Who could have foreseen Srdjan Djekanovic as a playoff hero for the Montreal Impact? (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Carolina 4 [Paladini 64' Gardner 72' Lowery 84' Kallman (og) 88'] (4) - (0) 0 Minnesota: So, farewell then, the NSC Minnesota Stars. It was probably the last game involving a professional soccer team for Minnesota for a few years, unless a miraculous Mr. Moneybags comes through to purchase the club from the National Sports Center. The scoreline was an embarrassment, as Minnesota follows up a promising 0-0 draw at home with an embarrassing thumping in Cary, North Carolina. In truth, Carolina badly outplayed Minnesota, and in addition to their four goals they had three absolutely sterling chances denied only by the heroics of veteran goalkeeper Joe Warren. Warren is one of the few Stars players I'd back as being able to start elsewhere in the second division, but as a Minnesota native who's never played outside his home state and was only just lured out of retirement from a coaching position, he's also the least likely to do so.
Minnesota ran into problems early, when captain and former Canadian youth international Andres Arango saw red in the thirty-eighth minute after an altercation with Carolina's Tom Heinemann. But Minnesota held Carolina scoreless for the first hour and even generated some serious opportunities, particularly off the feet of midfielder Devin Del Do who was in particularly lively form. Unfortunately, when it rained, it poured: Minnesota struggled to clear the ball all night and one bad clearance was worked around to Carolina substitute midfielder Daniel Paladini, who nailed an unstoppable shot past Warren and established a lead that Carolina would only build on. Josh Gardner and Amir Lowery would also score before a Brian Kallman own goal in the eighty-eighth minute added a heaping dose of insult to injury.
The scoreline will impress anyone but Carolina did not look remarkably strong in the victory. They gave possession up too cheaply and were at times complacent in defense, allowing Minnesota their handful of opportunities. The Stars in fact put five shots on target and had a few other close calls, including a shot from Simone Bracalello that kissed off the post while the game was still in the balance. The Railhawks will have to be careful not to get too comfortable in the next round against the dangerous Montreal Impact.
Rochester 2 [Hoxie 39' Hamilton 54'] (2) - (3) 1 Puerto Rico [Rivera 21']: Rochester put themselves in a big hole last Wednesday with an undistinguished 2-0 loss in Puerto Rico and faced a real up-hill climb in grabbing two goals back against the Islanders. Unfortunately for the Rhinos, things got worse before they got better: seldom-scoring centre back Alexis Rivera knocked in a goal in the twenty-first minute, thanks to a sloppy clearance from former Whitecap Kenold Versailles, that stunned the Rochester crowd of 4,620 and gave the Islanders a 3-0 lead on aggregate. Soon after, the Islanders just missed on a chance from striker Jonathan Fana. It was all going wrong in a hurry for Rochester.
Needing an improbable three goals in their last seventy minutes, Rochester opened it up and went for the attack. The Islanders continued to try and snipe chances on the counter rather than bunkering, and Rochester goalkeeper Neal Kitson was forced into some neat saves in the second half, but the momentum gradually started to swing Rochester's way. Striker Andrew Hoxie scored in the thirty-ninth minute, and shortly after the half-time interval his strike partner Anthony Hamilton poached a fine rebound to give Rochester a 2-1 lead in the game but leave them a goal behind in the series.
Rochester kept looking for chances, and with thirty-eight minutes left substituted in leading scorer Isaac Kissi in spite of concerns about Kissi's fitness. But though Rochester put a few shots on veteran Puerto Rico goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, ultimately the Rhinos were not able to get a clear enough chance to tie the series. The best chance in fact went Puerto Rico's way, when Fana forced a lovely save out of Kitson on a well-struck volley. When the whistle blew, the frustrated Rhinos had won the battle but not the war, and the first seed had gone out to the eighth in the biggest upset of the playoffs.
Austin 2 [M. Griffin 43' Johnson 57'] (2) - (5) 3 Montreal [Gerba 4' 49' Sebrango 89']: The best viewing for the neutral came in Austin, Texas, when the Aztex tried to overturn a 2-0 series deficit against the Montreal Impact. Both teams are known for their scoring and it was the Montreal attack which struck early: in the fourth minute, big Ali Gerba somehow emerged from behind his marker on a Philippe Billy free kick and neatly defected Billy's ball past Austin's Miguel Gallardo. With a 3-0 aggregate deficit, Austin was staring directly at the fate suffered by Rochester earlier in the evening.
Austin pressed the attack immediately and soon had their reward: in the ninth minute, a foul by Montreal in the area gave the Aztex a penalty. Jamie Watson stepped up to take it, but in spite of striking the ball fairly crisply his penalty was saved by Montreal's Matt Jordan. Watson grabbed another chance in the eighteenth minute, heading a corner low that ought to have been a goal only to be robbed again by Jordan. With time running out in the first half they finally beat the veteran Impact keeper, when Watson set up Maxwell Griffin with a lovely ball that caught Jordan away from his goal and gave Griffin an easy goal.
No sooner had the second half begun than that man Ali Gerba cropped up again, corralling a long ball from Leonardo di Lorenzo and slamming it past Gallardo to restore the three-goal lead. Desperate for an answer, the Aztex got a goal from leading scorer and former Manchester United product Eddie Johnson, who turned a good pass into a powerful run that got him in the area before beating Jordan low. The Aztex still needed two goals but fate intervened on their side in the sixty-eighth minute, Jordan stretched himself awkwardly diving for the ball and was removed with a groin strain, forcing the Impact to bring in substitute keeper Srdjan Djekanovic.
But the change helped Austin not a whit. Both shots on Djekanovic were neatly stopped and the Impact defense kept any further opportunities away. The last word came in the eighty-ninth minute to 37-year-old striker Eduardo Sebrango, beating Gallardo with a weak shot that gave Montreal a 3-2 win in the game and a 5-2 win in the series.
The playoff matchups for next week are as follows: Montreal will play Carolina, with the first leg taking place Thursday, October 14 at Stade Saputo. And the longest road trip in professional sports will get one last run out, as the Puerto Rico Islanders will play the winner of the Portland Timbers - Vancouver Whitecaps series to be concluded tonight.