas could not add another and Papparotto made up for his gaffe in the dying minutes when his strong header from a corner kick was finished to the net by bearded wonder Nat Borchers to send this series back to Texas with the favorites on the ropes.
Conference Finals Second Leg (home team’s first)
Sunday, November 29, 2015
FC Dallas vs Portland Timbers
Toyota Stadium. Frisco, Texas
5:00 pm ET
New York Red Bulls vs Columbus Crew SC
Red Bull Arena. Harrison, New Jersey
7:30 pm ET