The home-standing Sounders started the game well enough, which was probably no surprise after Colorado opted for big lineup changes. Oscar Pareja - my personal vote for MLS Coach of the Year - maybe over-thought things by dropping Marvell Wynne, moving Shane O'Neill to right back, and bringing in German Mera (who only played 577 minutes in 2013) centrally. Further forward, the moves were more enforced: Dillon Powers was unable to recover from a concussion that has kept him out for a couple weeks now, while late-season sparkplug Vicente Sanchez was only able to play as a sub. For them, the replacements were Martin Rivero in the attacking midfield role within Colorado's 4231 formation, while Atiba Harris played on the right wing.
Seattle's strong start was underlined by a near-goal in the 13th minute, as Adam Moffat's shot from the right side of the box beat Clint Irwin but was cleared off the line by Drew Moor, who is arguably MLS's #1 source of shots blocked off the line.
It didn't take much more time for Seattle to make their advantage count on the scoreboard. In the 28th minute, a right-to-left move cut through the pliant Rapids midfield to find Eddie Johnson, who quickly slipped overlapping left back Leo Gonzalez down the wing. Gonzalez's cross was initially met by multiple Colorado defenders, but the beall was only headed upward rather than away, and Brad Evans arrived unmarked at the back post to lash the ball past Irwin and in.
That Colorado midfield has been a source of strength all year long, but on this night they were simply awful. The absence of Powers showed mostly in the lack of physicality - he's just a stronger, tougher guy than Rivero - and a harried look in possession. Rivero's look was to play a killer ball way too often, while Powers probably would have sensed that the game required someone to slow things down and take some pressure off of Colorado's defensive players.
All that said, the bigger issue was in the engine room, where Nathan Sturgis was a total non-factor and Hendry Thomas was not much better. Seattle's new diamond formation required a lot of central passing, and the Rapids were all too cooperative throughout. At times, it looked as if the Rapids were trying to stay as far away from each other as possible.
Eddie Johnson ended up sealing the deal in the 93rd minute with a play that captured everything good and bad about EJ. The safe move was to go to the corner, but instead Johnson cut inside, beat a man, fired past Irwin at the near post, and then nearly removed his jersey (which would have drawn a second yellow card; EJ probably owes Jhon Kennedy Hurtado dinner for stopping him from doing so).
However, the star of the show may have ended up being referee Silviu Petrescu, and not for good reasons. Both teams had major grievances with the Canadian official. Seattle's complaints started with Petrescu deciding not to send Irwin off after he and Clint Dempsey collided at the top of the box in the 53rd minute. While I can see the argument for sending Irwin off after he missed the ball, Moor's hustle to get back meant that Dempsey's goal-scoring opportunity was not indisputably a clear one (which means we aren't quite talking DOGSO here).
Minutes later, Petrescu missed a far more straightforward call. During a scramble in the box, the ball clearly struck Mera's outstretched arm. By the current interpretation of the rule, this was a 100% penalty kick, but Petrescu simply carried on as if nothing happened. If he saw the incident, there's no excuse for not pointing to the spot. If he didn't see the incident...well, what the hell else are you looking at when the ball is bouncing around a crowded 18 yard box?
For Colorado, the complaints are also strong. DeAndre Yedlin got away with a clear elbow to the head of Deshorn Brown in the 42nd minute. While I don't think Yedlin was trying to make contact, these days an elbow to the head is reckless regardless of intent. For whatever it was worth, Yedlin sprained his ankle in landing from the jump and was forced off at halftime, which could be a major concern for Seattle in the next round.
Seattle's final complaint will probably be addressed to goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who got sent off for one of the strangest decisions in MLS this season by a player. With no imminent danger, the formerly reliable Austrian stepped out of his 18 yard box to grab a bouncing long ball, clearly catching it a full step outside of the box. It was unclear whether Petrescu sent him off for this intentional handball - which, given the lack of threat, was not a DOGSO situation either - or for the scuffle afterwards, in which he lightly shoved Edson Buddle, who immediately threw himself backward to exaggerate the contact. In any case, Seattle is probably better off; Gspurning looks like he's lost all confidence at the moment and was a horrible mistake waiting to happen.
B&RU man of the match: Djimi Traore. The Rapids created almost nothing on the night, despite losing a starting defender to injury and later going down a man, and Traore was often the key.
Coming in, the Dynamo were heavy favorites. It wasn't just the home-field advantage; it was that Montreal has been in terrible form for months. Houston started the eleven everyone expected them to, while the Impact - like the Rapids - made major changes to their normal team. Nelson Rivas made his first appearance of the entire year at center back, replacing the injured Alessandro Nesta, while Collen Warner was started ahead of guys like Patrice Bernier and Felipe. And just like Colorado, it didn't really work.
This game had another similarity as well: An early elbow that deserved a red, but got nothing. This time, referee Mark Geiger was on the wrong side of the collision and was thus unable to see Hassoun Camara catch Corey Ashe in the back of the head in the 6th minute.
This was an indicator of things to come. Normally the Dynamo have a reputation as one of MLS's more physically aggressive teams, but it was Montreal that was actually delivering most of the aggression on the night. It didn't take ten minutes of play for most Twitter feeds following the game to start discussing future Montreal red cards.
Despite Montreal opening the game looking more confident than they have in quite a while, the Dynamo took the lead in the 16th minute. Matteo Ferrari sold out to intercept a through ball but barely even got a touch while falling in the process. Ricardo Clark picked up the gift and appeared to be looking to shoot under pressure, but instead smartly backheeled the ball to an onrushing Bruin, who had time and space to fire past Perkins and make it 1-0.
To their credit, the Impact weren't shaken just yet. Justin Mapp shot just wide after the entire Houston defense essentially shut off for a play, but when you're in the form Montreal has been in recently, you don't punish this sort of thing. Three minutes later, Marco Di Vaio - finally onside after basically picking up one offside a minute - came within inches of making contact with a ball over the top.
If the Bologna legend had gotten much of a touch, he'd have surely beaten a stranded Tally Hall, but Houston continued to ride their early luck. Speaking of which, the Dynamo didn't have to work hard to make it 2-0. Camara's inexplicable giveaway along the sideline in the 26th minute saw Oscar Boniek Garcia charge into the area unimpeded before cutting inside. That's where he found Hernan Bernardello, who was all too happy to dump him to the ground and concede a penalty kick. After the customary post-PK arguments, Garcia sent Perkins the wrong way, rolling the ball to the former DCU keeper's right to make it 2-0.
Does any of this sound familiar? A team playing well in many ways, only to commit catastrophic defensive mistakes while also not turning their quasi-promising possession into anything more than half-chances? Sigh.
The Impact aggro continued through Rivas, who committed what NFL referees would call a facemask penalty on Giles Barnes in the 35th minute. Barnes left the field with a bloody lip, but Rivas somehow got to stay on after Geiger puzzled just about everyone by deeming this merely a yellow card offense. Even the most lenient referee would have likely sent Rivas off here, so the fact that this was Mark "letter of the law" Geiger made it all the more strange.
Montreal very nearly pulled within one in the 44th minute. Andrew Wenger slotted Di Vaio through for a classic Di Vaio chance, but Hall stayed big long enough to block the attempted chip with his shoulder.
Impact coach Marco Schallibaum should have used at least one - and arguably all three - of his subs at halftime, but instead waited ten more minutes to make one and didn't actually field his best team until the 62nd minute with the insertion of Felipe and striker Daniele Paponi. Just six minutes later, Mapp set Paponi up on the right side of the Houston box for a blast that forced Hall into his best save of the night, but Montreal couldn't do anything with the ensuing series of corner kicks.
Remember how l'Impact seemed dead set on getting a red card? Rivas finally delivered by getting his second yellow in the 70th minute with yet another reckless leap sort of in the neighborhood of the ball. This was far from his worst challenge of the night, but Geiger finally decided he'd had enough of the Colombian. This means that Rivas played just 70 minutes in the 2013 season, and may see his MLS career end on this note.
Montreal just narrowed their fullbacks and tried to pursue what at this point would have qualified as a miraculous win, but once again Ferrari made a huge mistake. This time, it didn't even require a piece of skill from someone else to set Bruin up, as the Dancing Bear just ran around a hesitant Ferrari to strip the Italian of the ball before faking a shot to freeze Perkins and then shooting into an empty net in the 72nd minute.
It would have been just fine for the game to end right then and there, given that Montreal was totally beaten and Houston was readying subs to withdraw Bruin, Barnes, and Brad Davis. Unfortunately the laws of the game require playing 90 minutes, and eventually the frustration the Impact surely felt at their fate boiled over in the 89th minute.
Andres Romero petulantly kicked Kofi Sarkodie in the corner after having already fouled him, and a scuffle quickly started. It could have died out with Garcia simply scolding Romero, but Di Vaio arrived to shove the Honduran, and soon both teams were crowded down there. In the chaos, Di Vaio scratched at Ashe's face before Perkins could pull him away from the crowd. In the end, Romero and Di Vaio got red cards, while Ashe - who was the angriest Houston player in the scrum even before Di Vaio caught him with the stray hand - was booked but not dismissed.
B&RU man of the match: Ricardo Clark. His assist on the opener was the highlight, but Clark's all-action game allowed him to get far enough forward to prevent Bernardello from influencing the game while still helping Warren Creavalle deal with Warner and Wenger.
All in all, both games ended up being won by the team that largely deserved it, however distasteful us D.C. United fans might find the prospect of Houston or Seattle lifting a trophy. Think of it this way: Houston is far more likely to restore sanity by knocking the Metros out of the playoffs than Montreal would be, and we can still see someone else hopefully beat them via Andre Hainault-style cheating. Then again, with Will Bruin visibly gaining confidence after his first goal and Houston's typical boost in quality for the playoffs, they could get to the Cup for a third time running.
Over in the West, Seattle gave the suits at NBC and/or ESPN their precious: Sounders vs. Portland Timbers in the playoffs. However, Seattle is going to have a far more difficult time with Portland, whose central midfield will show Colorado exactly what they got wrong. No matter what you think of them, you never see Will Johnson and Diego Chara go missing like Sturgis and Thomas did Wednesday night.