Just when you think the MLS playoffs can't get any crazier...
An insane closing six minutes of regulation saw the fortunes change hands multiple times between FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders, the former of which ultimately took their Western Conference semifinal with a 4–2 victory in a penalty kick shootout after a 3–3 aggregate draw and will play for the right to advance to MLS Cup.
After bringing wave and wave of pressure only to be constantly denied, FC Dallas finally got the goal it needed, as substitute forward Tesho Akindele's 84th-minute strike forced a 2–2 aggregate tie and had Dallas ahead on away goals. For the time being, that is. Seattle center back Chad Marshall responded in the 90th minute with a header off a corner kick, restoring Seattle’s one-goal aggregate edge and pulling the Sounders even on away goals.
The hosts bounced right back, though, as another substitute, Walker Zimmerman, scored on a Dallas corner kick in stoppage time to force 30 more minutes.
Dallas had the better of the chances in extra time, but could not find a way past goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
In penalties, Jesse Gonzalez was the hero, making consecutive saves to put the Sounders to the sword, and Zimmerman fittingly scored the decisive kick, putting FC Dallas back in the conference final for the first time since 2010, when it finished as MLS Cup finalist.
Here are three thoughts on the wild match:
Jesse Gonzalez is how old? And doing what?
FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja trusts his youth. That’s been documented, and he’s not shy about it. Peruse the FC Dallas roster and see the number of players in their teens or lower 20s making key contributions over the course of the season. It’s plentiful.
Well, the 20-year-old Gonzalez is one of them. After beating MLS veterans Dan Kennedy and Chris Seitz for FCD’s No. 1 job and taking the reins Aug. 22, Gonzalez hasn’t looked back. He was a picture of poise in the penalty-kick shootout, calmly holding his line and guessing right (going left) to deny both Andreas Ivanschitz and Chad Barrett and putting FCD in the driver’s seat.
You never know how a player of Gonzalez’s age and experience is going to fare when the pressure gets to its highest, but he handled it like a true pro. FC Dallas has a gem of an asset in the Mexican youth international, and Pareja, as he’s shown, is not afraid to unleash him.
With the likes of homegrown players Gonzalez, Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta in addition to foreign signings Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz and Michael Barrios (more on him below) Pareja has built a sustainable model for success in Frisco (to be fair, he had started to do the same in Colorado until the regime that followed him moved in a different direction) and carved out a true identity for the franchise.
Barrios a one-man wrecking crew
For all of the defensive answers that Seattle had (until the waning moments of regulation, of course), it had none for Barrios. The 24-year-old Colombian was an absolute menace on the flank, torching Seattle’s left and constantly sending dangerous balls into the area.
For all the plaudits (rightfully so) that Castillo and Diaz receive for their work, Barrios’s incessant pressure played a large role in Dallas’s eventual breakthrough. JeVaughn Watson may have delivered the key assist on Akindele’s initial equalizer, but it came on the heels of the groundwork Barrios laid on that flank.
Barrios accumulated all of his seven goals and two assists from July 4 on, seizing his opportunity to become a regular starter for FC Dallas and running with it. With performances like the one he had Sunday night, you can see why Pareja gave him the keys.
Seattle comes up short again
This game was by no means conventional, and with injuries to key cogs like Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans, Seattle has a built-in excuse for ultimately failing to progress. But that is the bottom line: Seattle came up short again in its quest to win MLS Cup.
The club seemed to have found its stride, entering Sunday on an 11-match unbeaten streak, and for a while, it appeared as if Seattle’s defend-at-all-costs tactics would work. The Sounders were six minutes away from ousting FCD with a scoreless second leg for the second straight season, as Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez regularly dropped back to defend in order to counter Dallas’s flair and ball movement in Seattle’s own third, and the Sounders looked like a team that fully bought in to win by sticking together, staying organized, sacrificing for one another and making sure they didn’t break.
Especially after overcoming that daunting Galaxy hurdle in the first round and getting Dempsey’s heroics in the first leg vs. FC Dallas, Seattle looked primed to go through, but now the questions have to be asked: Will the team try to get younger in key spots in the attack (ahem, Jordan Morris) and on the back line? What more does general manager Garth Lagerwey need to do to tweak the roster to form a winning combination? Will Sigi Schmid get the benefit of the doubt again and return, or is it time for someone else to take charge?
There are no easy answers, and given the manner in which Seattle went out, it’s not like a colossal overhaul is needed. But with expectations in the Emerald City perennially high, there's no way swallowing the PK pill is going to be easy for the Sounders’ powers that be.