Montreal 1 (Di Lorenzo 35') - 0 Carolina: The Carolina Railhawks are the higher seed in this series against the Montreal Impact, but there aren't many pundits who'd predict a Carolina victory over Montreal. The Impact are probably the most playoff-hardened team in the league and added key players Ali Gerba and Antonio Ribeiro towards the end of the season, whereas the Railhawks are relatively inexperienced and have never really aspired to dominance in spite of their imposing record. Those pundits would almost... almost... entirely unsurprised by what unfolded at Stade Saputo last night.
From the kickoff, Montreal came out firing on all cylinders. The formidable Gerba gave the Railhawks defense fits and they simply had no answer for him: in concentrating on the big man they also gave too much space to Eduardo Sebrango, who may be 37 and not as fast as he used to be but is also a highly accomplished professional goalscorer who has found a new lease on life late in the season. Between them, Gerba and Sebrango very nearly imposed their will on Carolina's defense. But though they bent enormously, the Railhawks just managed to keep from breaking. The Impact were also let down by their crowd: an attendance of 7,502 would be the best gate in the Railhawks' history but for an Impact home playoff game, midweek or no, it is shockingly below average.
Goalkeeper Eric Reed was on tremendous form for Carolina. He cut out a number of dangerous crosses and made six saves, very few of which would be considered routine, as the Impact buzzed around looking to break through. They finally got their opener in the thirty-fifth minute, when Argentine midfielder Leonardo Di Lorenzo scorched a free kick along the grass that hooked marvelously and just beat Reed. Meanwhile, the Railhawks did not test Matt Jordan once in the first half and put their mere three shots hilariously off target. It was entirely one-way traffic and Carolina was lucky to emerge down only by one goal.
But, though he had little enough work, Jordan apparently aggravated the groin injury that saw him leave Saturday's game against the Austin Aztex. Jordan came out at halftime and once again Montreal was forced to call upon the services of backup Srdjan Djekanovic, this time in a far more vulnerable position. The Impact clearly played back with Djekanovic in goal rather than Jordan, hoping to get out with a 1-0 lead and avoid challenging Djekanovic too keenly. Djekanovic is twenty-seven years old, a professional veteran, and perhaps the best backup goalkeeper in the second division, but he is still the backup goalkeeper.
Taking advantage of their new-found space, the Railhawks played a much more even second half. They fouled the Impact repeatedly but intelligently and wound up with far more possession. At times they even seemed to be threatening for an equalizer, but they never seriously pushed the Impact to their limit. They did put a shot on target at last, but it was a routine opportunity that Djekanovic did not struggle with. And while they also kept the Impact off the ball enough to keep them from tormenting Eric Reed any further, the Impact at times still looked more likely to score than the Railhawks did.
A 1-0 victory is not the margin Montreal would have wanted, and Carolina will return to WakeMed Soccer Park knowing they have a real chance in the series. But if the Impact play as well as they did last night, that chance will be a slim one.
Puerto Rico 0 - 0 Vancouver: For more details, see the full Eighty Six Forever recap of this match.
Playing in the little 500-seat Bayamon Soccer Complex on a staggeringly hot and humid day with rain constantly threatening, the Puerto Rico Islanders owned as much of a home field advantage over the Vancouver Whitecaps as they were ever going to get. In similar conditions last week, the Islanders walloped the Rochester Rhinos 2-0 to effectively win themselves the series, and not only did Rochester finish with a far better record than Vancouver but, coming in from Portland, Vancouver had flown much, much further to get there.
To their credit, Vancouver clearly respected Puerto Rico's offensive potential. From kickoff they seemed determined to play sound defense, to get a draw and maybe snatch a win on the counter attack. Going back to a 4-4-2 formation from their earlier 4-2-3-1, Vancouver tried to keep possession and forced Puerto Rico to fight for every scoring chance. Through the first half, the chances were quite even and perhaps even leaned in Vancouver's favour, as the Islanders found themselves constantly frustrated by the Whitecaps' active midfield and defense and turned the ball over without achieving much for all that possession. Puerto Rico had more shots but only one, a shot off the post from Kendall Jagdeosingh, even hinted at a goal. Meanwhile, Vancouver at least had some promising forays that were snuffed out at the last minute by desperate defense or the enterprise of Puerto Rico goalkeeper Bill Gaudette.
To begin the second half it was more of the same, but gradually the pitch began to lean in Puerto Rico's direction. Forward Cody Arnoux had to go off injured for Vancouver, and with every stoppage more Whitecaps would find themselves bent over struggling to catch their breath as the oppressive conditions caught up with them. Temperature at kickoff was 31 degrees Celcius (88 degrees Fahrenheit) with near-100% humidity, and in spite of three days' training in Puerto Rico the Whitecaps were obviously struggling to adapt.
The Islanders pushed forward to try and capitalize on their advantage, but even the natives were finding it tough sledding. The turf at Bayamon Soccer Complex is an old style and poorly laid with large seams, meaning that without perfect care and plenty of energy it's hard to move the ball along the carpet. The Islanders had enough energy to catch the Whitecaps' defenders flat-footed and make several promising forays, but not enough to make the last great effort and put their chances home, or get the ball in close enough that accuracy would be a moot point. Too often, the Islanders would get the ball into the Vancouver half, own possession, but be unable to struggle past the defense and be forced to lay the ball off to a midfielder who, with no more energy than his strikers, would slam a feeble ball well over the goal. None of Puerto Rico's strikers had a registered shot whereas defender Kevon Villaroel, to pick a name, had three. Only one shot on goal troubled goalkeeper Jay Nolly, and it was a simple enough punching save.
The 0-0 draw is a just result, but it's bad news for the Puerto Rico Islanders. The Islanders are a deplorable road team, but they will head to Swangard Stadium needing to either win outright or snatch a draw then prevail on penalties. Neither is likely. The Whitecaps may not have won the battle, but it may have allowed them to win the war.