WASHINGTON: Two-goal home playoff triumphs by the Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers on Sunday (Monday in Manila) put the clubs in prime position to advance to next month’s MLS Cup championship finals.
Justin Meram scored the fastest playoff goal in Major League Soccer history after only nine seconds and the Crew defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-0 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals.
Portland defenders Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers each scored off corner kicks in a 3-1 triumph over Dallas, putting the Timbers in command entering the second leg of the Western Conference finals.
The aggregate winners after next Sunday’s second legs advance to the MLS Cup final on December 6.
At Columbus, US midfielder Meram’s quick tally and Kei Kamara’s goal in the 85th minute off stellar footwork by fellow African standout Cedrick Mabwati provided the victory margin.
Off the opening kickoff, Crew midfielder Wil Trapp blasted a high ball forward to Sierra Leone striker Kamara, who flicked a header forward to the chest of Ethan Finlay.
Finlay managed a shot that was smothered but the ball came out to Meram, who stretched out his right foot and fired the ball into the net.
The Red Bulls, who had not been held scoreless since May, surrendered a second goal five minutes from full time after a tremendous play by Democratic Republic of Congo substitute Mabwati.
Starting at the top of the penalty area, Mabwati weaved past three defenders and drove to the right post. He flicked the ball past New York goalkeeper Luis Robles and left the ball in front of a wide open net for Kamara to apply the finishing nudge.
It was the 25th goal of the year and fourth of the playoffs for Kamara, who was mindful the Crew’s work was not done if they hope to add a second MLS crown to their 2008 title.
“We knew they were going to press us. It was hard to get out of the press,” Kamara said. “We scored some big goals. We’ve got to get back to work and get ready for the next one.”
It was the Crew’s first home shutout win in 14 matches.
At Portland, captain Ridgewell opened the scoring after Colombia’s Dairon Asprilla nodded down a corner kick. The 31-year-old Englishman’s first goal in MLS competition follows 17 goals over 11 English Premier League seasons with Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion.
Asprilla found the net in the 53rd minute, stealing a clearing attempt and bending a kick around a defender and into the upper left corner of the net.
Dallas answered in the 62nd minute, Uruguay striker David Texiera scoring off a pass from Mauro Diaz.
But Borchers scored seconds into stoppage time, finding the goal after a scramble in front of the net.
“I was able to toe-poke it in the side netting and that was it,” Borchers said. “It was big for us. Having a nice two-goal cushion means they have to come out and get after us.”