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2011 MLS Cup Conference Semifinals: Houston, Los Angeles sweep two-game series to advance to conference finals

In the second of the two MLS Conference Semifinal doubleheaders, both the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy notched their second successive wins in the two leg series and advanced to their respective conference finals. At Robertson Stadium, a Brian Ching goal late in first half stoppage time was enough to see the Dynamo separate themselves from the Philadelphia Union in a tense 1-0 victory. Combined with their 2-1 win in the first leg, Houston advanced and will now face Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference Final. Meanwhile, at The Home Depot Center, a spirited comeback by the New York Red Bulls was countered by two Galaxy goals that saw Los Angeles advance 3-1 on aggregate to a Western Conference Final date with Real Salt Lake.

Philadelphia Union 1 (0) vs. Houston Dynamo 2 (1) — HOU advance 3-1 on aggregate

After surviving the first leg of the series at PPL Park, and emerging with a hard-fought victory, the Houston Dynamo returned home needing nothing more than a draw to advance to the Eastern Conference Final. Predictably, for a Dynamo team that has not put forth a flashy performance all season, the match was bereft of scoring chances on either side as Houston asserted a physical dominance over the match from the opening whistle. With the Union playing without the lack of urgency that their situation required, the match looked destined to enter halftime in a scoreless stalemate. However, when gifted a set piece opportunity deep in the Union defensive third, the Dynamo lined up for a free kick from usual suspect Brad Davis.

In an almost carbon-copy version of Houston’s first goal in the first leg, Davis delivered a curling cross into the penalty area that resulted in a Dynamo goal. This time the recipient of the fine Davis delivery was forward Brian Ching, who powered a header past the helpless Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon into the back of the net. Unfortunately for Philadelphia the sequence marked the end of the first half, and they would enter their locker room trailing 3-1 on aggregate with only 45 minutes of soccer remaining in their season.

The second half was more of the same for both sides, as a choppy midfield battle led to very few scoring opportunities. The best of the half came from the Union’s Veljko Paunovic in the 59th minute that Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall was forced into making an acrobatic diving save. Second half substitute Freddy Adu gave the visitors a shot of adreline upon his introduction into the match, and he had a good attempt at goal sail wide of the far post minutes later, but the U.S. International could not will his team back into the contest. With time running out, and the Union still down two goals on aggregate, Philadelphia players pushed higher up the field, but never did threaten the Dynamo ‘keeper, and they meekly fell to a 1-0 defeat on the night.

The Dynamo by virtue of their series victory head next to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park to face the conference leaders Sporting KC in a winner-take-all match this Sunday. Both teams missed out on the postseason in 2010, but have a chance to play for the MLS Cup just one season later, at the final scheduled for November 20 in Los Angeles.

New York Red Bulls 0 (1) vs. Los Angeles Galaxy 1 (2) — LAG advance 3-1 on aggregate

The glamour match-up of the MLS Conference Semifinals did not disappoint, as the New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy played two of the more entertaining matches of the 2011 postseason. After winning on the road 1-0 to open the series, the Galaxy returned home to a 2/3 filled stadium (attendance limitations prevented them from hosting a capacity crowd) hoping to carry that momentum all the way to the conference final. But after falling behind early courtesy of a Luke Rodgers goal for the Red Bulls, the Galaxy were in for a dogfight on their own pitch, and none other than David Beckham proved the catalyst in thwarting the New York comeback attempt.

Following the first leg at Red Bull Arena, where the Galaxy defense looked the best they had all season, the home side were seen to capitulate much more readily in leg two. With Rodgers goal in only the 4th minute knotting the aggregate score at one apiece, the Red Bulls looked certain to take a series lead through their sustained pressure and possession advantage enjoyed over the first 20 minutes of the match. However, an untimely injury to midfield maestro Teemu Tainio required his substitution and seemed to disrupt the flow of the New York game.

With the match settling in to more of a stalemate, the action returned to the middle of the pitch where physical challenges were the order of the night. Los Angeles had a pair of good scoring opportunities through the runs of Robbie Keane, but New York hung on defensively to keep their one goal lead. The mirror image of their playoff experience in 2010, where the Red Bulls nursed a one goal lead away to San Jose back to their home stadium before falling to the Earthquakes in leg two, New York was now the underdog seemingly on track to oust the Supporters Shield winning Galaxy on their home pitch. However, Los Angeles would not follow the reverse script, and soon recaptured the aggregate lead.

Beckham, who only minutes before was required to shake off the apparent effects of a concussion — though it was later reported as back spasms — returned to action and set up a delivery of a corner kick for the Galaxy. With the box loaded with players from both sides, the ball soared into the mixer and cult hero Mike Magee stretched to the front of the pack and nodded the ball home for a goal. The Galaxy forward notched his second goal of the series and restored the home side’s aggregate lead with the great finish.

New York was unable to answer right away, but did have a great chance from Rodgers that went lacking partway through the second half. After beating defender Omar Gonzalez into space, the physical Red Bull forward raced in on goal, but sent a disappointing effort into the side netting. It would prove to be New York’s last best chance of the evening.

The Galaxy iced the game in the 74th minute when Beckham earned a penalty against a clumsy Roy Miller. The New York defender’s lashing kick on the Galaxy talisman just inside the area did not immediately deserve a penalty call according to the referee, but within seconds he made the motion toward the penalty spot and Red Bulls shoulders slumped at the decision. Landon Donovan easily converted the spot kick for Los Angeles, and with the goal took any remaining wind out of the Red Bulls sails. A rather uneventful concluding 20 minutes served only to emphasize the relative superiority on the night of the Galaxy, and they cruised to the 2-1 victory and the 3-1 aggregate series win.

Without any travel plans remaining on the Galaxy calendar, they await the visit of Real Salt Lake on Sunday for the Western Conference Final. If the Galaxy prevail in that game, they will play host to the MLS Cup Final in two week’s time.

(Photos used in illustration courtesy of Joe Nuxoll and Kelley L. Cox,