Chicago, San Jose wilt in playoff spotlight; NYRB, Vancouver march on
Two more teams are on the MLS scrapheap after Wednesday night's playoffs.
The Vancouver Whitecaps made light work of the San Jose Earthquakes, winning 5-0 to book a date with the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference semifinals.
Meanwhile in the East, the New York Red Bulls upset their higher-seeded counterparts, the Chicago Fire, 4-0 and will face Supporters' Shield-winning Toronto FC in the next round.
Here's four quick thoughts from a lopsided night of action:
1. Sloppy start extinguishes the Fire
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, beyond the margin of victory, was the sloppy start that killed the Fire. A team that had scored 13 goals in the first 15 minutes of games this season found itself 2-0 down after 11 minutes.
Personnel decisions and availability played their part. Matt Lampson was called back from the bench to start in goal and must have wished he'd stayed there after freezing on the Red Bulls' opener, while Juninho was clearly not match-sharp and lost Sacha Kljestan on New York's second moments later.
Needing a change in the second half, Veljko Paunovic seemed to wait too long. By the time he made a double attacking substitution, David Arshakyan and Arturo Alvarez were jogging onto the field just in time to watch Daniel Royer score New York's third.
Not that the attack did much at any stage of the game. The pass completion rate in the final third was the lowest of the season. Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic was a bystander, and David Accam was an unconvincing playmaker.
The sense of occasion? It just wasn't there. A poor crowd created a funereal atmosphere as the Red Bulls goals started going in, just as they had in the last Chicago playoff game on Halloween 2012. This is supposedly a much different Chicago from that low point, but this was a familiar ending.
2. Experience shows for the Red Bulls
New York had an advantage before a ball was kicked in -- not being on the road in front of a frenzied Atlanta crowd but that meager Chicago showing.
Also, they had the institutional memory and bitter experience to draw on. That just isn't there for Chicago. Even the younger players looked more battle-hardened from their Open Cup run this year. As Tyler Adams dropped his shoulder to go past Brandon Vincent on the buildup for the second goal, he looked like a player who had been there and done that. Vincent, by contrast, looked like a player who would "learn from this experience."
Adams and Kemar Lawrence dominated the wide areas, overlapping at key moments and usually at a tempo set by the passing and vision of Kljestan. Despite his prodigious assist rate, there have been whispers about Kljestan's lack of pace limiting the ways the Red Bulls can set up, but on the night -- with Juninho ineffective, Schweinsteiger on the bench and Dax McCarty left chasing shadows -- Kljestan had the space to pivot attacks and make the kind of decisions that hurt teams.
And of course, Danny Royer is back and fully integrated into the team. His loss in the summer set the Red Bulls on the sequence of results that dropped them to sixth. His return has helped drive them to that most treasured quality: playoff momentum.
3. Whitecaps' set-piece excellence opens the floodgates
If it's not one thing, it's the other. The Whitecaps' principle offensive weapons are set pieces and slick transitions. On Wednesday night, it was the former that made the difference first, as the Whitecaps overcame a tentative start to hurt San Jose when it counted before opening up the throttle in the second half.
In front of a much more raucous crowd than had shown up in Chicago, Vancouver looked tentative at first, as San Jose stood off them, but once Cristian Techera's brilliant free kick flew in and forced the Earthquakes out of their shell at 2-0, the Whitecaps tormented the spaces in the reorganized three-man San Jose backline with three more goals to ease to their first playoff win.
Let's not forget defensive organization -- Kendall Waston's contributions in scoring one goal and assisting on the crucial opener will be remembered more than anything he and Tim Parker did at the back -- but the Seattle Sounders should note that Carl Robinson's team looks capable of standing up to much more robust examination than Chris Wondolowski et al were able to offer on the night.
Vancouver let a few chances to clinch the West slip in recent weeks, and the fate of a play-in game had looked like something of an indignity under the circumstances. But by the final whistle, they had restored some priceless self-belief and picked up momentum to face the Dempsey-less Sounders.
4. Same old story for the Quakes
San Jose's three road wins this season had all involved the team scoring first then not conceding, whereas in games in which they fell behind, the results had tended to be seriously lopsided. All season, the Earthquakes never found the formula for chasing a road game without being horribly exposed on the counter.
It turned out in the final game of the season, as San Jose were comfortably beaten after a decent start. By the time Nicolas Mezquida scored the second of his late, quick-fire brace to make it 5-0, San Jose had long lost the defensive shape that had briefly threatened to make the game a contest during the opening half-hour.
Anibal Godoy's early free kick might even have given the Quakes the kind of dream start the Red Bulls enjoyed earlier in the evening, and for much of the first half, San Jose were playing smart if limited soccer to nullify Vancouver's threat from open play.
But they had apparently done less homework on the set piece threat, particularly the back post threat of Fredy Montero, who ghosted in in familiar fashion to open the scoring. They couldn't do much about the sublime free kick finish that made it 2-0, but in going to three at the back to try to chase the game, they played into Vancouver's other strengths.
By the end, we were reminded that San Jose's Decision Day drama was less about magical momentum and more about escape from self-inflicted crisis. There was no such escape in Vancouver.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.