The Colorado Rapids won't go away easily. They proved as much on Sunday, advancing to the Western Conference finals with a brilliant (if hard-to-watch) defensive display against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Shëlzken Gashi scored the game's only goal in regulation, and Tim Howard saved two penalty kicks in the shootout after extra time as the Rapids advanced with a 1–0 win (and a 3–1 win in the shootout).
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In an MLS playoff field rife with interesting matchups, this was always bound to be the most cagey and defensive of the conference semifinals. The Galaxy and Rapids are the two stingiest defenses in the league, and the teams showed why over the course of a grueling and ultimately boring 180 minutes over two weekends. On Sunday, defensive shape, strong tackles, and a complete dearth of good scoring chances characterized the day.
Even when there was a goal, it came in circumstances where you would never expect one. Gashi broke the deadlock in the first half with a ridiculous strike from long distance, but that was the only goal in regulation. The malaise carried over into extra time, when an odd and frankly sort of funny confrontation between Sam Cronin and Robbie Keane served as the most exciting action.
The Rapids' fairytale season will continue in two weeks in the Western Conference finals, where they'll face the winner of the FC Dallas-Seattle Sounders matchup. In the meantime, here are three thoughts on Sunday's second-leg snoozefest.
Shkëlzen Gashi’s goal was a thing of beauty.
The Galaxy and Rapids spent the better part of 30 minutes locked in a chess match-like game that belied the game’s playoff stakes. That all changed with a single spectacular strike from Shëlzen Gashi. The Albanian international was given space and time in the middle of the park, which was understandable given how far he was from the goal. Still, Gashi took advantage of that space by unleashing this vicious curler that flew by Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe and nicked the post on the way in.
Gashi ended up leaving the game with an ankle injury at the end of the first half, and his presence was sorely missed in the second stanza, extra time, and PKs. At least he left on a high note.
For as bad as it played in regulation, the Galaxy still had a chance to advance out of the tie on penalty kicks. However, their weak efforts from the spot assured that they wouldn't. Of LA's efforts, only Gerrard's was taken with any kind of assurance. Dos Santos skied his over the bar, and Ashley Cole's first-ever penalty kick in a competitive game was hit with a predictable lack of venom and was easily saved by Howard. (Indeed, one must wonder why Cole was taking a penalty at all in such a high-pressure situation).
In the meantime, the Rapids looked fully at home in their own stadium, burying penalties with aplomb and putting all the pressure on holding midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to save the Galaxy's season. His effort, hit to almost the precise spot (and at the precise pace) as Cole's, was again easily saved by Howard.
The Rapids' M.O. all season has been to slow games down, cut off opponent's attacks, and take advantage of every half-opportunity their attack is given. On Sunday, Colorado did the first two things, but failed to do the last. There weren't many clear-cut chances for the Rapids to score, but the few that they generated were wasted. Dominiqe Badji in particular blew two notable chances. The first came in the 72nd minute, having been put clean through on goal with a nice ball from Jermaine Jones. However, with Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe doing well to cut off the angle, Badji failed to even hit the target. The second came in extra time, when Badji got his head in the six-yard box to a cross from Marc Burch, but couldn't get any power or placement behind it.
Amazingly enough, the Galaxy were worse. With Landon Donovan removed at halftime with an unspecified injury and Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane starting on the bench, it was all on dos Santos to lead the Galaxy attack. He couldn't conjure much. The Galaxy only managed one shot on target all game, and by the end of the game the whole team simply looked gassed. PKs are always an imperfect way to decide a playoff tie, but in this case it may have been the only way this tie was ever going to be decided.