The first legs of the Conference Championships both saw the favorites surprisingly beaten away from home. In the east, New York lost 2-0 at Columbus Crew and Dallas were defeated 3-1 at Portland Timbers. Both games however produced a high class spectacle.
It took only nine seconds for the finals to take on a historical dimension. In the match between Spiel Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls, Justin Meram struck to give the hosts an early lead – and set the capacity crowd alight. Never before in the history of the North American professional league has a goal been scored quicker – the ecstatic spectators could hardly believe the start to Eastern Conference Championship. Excitement and amazement were written all over the faces of the club’s fans in the stands that were a sea of black and yellow – the club’s colors. Everybody was then ecstatic when the final whistle went – especially as top striker Kei Kamara had doubled the score after 85 minutes with his 25th goal of the season. The outsiders, who, in the regular season, finished runners-up five points behind Red Bull in the Eastern Conference, is in an excellent position going into the second leg in New York on Sunday (29 November).
Another team with a perfect launching pad to reach the big final of the Major League Soccer (MLS) is Portland Timbers who in the Western Conference Championship beat the favorites FC Dallas 3-1 (1-0). It meant both the top teams in the regular season suffered defeats and still have a lot to do if they are to reach the final.
However the MLS man of the day was the nine-second center-forward Justin Meram. The striker with the highly appropriate No. 9 on his back was none too surprised at scoring virtually straight from the kick-off after a long ball. “It’s a move we’ve been working on. I was the lucky one to be in the right place at the right moment to knock to ball home,” said the 26-year old. It didn’t diminish his pleasure at scoring: “It’s one of those moments that you wait for in your life and I’m just blessed and thankful for my teammates and everyone that put me in this position to put that goal in.” The Iraqi international had had a turbulent week in the lead-up to scoring the record-breaking goal. He had only been able to return to team training on Friday after being away on international duty which involved a 20 hour return flight. “It was tough. My body got banged up a little bit, but hats off to the trainers for putting in the time to get me healthy for this game,” said Meram.
Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter, who once turned out for 1860 Munich in the Bundesliga, was also highly delighted with the tremendous win and the dreamlike start: “It’s not something that is going to work all the time but it can be effective in creating pressure early in a game. Whether you score on it or not, you can create some pressure.”
The mood however at the regular season’s top team was way worse which could be rather expected: “It was pretty incredible that we dig a hole like that nine seconds into the game. we weren’t alert enough. We didn’t make it hard on Columbus,” said New York coach Jesse Marsch. But they still have high hopes going into the second leg: “It wasn’t our day. I think that there’s still a lot to play for here. This series isn’t over.”
On Sunday night (30 November), FC Dallas will have to reverse their bad start the Championship. The winner of the regular season in the Western Conference was surprisingly defeated with something to spare by third-placed Portland Timbers. The late strike to give the Timbers a 3-1 win was especially painful for the favorites – but sparked jubilation amongst the sell-out 21,144 crowd gathered in Providence Park. Nat Borchers was on hand to score the third goal for the Timbers in added time (90th +1) and put his team in an even better position ahead of the second leg. “It was for sure an important goal,” said the goal-scorer. The 33-year old defender with the prominent bushy red beard crowned an impressive performance by the hosts, who had previously qualified for the Championship final against Kansas City after an epic penalty-shoot involving every one of the 22 players.
Prior to Borchers adding the finishing touch, Liam Ridgewell (23rd) and Dairon Asprilla (53rd) had hit the back of the net for Portland and David Texeira (62nd) for Dallas. Before the late ecstatic scenes, the Timbers fans had been enchanted by above all the Columbian Asprilla. An outstanding performance in which he himself scored a goal and laid on another helped lead his team to the first leg win. “He was fantastic, what a brilliant goal he scored, I’m really pleased for him,” said Borchers.
Despite the disappointing result and the third goal at the end, the Dallas players still believe they can make it to the final. Goal-scorer Texeira nevertheless did not want to sugarcoat the evening. “It’s frustrating because we didn’t get the result today but we’re still confident. We still believe in this group and we believe that we can make it and we can turn around the game in Dallas.”