Clint Dempsey and the Sounders fought through some tough moments to progress to the Western Conference Semifinals. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Three thoughts on the Seattle Sounders' 2-0 win over the visiting Colorado Rapids in Wednesday night’s Western Conference knockout match.
1) Seattle found its playoff grit -- The Sounders (16-12-7) were horrible down the stretch and stumbled into the playoffs on a 0-4-3 slide that included three multi-goal defeats. That miserable stretch, plus the club’s checkered playoff past, didn’t leave room for much optimism.
But the Sounders fought through the poor form, the injuries, the rain and the referee to win the sort of rugged playoff game that’s bedeviled them before. Seattle started strong, maintained its composure when early chances went awry, held off the hard-charging Rapids (14-12-9) and then punctuated the win with a late goal. It was genuine playoff soccer.
The Sounders’ U.S. national team contingent played a critical role. Running at the top of coach Sigi Schmid’s new diamond midfield, Clint Dempsey demonstrated his quality with several incisive runs and penetrating passes. His switch to Eddie Johnson in the 28th moment ripped open the Rapids' defense and helped set the table for a dangerous cross from Leo Gonzalez that was cleared out to Brad Evans. The U.S. national team’s right back, playing in midfield for Seattle, demonstrated his attacking prowess with a perfect half-volley that beat Colorado goalkeeper Clint Irwin for the opening goal.
Johnson scored the backbreaker in stoppage time, taking a feed from Dempsey, rounding befuddled defender Germán Mera and finishing at the near post.
The stars came through when it mattered.
2) Shallow Rapids -- The Rapids wore their blue alternate uniforms for some reason, which was fitting for a match in which they didn’t look like themselves. Missing a couple of key attacking players and with a reshuffled back line, Colorado simply couldn’t get a handle on the game until more than an hour had passed. This certainly wasn’t the same squad that crushed the Sounders 5-1 on Oct. 5. At this stage of coach Oscar Pareja’s rebuild, the Rapids simply aren’t deep enough to beat a team like Seattle without a full complement.
Rookie of the Year favorite Dillon Powers (five goals, six assists) was absent with concussion symptoms, and August signing Vicente Sanchez, who contributed a goal and four assists in just seven starts, missed the first 60 minutes with an injured shoulder. Pareja also switched things up in the back, benching central defender Marvell Wynne, sliding Shane O’Neill out right and inserting Mera into the middle alongside Drew Moore.
Colorado was fortunate to trail only 1-0 at half. The visitors were overwhelmed by the Sounders, and Dempsey had far too much room to operate in the space between the Rapids’ lines. It easily could have been 2-0 at the hour mark, but a clear handball on Mera went uncalled in the penalty area. Desperation, injured Seattle defender DeAndre Yedlin’s halftime exit and a bizarre (but deserved) late red card to goalkeeper Michael Gspurning gave Colorado a boost over the final minutes. But the Rapids didn’t have the time or the quality to find the equalizer before Johnson struck.
Colorado has a bright future. But there’s a bit more work to do. First order of business -- make sure Pareja isn’t tempted by a job offer from his old club, FC Dallas, which parted ways with coach Schellas Hyndman at the end of the regular season.
3) Buckle your seat belts -- It had to happen eventually -- an MLS playoff series between arch rivals Seattle and Portland. They met several times in the postseason as minor league clubs, most recently in 2005, but this time the world will take notice. It will be an electric two games.
The Sounders will be missing the suspended Gspurning for Saturday’s opener at CenturyLink Field and will have to hope that Yedlin’s ankle and striker Obafemi Martins’ groin heal quickly. But what Seattle lacks in momentum they possess in experience. The Sounders have been through the playoff gauntlet, while the top-seeded Timbers (14-5-15) will be making their debut.
“We expect a good game [Saturday]. Obviously they’re going to come out red hot,” Evans told NBC. “But we’re at home and we’ve got to make a statement. We’re ready for this one.”