Breakdown: Stars shine as MLS conference semifinals wind to a close

Landon Donovan celebrates one of his three goals in LA Galaxy's 5-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Sunday night.

Jake Roth/Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando captured the sentiment of the entire playoff weekend as he grappled with the impact made by Landon Donovan on Sunday night.

Donovan provided the inspiration in LA Galaxy’s 5-0 victory over RSL. He scored three times and supplied Robbie Keane with another, but his overall influence perked up his teammates and ushered the home side into the Western Conference final.

“He is great,” Rimando told reporters after the game. “He has got some fire in his belly for sure. He is a player that is special and has been special for quite some time. Tonight, you can see that he wants it bad.” 

The assessment extends beyond Donovan this weekend, though. Key players cropped up at the vital times in the three conference semifinal ties this weekend and exerted their influence over the games. Their presence did not necessarily determine the outcome, but it played a significant part in how the proceedings unfolded.

Donovan stands as the shining example, but the other two fixtures over the weekend included a fair sprinkling of star dust at the right time, too.

New York forward Thierry Henry emerged from an otherwise humdrum performance to provide the critical moment in D.C. United’s 2-1 victory at RFK Stadium on Saturday. Henry created a yard of space on the left and curled an inviting ball for Peguy Luyindula to nod home at the near post just before the hour. The vital away goal essentially dashed United’s hopes of advancing and sent the Red Bulls through to the Eastern Conference final.

New England will join them after another timely contribution from Lee Nguyen tipped the balance in the Revolution’s 3-1 victory over Columbus on Sunday night. Nguyen — recalled to the U.S. national team for the first time since 2007 on Monday morning — floated past the Crew defense and smashed home the opener to give the Revs a lead on the stroke of halftime. His contribution scuppered the Crew’s measured approach and stretched the proceedings to the Revolution’s benefit in the second half.

These exploits are nothing new to these particular players, but they carry additional weight at this time of the campaign as the stakes increase. Those contributions often mean the difference between failure and success at this stage of the campaign. This weekend underscored the point once more as the last four finally took shape.

Seattle, FC Dallas finish out the semifinal slate

Seattle and FC Dallas will heed those lessons carefully as they prepare to conclude their finely poised Western Conference semifinal series on Monday night.

Sounders FC will expect to progress after securing a 1-1 draw in Frisco last Sunday, but the return of Mauro Diaz (one-match suspension) injects a new element into the proceedings. FCD coach Oscar Pareja must figure out how to accommodate the influential playmaker in his tactical shape and tweak his side accordingly.

FCD must retain its composure at the outset given the state of play. RSL showed the potential danger in opening the match without a firm foundation in place. If FCD can navigate through the opening stages at CenturyLink Field, then it can locate the footing required to ask some questions of a Sounders FC side with a mixed postseason record.

Sigi Schmid and his players will hope to dispel any notion of failure by relying on their strengths on the break and striking early. They enter this second leg in good position. They must now rely on Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to produce the goal or two required to arrange yet another pair of matches against the Galaxy in the Western Conference final.

Five Points – Conference semifinals, second legs

1. International duty will complicate conference final preparations: U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann included 10 MLS players in his squad to face Colombia and Ireland. Robbie Keane is expected to feature on the other side of that fixture for his country. Several other players will link up with their nations during the international break, too. MLS planned for this interlude by leaving this weekend open. The remaining clubs and coaches must follow suit in order to ensure their stars do not feel any ill effects from their international exertions.

2. New York leans on experience to meander through United test…: The visitors grasped the task at hand at R.F.K. Stadium on Saturday and tailored their approach accordingly. Their work in the first leg meant they could sit back, soak up some pressure and then wait for the right opportunity to pounce. Their plan worked to perfection as the defensive base remained strong and Henry combined with Luyindula to produce the away goal required to secure a date with New England in the Eastern Conference final.

3. … but the Red Bulls must plan for New England without Roy Miller: The veteran left back will miss both legs of the Eastern Conference final after triggering a one-match suspension for caution accumulation prior to his late dismissal for a wild challenge. New York coach Mike Petke has a ready replacement in Ambroise Oyongo, but he must adjust accordingly to compensate for the loss of experience in that particular department.

4. New England continues its sterling form: The mature display against Columbus made it 11 wins in 13 attempts for the in-form Revolution. Their current blend – a mix of a solid defensive shape and a swashbuckling counter – is perfectly suited to the postseason. New York will present a stern test, but the Revs might now have the pieces in place to cope with all of the challenges ahead.

5. Galaxy find their footing on the ball to go through: Most of LA Galaxy’s success this season stemmed from their dexterity in possession and their precise work to carve apart the opposition through the lines. Those qualities disappeared over the past couple of matches, but they returned in force for the second leg against RSL. The home side stamped its authority on the match in midfield and worked its way deftly through the out-of-sorts RSL rearguard time and time again. This menacing display issued a warning to future opponents: cope with the Galaxy in midfield or face the painful consequences.