HOUSTON -- Winning 2-0 over the LA Galaxy on the road was one thing. Squaring up 1-1 in a road match with the conference leading Houston Dynamo is quite another.
Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid labeled the road draw a defining moment for the Sounders season as they moved to 8-6-9 on the season after evening up with the Dynamo, who are now 11-6-7 and remain atop the Western Conference.
“Sometimes you have games that become defining moments, and this game was something that was really important to our character,” Schmid said. “Being able to come down here and get a tie with the team that is tied for the league lead in points and do it against obstacles - not only obstacles with weather, but obstacles of missing those chances - it was a big character-building moment for us.”
Geoff Cameron opened scoring with his first goal of the year in the 36th minute to put Houston up 1-0. The Sounders had several scoring chances, but weren’t able to find the equalizer until Nate Jaqua found the back of the net in the 70th minute. That score held until the final whistle.
Even with the flurry of second half opportunities, Seattle had a chance to take an early lead in the game when Freddie Ljungberg broke through up the middle of the field. He took a pass from Jaqua 30 yards out and took it into the box where he was greeted by Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad. Ljungberg, returning to the field after missing the last two games with the effects of hypoglycemia, slid the ball past the veteran keeper, but defender Wade Barrett hustled back to the goal line and knocked the ball off the line to make the fourth-minute save.
“I thought he was great,” Schmid said of Ljungberg. “He came in and battled and we played him as a second forward and he did a good job of stretching the defense.”
Ljungberg was comfortable playing off of Jaqua as a second forward too. He was setting up plays all over the field, drawing defenders to him at every turn and barely showing any effects of his missed time.
“I felt great. I love playing that position and that was probably my best game this season. I think we showed that we’re a good side,” Ljungberg said. “It would have been nice if we won the game.”
Originally slated to play 45-60 minutes, Ljungberg stayed active all game and went on to play 88 minutes in the draw.
“I think at the 60 minute mark you could tell that his energy level dropped, but he’s still an experienced enough player that he’s smart enough to still make the right decisions at times and can still orchestrate a play for us,” Schmid said.
One player who found himself on the receiving end of Ljungberg’s orchestration was Roger Levesque. Making his first career MLS start, Levesque was a constant nuisance to the Dynamo defense and got a yellow card for an aggressive tackle in the offensive third. With his play and the continuing emergence of left back Leo Gonzalez, the Sounders were able to make up for the loss of top-scorer Fredy Montero, who sat out of the game because of a suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Houston took the lead when they earned a free kick from 30 yards out on the right side. Brad Davis lined it up and sent in a left-footed lob into the box, where Cameron redirected it into the net for his first goal of the season to put Houston up 1-0 in the 36th minute.
In the 44th minute, Houston forward Brian Ching was called for a handball just outside the Dynamo penalty box. Ljungberg hammered the free kick over the wall, but it just cleared the bar and the score remained 1-0.
Seattle carried that late-half momentum and came out firing to start the second half.
In the 47th minute, it looked like they evened the score when Jaqua and Osvaldo Alonso combined on a ball into the net. But Jaqua was whistled offside on the play and Houston clung to their one-goal lead.
The 63rd minute saw another Seattle opportunity fall by the wayside. This time Sebastien Le Toux made a run up the middle of the field and tried to chip over Onstad. But Onstad utilized all of his 6-foot-4 frame to reach up and snatch the ball out of the air, stopping Le Toux from scoring a goal similar to many that he scored in his two years with the Sounders in the USL.
The best opportunity for Seattle came in the 67th minute though. Ljungberg got the ball clear on the right side, drew out Onstand and slid a ball through the box to Steve Zakuani all alone in front of an open net on the left side. But Zakuani slammed the shot hard over the bar for a goal kick.
“If you give him 99 more balls he would have scored every single one of them,” Ljungberg said. “It’s just something that happens to every player. It’s happened to me and I’m sure it’s happened to everyone else in their careers.”
It didn’t take long for Zakuani to redeem his miss though.
In the 70th minute, James Riley brought the ball deep up the right side and crossed a ball to the box. At the far side, Zakuani headed it down to Jaqua in the middle of the box and Jaqua popped it past Onstad and into the right side of the net for his seventh goal of the year, evening the score at 1-1.
“I felt good. I felt like I could hit a ball where I wanted to tonight,” said Jaqua, whose scoring troubles coincided with that of his club, as he was scoreless since mid-July. “That was nice and I was able to tuck it in the side of the net.”
Stuart Holden was able to get a good shot off from 25 yards out, but the Sounders held on for the draw.
“Coming here is tough. They’re the top of the Western Conference and playing in the humidity is not easy. But I think for most of the game we were the aggressors,” Zakuani said. “We’re happy with the draw, but we could’ve and should’ve won the game.”
While the potential result wasn’t lost on Schmid, he was proud to see his team make serious strides against such a formidable foe.
“For us, I was really proud of our team from the standpoint of coming down here and playing. Obviously, they’re a good team, and missing those kinds of chances, going down 1-0 and missing chances and not losing our heart and continuing to battle back,” Schmid said. “They continued to battle and fight and eventually got the equalizer, and that’s something I’m really proud of.”
The Sounders hope to carry that momentum into a meeting with Toronto FC Saturday afternoon at 1 at Qwest Field. Toronto is 8-8-6 and fighting for a playoff spot.