Houston and Los Angeles offered a resounding reminder regular-season exploits hold little weight in the chase for MLS Cup on Wednesday night.
The two MLS Cup finalists from a year ago returned to their old tricks to dispatch favored San Jose and Sporting Kansas City in vastly different ways. Dominic Kinnear's side booked its fifth conference final berth in seven years with a dogged defensive display to secure a 1-0 defeat at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park and advance 2-1 on aggregate.
The defending champions combined a firm defensive shape with a swashbuckling approach in attack to notch a stunning 3-1 victory at Buck Shaw Stadium and send the Supporters' Shield winners out at the first postseason hurdle with a 3-2 defeat on aggregate.
With a place in the conference final now secured, the Dynamo and the Galaxy will now watch intently as a weather-impacted series in New York and a tightly contested tie in Sandy determine the remaining two berths tonight.
For now, FOX Soccer takes a look at how a busy, controversial and engaging night unfolded around MLS:
New York Red Bulls - D.C. United: Postponed (Series tied 1-1 on aggregate)
Eleven buses carrying 700 D.C. United fans had traveled north for the finale of this hotly contested series, tied at 1-1 after the first game. A surprising number of New York Red Bulls fans had endured a public transportation system still crippled by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and braved a Nor'easter's unrelenting snow.
But there was no game to reward them for their troubles. After a brave but comical effort by dozens of men manually trying to clear the field of the snow falling faster than they could plow it off, Red Bull Arena's slushy turf was deemed unplayable. The game will be played at 7.30 p.m. ET on Thursday instead.
Sporting Kansas City 1 Houston Dynamo 0 (Houston advances 2-1 on aggregate)
The fury was unleashed as soon as the first whistle rang out. Sporting knew full well it needed a two-goal win just to send this series to extra time and a margin of three to the good to win it. It had lost the first leg of this series 2-0 in Houston, after all, when a magnificent Adam Moffat strike and a Will Bruin tally had upended their superior performance.
But as it did in the first leg, Houston, which boasts oodles of playoff experience and made it to last season's MLS Cup Final, knew just how to repel Sporting's endless waves of attack. It relinquished almost all possession, absorbed unrelenting pressure and bunkered in into its own half with wingers Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis pulled back deep. There, the Dynamo harassed those on the ball and maintained an almost neurotic organization.
Sporting mustered just a few chances in the first half, which strikers C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara carved out on their sheer athleticism but failed to convert. Kansas City, which is unaccustomed to being played as physically as Houston has battled it, quickly grew frustrated by its dire plight and the game got testy.
At times this bout resembled a wrestling match as opponents slammed each other to the ground and applied head locks in aerial duels. This continual disruption caused by frequent fouling was to the detriment of Sporting, which once again failed to establish its breakneck rhythm.
It wasn't until the second half that Sporting forced its breakthrough and made a game of it. The excellent Kamara found the equally impressive Graham Zusi a little room on the right wing, from whence he swung a cross towards the far post, which met the forehead of the diving Seth Sinovic and then the nets.
But for all the frenetic attacking Sporting did thereafter, it never did find the equalizer. Its best chance came in the 73rd minute, when Sapong got onto the end of a long, low cross from Kamara but saw his chip sail inches over the empty goal as he emerged from the three-man melee.
And so Sporting, the East's top seed, was bounced by a much less accomplished but far savvier Dynamo, the East's bottom seed, for a second year in a row. And given how they'd managed these games, this wasn't entirely unjust.
San Jose Earthquakes 1 - Los Angeles Galaxy 3 (Los Angeles advances 3-2 on aggregate)
The defending champions produced a display worthy of their station to sweep aside the Supporters' Shield winners at Buck Shaw Stadium. Robbie Keane scored twice and Mike Magee added a third before halftime to overturn the slender one-goal deficit after the first leg and place the Galaxy in firm control of the series. Second-half substitute Alan Gordon hooked home eight minutes from time to set the stage for one last display of late heroics, but the Earthquakes could not summon the necessary magic to prolong their postseason journey.
Victor Bernárdez's early departure through injury invited the Galaxy forward and permitted the visitors to grasp firm control of the game as the Earthquakes' back four adjusted to Ike Opara's unanticipated arrival. Robbie Keane benefited from a neat Edson Buddle diagonal run and some tentative defending to drive in low off the post to open the scoring after 21 minutes.
The Ireland captain doubled the advantage in the 34th minute by moving cleverly across the line in a three-versus-three situation, sliding into the path of Landon Donovan's through ball and slotting home coolly. Magee compounded the Earthquakes' miserable opening stanza six minutes before halftime with a rasping first-time drive after Donovan and Sean Franklin exposed shoddy defending off a throw-in.
San Jose stuttered in its attempts to break down the Galaxy's rigid shape for much of the second half. Gordon clambered off the bench for the final 15 minutes and provided the spark required to create some doubt in the waning stages. The U.S. international forward breathed new life into Buck Shaw Stadium by turning home Justin Morrow's shot eight minutes from time. Los Angeles squandered several late forays into the attacking third to maintain the drama, but Opara blazed over the bar moments before the final whistle to ensure ended The Goonies' run once and for all.