There really are no more accidental landings at this point of the season. Every team has something to offer. Every side has quality in most spots and excellence in a few.
So it was with the Eastern Conference Championship, as the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes punched away at one another. Both sides played their way around chilly DSG Park in fairly predictable patterns. San Jose pressed high in their 4-4-2, unsettling the Rapids’ attempts at possession while looking to counter or playing quickly through Geovanni.
[inline_node:322807]The home team, meanwhile, drove forward over one of three well-worn routes: Conor Casey in the middle as a target, Omar Cummings slashing into the middle from the right or reversing the starting point, launching from the middle and lashing out toward the right corner.
So, no shockers there. And when things land with such predictability matches will usually be decided in one of two ways: Someone will rise to the moment, creating something special to claim victory, or one side will locate a weakness on the day, a way to exploit a gap within the anticipated structure.
Gary Smith’s Rapids found the chink in the armor first and exploited it expertly. San Jose players are still going on about Colorado’s “lucky” goal and such, but the Rapids identified the soft spot, had a plan to punish it and executed with extreme prejudice. And they are en route to Toronto as a reward.
[inline_node:318694]San Jose center backs Jason Hernandez and Brandon McDonald were always going to be busy with Casey, a man-beast of a target presence for Colorado. Casey didn’t get in on the scoring, but finding goal is only part of what he does so well for the Rapids. He’s such a commanding presence and so good at battling for balls as he checks back toward the midfield, he is always going to occupy and bother defenders. That can leave fullbacks on an island.
On the right, San Jose fullback Chris Leitch held his own. The Rapids’ Brian Mullan, playing on a less familiar side on the left, had his quietest playoff game yet offensively. Mullan did, however, keep close tabs on Golden Boot-winner Chris Wondolowski, who rarely threatened Colorado’s goal. Smith said the idea wasn’t so much to have Mullan neutralize Wondolowski along San Jose’s right side, although the veteran midfielder certainly helped guide Rapids’ left back Anthony Wallace, whose relative inexperience bites him occasionally in choices and positioning.
Rather, Smith said he wanted the right-footed Wells Thompson in a more familiar spot on the right, the better to apply pressure on San Jose all over the field.
Indeed, the right side was the way forward for Colorado.
[inline_node:320982]San Jose’s Tim Ward, normally a right back, was forced to shift to left back, replacing injured veteran Ramiro Corrales. He was clearly uncomfortable on the left.
What he really needed was a distinguished supporting performance from Bobby Convey, who played wide left in the Earthquakes diamond midfield. The Quakes needed Convey to work tirelessly and selflessly to protect and assist his left fullback.
But Convey just wasn’t active enough, and Colorado exploited that side mercilessly. Cummings did what he likes to do: drift right to pick up balls played in behind the back line. Ward was under pressure from the start. And when Kosuke Kimura added his presence, comfortable that Convey wasn’t having some blinder of a day and relaxed about getting forward, Ward was bailing water throughout the first half. Too often, Kimura’s services were uncontested as Ward struggled to get help.
The sequence just before Kimura’s telling goal illustrates the issue and how Colorado’s plan of attack worked brilliantly.
Rapids’ midfielder Jeff Larentowicz turned with a pass from Mullan near the center circle and immediately spotted Thompson on the right, with only Ward anywhere nearby. Larentowicz’s ball into the corner was OK, but not a world beater. Ward could have stepped in and picked it off—but his starting position and his lack of decisive play left him in trouble. That’s not a knock on him, necessarily; it was a big task for him to man an unfamiliar spot in such a big moment.
Rather than stepping up for what looked like a good opportunity to intercept, he got caught stepping back, thinking instead of reacting. He got himself turned around, with his back to the action and straining to spot the ball—always a no-no. As a result he had to knock the ball into touch rather than manage a simple stop-and-distribute, which might have extinguished any danger.
From there, San Jose had three defenders to deal with three attackers in the corner. But Kimura shook loose from Convey long enough to deliver the cross that skipped into the goal, putting Colorado into their second MLS Cup final.
From there, the Rapids were able to dig in. As Kimura and Thompson no longer needed to press their cases on the attack, they could focus on eliminating Convey’s service, and later on keeping tabs on Wondolowski, who had switched sides. Across the field, the Rapids could focus on denying balls that Arturo Alvarez could collect and run with.
San Jose might go on about “lucky goals” and such—but there was no luck involved in the buildup to the decisive blow.
What chink—if any—will Colorado find in Dallas’ armor in the MLS Cup on Sunday?
Kimura cross beats San Jose