Houston Dynamo sauntered into Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference semi-finals with a 3-0 win over the impetuous Montreal Impact at BBVA Compass Stadium Thursday night.
First-half strikes from Will Bruin and Oscar Boniek Garcia gave Houston a comfortable lead that the visitors rarely threatened to overturn. Bruin added a third goal during an ugly finish that saw Montreal reduced to eight men.
The Dynamo, playing its 24th playoff game since joining MLS in 2006, could scarcely have asked for an easier opponent. Montreal backed into its first post-season berth in dismal form with four points from its last eight league games.
Veteran Impact midfielders Davy Arnaud and Patrice Bernier slid out of form in recent weeks along with Brazilian playmaker Felipe Martins. That prompted Swiss head coach Marco Schallibaum to select Andrea Pisanu, Andrew Wenger and Justin Mapp in a three-pronged attack behind top scorer Marco Di Vaio. The trio failed to influence the game as Houston’s midfield diamond dominated the first hour of play.
Warren Creavalle’s emergence as a starter in the Dynamo midfield allowed head coach Dominic Kinnear to trade Adam Moffat to the Seattle Sounders in September while retaining a counterweight to the attacking qualities of Garcia and Brad Davis. Creavalle nullified any threat that Wenger might have posed Houston’s back line. His deep-lying presence encouraged Kofi Sarkodie to charge forward to great effect from right-back.
University of Akron product Sarkodie created the game’s first chance with an inviting cross that found Ricardo Clark’s galloping run into the box. Clark’s firm header from 12 yards flew straight into goalkeeper Troy Perkins’ grasp.
Former Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Clark created the opening goal on 16 minutes with typical foraging toward the opposition’s penalty area. Matteo Ferrari’s failure to intercept a through ball from Bruin allowed Clark to gain possession 25 yards out. His deft backheel freed Bruin on the inside-left channel and the 6-foot-2-inch forward buried his shot inside Perkins’ far corner.
The combined struggles of Pisanu, Wenger and Mapp left Montreal’s defenders hitting hopeful balls over the top of Houston’s back line that invariably found Di Vaio straying offside. The Italian sparked an early confrontation with Corey Ashe after petulantly shoving the Dynamo left-back into goalkeeper Tally Hall as they chased a long pass. This feud flared up again later in the evening.
Mapp dragged a 20-yard shot wide of target after a defensive miscue by the Dynamo defense on 18 minutes before Houston punished a shocking blunder at the other end to double the lead. Hassoun Camara gifted the ball to Garcia with a loose pass out of the back on 26 minutes that allowed the Honduran to attack Montreal’s penalty area. Argentine designated player Hernan Bernardello foolishly tripped Garcia inside the box as two covering defenders blocked his progress.
Garcia steered his spot kick low inside Perkins’ right post as the goalkeeper dived to his left side.
Houston could have ended the game as a contest within the first half-hour but for the wastefulness of Giles Barnes. Davis found the Englishman on the left side during a fast break before embarking on a 50-yard overlapping run. Barnes selfishly cut inside his marker rather than using his teammate’s support to blaze a shot well wide of target.
A third Dynamo goal still seemed most likely before the interval. Barnes struck a better effort with his left foot that forced Perkins into a low save at his near post. Bruin almost steered his knockdown into Garcia’s path, and Sarkodie continued to provide an excellent outlet for Houston’s attacking play with his marauding runs up the flank.
DeAndre Yedlin has attracted much media hype as a future United States national team player during his debut season in Seattle. Sarkodie should surely be ahead of his fellow former Akron Zip in any conversation having benefitted from two additional years in MLS to address his weaknesses.
Montreal’s clearest chance to get back into the game came two minutes before half-time when Wenger pounced on a second Houston error to release Di Vaio on the right of the penalty box. Hall sprinted from his line to narrow the Italian’s shooting angle and stayed upright to block Di Vaio’s attempted chip.
Schallibaum made his three substitutions around the hour mark in an attempt to kickstart Montreal’s offense. Argentine forward Andres Romero replaced the inconspicuous Pisanu and the disappointing Wenger made way for Felipe. Holding midfielder Collen Warner was sacrificed for Italian forward Daniele Paponi as Schallibaum changed to a 3-4-3 system.
The athletic Creavalle made an important block on Mapp after the 29-year-old winger drifted off the right side into a shooting space. Di Vaio forced Hall into a save from 25 yards, and the goalkeeper pushed another effort from Paponi around his post as Montreal finally offered some resistance.
Any lingering hopes of a comeback evaporated on 70 minutes when Nelson Rivas was dismissed. The Colombian defender received a yellow card in the first half for an uncompromising stiff-arm shove to Barnes’ neck. An elbow to Bruin’s head during an aerial joust ended Rivas’ involvement in his first game of the season after recovering from a fractured left knee.
Bruin completed the scoring two minutes later with another goal that highlighted Montreal’s creaking roster. The burly forward could hardly be described as pacy, yet he made up a two-yard deficit on Ferrari to reach his own flicked header after Ashe punted the ball away from Houston’s penalty box. Bruin calmly stepped inside Jeb Brovsky before stroking a right-foot shot beyond the exposed Perkins for his sixth playoff goal in seven games.
Montreal had hoisted the white flag early in the game. All that remained was for the red mist to descend. Referee Mark Geiger dismissed Romero for crudely whacking Sarkodie after the ball got trapped under the Dynamo player’s body. Di Vaio soon followed when his earlier argument with Ashe resurfaced into a scratching match during the ensuing scuffle.
The Dynamo hosts the Supporters’ Shield winning New York Red Bulls Sunday before concluding the two-game series on Nov. 6 at Red Bull Arena.
Dec. 4, 2012 — The Eight Minutes That Won MLS Cup No.4 For L.A.