- Seattle and Vancouver will have everything to play for in the second leg after drawing 0-0 in the opening game of the Western Conference semifinals.
Playoff teams hope to enter the most meaningful games of their season on a roll, as the best version of themselves. After a slow start to the 2016 season, the Seattle Sounders made a coaching change, added playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro, and then hit their stride just in time. And after years of failure and frustration, they lifted their first MLS Cup.
Seattle’s 2017 title defense kicked off Sunday night in Vancouver, where the Sounders most certainly were not the best version of themselves. But the host Whitecaps weren’t either. And as a result, two injury-riddled rivals who struggled to create much offense played to a 0-0 draw in the opener of their Western Conference semifinal showdown. The decider of the two-game, aggregate-goals series will be played Thursday night in Seattle.
But first, here are three thoughts on the Cascadia neighbors’ first playoff meeting since their USL days back in 2004.
This game was always a threat to end scoreless
The West’s second and third seeds played for 90 minutes and produced a single shot on goal (Sounders center back Chad Marshall did the honors). Some of that can be blamed on the aggregate playoff format, which fails to compel teams to prioritize winning. There’s nothing wrong with a first-leg draw. But the chief culprit was the litany of injuries and absences felt by both teams.
The Sounders (14-9-12) were missing suspended forward Clint Dempsey, who was red carded in the regular season finale, and striker Jordan Morris (hamstring). Behind where they should’ve been, three starting midfielders were out: Ozzie Alonso (quadriceps), Víctor Rodríguez (quadriceps) and Gustav Svensson (hamstring).
Meanwhile, Vancouver (16-12-8) sent out a starting 11 missing attackers Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera, who provide most of the creativity and connection on a squad that thrives on countering and set pieces. They reportedly picked up minor knocks in Wednesday’s knockout-round rout of San Jose.
The Sounders had more talent on the field thanks to Lodeiro, and a bit more depth. The visitors never looked like they were in any real danger. On the other side, Vancouver’s Fredy Montero lacked service, left midfielder Brek Shea struggled and Nosa Igiebor—Reyna’s replacement—was making only his second appearance for the club.
A bit past the hour mark, Robinson and Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer began moving their gimpy chess pieces. Reyna came on in the 62nd minute, and Svensson took the field moments later to keep on eye on him. Alonso and Techera also saw action. But by then, neither team was going to open up and risk conceding. And so the opener lurched toward an end that felt inevitable.
The Sounders came closest to breaking the deadlock
There was the one shot on goal, but that wasn’t the best scoring chance of the game. That chance fell Seattle’s way as well.
In the 35th, some good interplay from Lodeiro and right midfielder Harry Shipp left Joevin Jones with the ball deep on the left side of the penalty area. His low, hard cross was met by Vancouver defender Kendall Waston, who was facing his own net and somehow managed to smash the ball off the crossbar from just five yards away. It very easily could’ve, and probably should've, ended up as an own goal.
Marshall’s look came a few minutes after halftime on a long, high cross from right back Kelvin Leerdam. The ensuing header was saved by Whitecaps goalie Stefan Marinovic.
The teams combined to attempt 13 total shots. The Sounders looked like the more fluid team thanks to Lodeiro’s vision and direction, and they frequently found a bit of space on Vancouver’s right. But they’d come no closer to scoring than Waston did. Four of Seattle's shots were blocked, while four different Whitecaps missed the target. Any goal would’ve come as a surprise during a tepid, cautious 90 minutes.
“It’s the first playoff game,” Sounders goalie Stefan Frei told ESPN after the match. “I think both teams were afraid of making a mistake. We’re all aware of that and [of] the repercussions a mistake could have. It’s good we didn’t make a mistake. Obviously, they didn’t either. We’re looking forward to Thursday at home and we’ll take our chances.”
It’ll be a race to get fit by Thursday
Dempsey will have served his suspension and certainly will be back. He’ll likely start in support of striker Will Bruin, with Lodeiro returning to his more customary role behind them. As for the rest, we’ll have to wait and see. The recovery and readiness of Alonso, Techera and Reyna could very well decide the series. And if Marshall is hurt—he exited the game in the 78th—that’ll add another complication Schmetzer has to deal with.
Then the survivor will have to hope it can find the best version of itself in time for the conference finals.