No doubt, the most-talked-about win of the week in Europe was Celtic’s 2-1 upset of Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday — a win that left rock star and Celtic super fan Rod Stewart in tears.
But over on this side of the pond, in the Major League Soccer playoffs, there were plot twists aplenty, weather complications and wild finishes that could lure even the snobbiest of soccer snobs. Any so-called soccer fan who can’t get into MLS wasn’t paying attention to the conference semifinals.
When the dust settled and the snow was shoveled off the field at Red Bull Arena, D.C. United and Houston were left standing in the East. The Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle were left in the West. They kick off the conference finals at 4 p.m. Sunday in Houston’s BBVA Stadium and 9 p.m. at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
D.C. is in the conference final for the first time in six years thanks to an 88th-minute goal by Nick DeLeon against the New York Red Bulls in a Thursday night game that was postponed a day because of the massive winter storm that hit the area. The Dynamo, under dynamic coach Dominic Kinnear, is back for the fifth time in seven seasons.
United’s win over New York was particularly wild. In the 69th minute, the referee issued a red card to D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid for a tackle on the Red Bulls’ Kenny Cooper, who got a penalty kick as a result. Cooper scored on backup goalie Joe Willis, but the referee called off the goal because New York players had entered the penalty area too soon. Cooper had to attempt the kick again. This time, Willis dove to his left and made the save.
“Watching the PK? [I had a] borderline heart attack,” United center back Brandon McDonald told reporters after the game. “It is what it is. Joe made an unbelievable save and I think this win just shows the character of this team.”
Asked if he had ever been involved in such a crazy game, D.C. coach Ben Olsen replied: “Mostly when it’s New York as the opponent. It’s an absolute zoo these games.”
United, which is 6-0-3 in its past nine games, advanced 2-1 on aggregate after playing New York to a 1-1 tie last weekend. The Red Bulls donated half of the ticket receipts, a total of $250,000, to Hurricane Sandy relief funds in New Jersey and New York.
Meanwhile, out west, Honduran forward Mario Martinez became an instant hero in Seattle with his game-winning goal against Real Salt Lake. Martinez had been a key member of the Honduran Olympic team and played for the Honduran national team in some World Cup qualifiers, but he had not enjoyed the same success in a Sounders jersey until last week.
The trio of Martinez, Colombian Fredy Montero and resurgent American Eddie Johnson will be a handful for the reigning champion Galaxy. L.A. will be equally tested on the other end of the field, as the Sounders have the second-best defense in the league. They have conceded just two goals in the past 630 minutes of play.
The Galaxy advanced with a 3-1 win over the top-seeded San Jose Earthquakes. Irish national Robbie Keane scored two goals and Mike Magee had one. Los Angeles is going for its fourth MLS Cup, having won in 2002, ’05 and ’11.
To the new CONCACAF management, which turned what could have been a mundane Hexagonal World Cup qualifying draw into a swank event attended by soccer dignitaries and covered by dozens of media members from all over the region. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was at the South Beach event on Wednesday night before jetting off to Europe to scout players.
The U.S. faces a tough start with the opener at Honduras Feb. 6 and three of the first four qualifiers on the road. On the flip side, three of their last four games are at home.
As part of their preparation, the U.S. will play a friendly Nov. 14 against Russia in the town of Krasnodar near the Black Sea. Russia is coached by Fabio Capello, who has managed Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus, and the English national team. Klinsmann scheduled the game back when Dick Advocaat was the coach. Russia chose to host the game in that city, which was being considered as a site for the 2018 World Cup.
“We want to finish the year off on a high note in Russia,” Klinsmann said. “We expect a very interesting game there against a side that is probably one of the top five or six teams right now in Europe, doing very well … the approach was also to play that game in Europe so that all our European players don’t have to fly back again after recently being in the World Cup qualifiers. The distances will be shorter for those players. If we see that there is an opportunity to break in another player or invite somebody that wasn’t part of the roster yet, we might do that.”
The national teams of Venezuela and Nigeria play an exhibition match at 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at Marlins Park. Get tickets at www.marlins.com