SEATTLE — The ball sits 24 yards from goal. Seattle Sounders teammates Clint Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz stand behind it, sizing up the FC Dallas wall and goalkeeper Jesse González’s positioning. Their hands cover their mouths as they speak, taking the rare chance in a sport that offers few premeditative moments to decide what to do.
“What are you thinking? How are you feeling?” Dempsey says after the game, recounting the topic of conversation. “I’m saying that I feel good, that I want to take it. I think it’s on to go near post.”
Soccer rarely stops dead for more than a few seconds. In these moments, a slight hush falls over even the most raucous stadiums, such as CenturyLink Field, where 39,599 fans sit on Sunday night to watch the hometown Sounders take on the top seed in the first leg of their MLS Western Conference semifinal series.
- MLS PLAYOFFS: Montreal 2, Columbus 1 | Portland 0, Vancouver 0 | New York Red Bulls 1, D.C. United 0 | Seattle Sounders 2, FC Dallas 1
The score sits tied at 1-1 in the 86th minute. After taking an early lead through an 18th-minute finish by Fabián Castillo on Mauro Díaz’s curling ball through the Seattle back line, Dallas is now in full retreat and has been since before halftime.
Ivanschitz equalized in the 67th minute, at the midway point of a second half in which Seattle would create five goalscoring opportunities compared to just two in the first. Unsatisfied, the Sounders push for more in their second playoff game at home this week after beating the LA Galaxy, 3-2, on Wednesday.
Their latest foray into the attacking third finishes with Matt Hedges taking down rookie midfielder Cristian Roldan. Suddenly, it becomes a moment made for a special player to leave his indelible stamp on the match.
So Dempsey and Ivanschitz contemplate the chance.
“It just felt like it’s his moment,” Ivanschitz says with the benefit of hindsight. “You just let him shoot.”
Up steps Dempsey, a player perpetually on the brink of execution. The result is as one man in the stadium, at least, might predict.
“Nothing Clint does surprises me,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid says. “He’s always capable to conjure up a goal at key moments.”
Dempsey waits for referee Kevin Stott’s whistle, taking a sideways shuffle step before accelerating through the ball. He strikes it with the instep of his right foot, stinging it into the top right-hand corner past González, whose starting position is too far toward the opposite post to allow him to recover.
Seattle wins, 2-1, to carry an important advantage into the away leg a week later.
“Sometimes, they go in. Sometimes, they don’t,” Dempsey says. “That’s kind of the nature of the game.”
It hasn’t been the easiest season for Dempsey, the former United States national team captain who saw his armband taken over by Michael Bradley in the summer.
Frequent injuries, a suspension for his outburst directed toward a referee—culminating in Dempsey tearing up his notebook—and a long winless run in midsummer would leave any player questioning himself.
However, four goals in the last three games seem to have brought Dempsey back closer to his usual self. An 11-game unbeaten streak in all competitions for Seattle, including two playoff wins, has done the same for his team.
The timing couldn’t be better, as the Sounders’ resurgence primes the team for a long playoff run. The only domestic trophy Dempsey hasn’t won in Seattle, and the only one the franchise has never won, is the MLS Cup.
“[The players] are willing to do anything right now to help us win, and they know it’s playoff time, it’s money time,” Schmid said. “They want an MLS Cup, and that’s why they’re going after it every game.”
In an attritional span of eight days that included the final game of the regular season, the team scored eight goals in three games, though it didn’t come through unscathed. The Sounders missed ostensible starters Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans and Leo González through injury on Sunday.
Still, Seattle’s form somewhat challenges the notion that rest is advantageous at this stage of the season, its remaining injuries notwithstanding. Rather than having time to stew on the situation, players can only patch up their bodies with a mixture of tape and odoriferous ointments before they venture onto the field again.
The Sounders won just twice in the regular season when they conceded the first goal or trailed at halftime, as they did on Sunday. But the playoffs require teams to become a better version of themselves or risk elimination.
“We’re a team that believes, so that one goal wasn’t going to deter us,” Schmid said.
For Seattle, Sunday’s adversity invoked a primal response. Bruised or not, no player needed reminding of the stakes of the game, especially on a team whose history includes 3-0 losses in the first leg of a playoff series in 2011 and 2012.
“Basically, if you don’t get the right result, you’re out, so we’re fighting for our survival,” Dempsey said. “We’re showing our character, showing how much we want to do well in this competition.”
Despite needing the comeback and carrying the slimmest lead possible into the away leg, Schmid said the team won’t back down in Dallas. After finally being able to take a full week to prepare for a match again, Seattle should be as fresh as it’s been in about a month.
“We go to win on the road, so we’re going to go to win there,” Schmid said. “I think if you go to win, then sometimes you come out with a tie. If you go for a tie, sometimes you come out for a loss. So we’re going to go to win, and if a tie is the end result, we’ll be happy with that.”