Sounders take one-goal lead over Rapids in Western final first leg

The Sounders got the one-goal lead they needed in the Western Conference final, but the Rapids likely also feel good about heading to Colorado, where they haven’t lost all season.
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A second-half penalty kick won and converted by Nicolas Lodeiro gave the Seattle Sounders a 2–1 first-leg victory over the Colorado Rapids in their Western Conference final opener Tuesday night at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

Over 40,000 poncho-sporting, screaming fans looked on as Colorado grabbed an early advantage only to see it evaporate at the feet of Jordan Morris and Lodeiro.

Colorado struck on 13 minutes, as Shkelzen Gashi’s dummy drew attention away from Kevin Doyle, whose deflected shot looped over Stefan Frei:

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The goal made the Rapids the first higher-seeded team to lead a two-leg tie in the 2016 playoffs, and gave them a crucial away goal and a distinct advantage.

That advantage was erased six minutes later. Christian Roldan drove forward from midfield and slammed his shot from the top of the box off Zac MacMath’s near post. With MacMath still stuck to the turf, Jordan Morris pounced, and slotted home the rebound to level the score:

Aside from one breakaway squandered by Colorado’s Sebastien Le Toux, the ensuing 20 minutes were nearly all Seattle. The Rapids receded into their defensive half, bereft of any meaningful possession, as the Sounders pushed for a second score.

That second looked most likely to come from wide areas. The Sounders fizzed in dangerous cross after dangerous cross. Some eluded Morris and Nelson Valdez; others found them, but the resulting headers were parried away by MacMath.

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On 61 minutes, Lodeiro beat Rapids defender Marc Burch to a loose ball in the box, and Burch’s ill-advised left-footed tackle left referee Chris Penso with no choice but to point to the spot. Lodeiro beat MacMath to the goalkeeper’s left, and sent his side on the road with a precious one-goal aggregate lead.

Colorado had the odd chance over the game’s final 30 minutes, but settled for a one-goal deficit.

Here are three takeaways from the second of two enthralling conference final first legs:

Nicolas Lodeiro continues to add to his legend

It’s no coincidence that Seattle’s turnaround—from last place in the West to being one game away from an MLS Cup final—more or less commenced with the arrival of Lodeiro from Boca Juniors in July. The Uruguayan was the playmaker the Sounders sorely needed, but he’s done far more than simply fill a need. He’s altered the face of Seattle’s attack. His movement, creativity and range of passing make him so difficult to track and contain.

Lodeiro’s most perceptible contribution was the penalty, both the winning of it and the conversion. But his fingerprints are on nearly everything the Sounders did going forward. He even got into the box and very nearly scored with a first-half header. On the subsequent corner, he caught Colorado’s defense off guard by checking for a short corner and delivering a pinpoint cross to Valdez. In the second half, the game stood still as he danced on the edge of the box, then curled a delicate shot just over the bar.

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In four months with the Sounders, the World Cup veteran has already become one of the league’s most beloved players. And as has been the case more often than not, he stood out as the best player on the CenturyLink Field pitch Tuesday night.

Colorado probably should have been playing with 10 men

After Lodeiro fouled Marc Burch in the 34th minute, Burch’s reaction—a blind movement/swipe/swing of his right arm—earned him a yellow card. Should it have been red?

The short answer is “probably.” The longer answer is that the referee has to judge intent, and must do so with some degree of certainty to send a player off in such a big game. The argument from Colorado’s side would be that Burch merely reached back toward Lodeiro without malice, and that Lodeiro’s height, or lack thereof, meant Burch’s hand contacted Lodeiro inadvertently high.

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But that would be contorting the evidence. The snap reaction conveys intent, even if not calculated intent. A forearm to the face is a forearm to the face, and Burch likely should have been sent off. It would have been a pivotal moment, and one that might have changed the game for the worse. But it would have been the right call.

Lodeiro got his revenge anyway, baiting Burch into the tackle that won the penalty.

All to play for back in Colorado

Seattle has its lead. Colorado has its away goal. Both will be relatively satisfied with the result, and both will be confident heading into the return leg, which will be played Sunday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Colorado’s confidence will stem from the fact that it hasn’t lost at home all season (12-0-6 in league play, including the playoffs). With the away goal in their back pocket, all the Rapids will need is a 1–0 victory—or in other words, the same thing they got against the LA Galaxy when they returned home with a deficit in the semifinals.

Seattle, however, has been held scoreless just once since Lodeiro’s July arrival. If the Sounders can steal an away goal, massive pressure will shift to Colorado. That dynamic will make for an intriguing second leg.