Seattle - If the first three matches between the Sounders FC and Houston Dynamo were any indication, nothing less than a physical battle could have been expected Saturday night when the budding rivals met in the first leg of the MSL Cup Western Conference semifinals at Qwest Field.
There was a physical confrontation between one of Seattle’s smallest players and Houston’s largest and one Sounder was left battered and bloody in the center circle.
And that was all in the first 30 minutes.
In the end, the battle ended in a scoreless stalemate as the teams head to Houston for the return leg Sunday November 8.
“We see a lot of each other so there gets to be some chippy and intense battles,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “They’ve been the dominant team in the Western Conference and we’re the new kids on the block. We’re trying to have people take notice of us. They don’t want to give away any of their prestige and we’re trying to take it, so that makes it a good rivalry.”
In an up-and-down start, Seattle had likely their best opportunity in the 14th minute when Freddie Ljungberg swung one of his nine corner kicks into the box, finding Patrick Ianni on the far side of the box. Ianni headed the ball past Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad, but defender Brian Mullan got to the line to knock the ball out before it crossed the line.
Seattle stayed on the attack two minutes later, playing a ball into the box, but Onstad knocked it away for a corner kick. Onstad then charged out of the goal mouth and collided with Fredy Montero after play went dead, drawing yellow cards on both players.
“It was a bowling ball and a bowling pin,” a bewildered Schmid said. “The bowling ball got a yellow and the bowling pin got a yellow for getting knocked over. I couldn’t quite understand that.”
That physicality continued in the 27th minute when Nate Jaqua tried to get his head on a ball in midfield only to take Ricardo Clark’s boot to the head, leaving a small gash above his left eye. He left the field to get a bandage, but it bled through later in the match and he had to have his head wrapped in larger bandage.
But that was not unexpected in what has been a hard fought series between the two sides this season.
“They’ve been good in the playoffs because they’re physical and everyone battles and I think we did that as well,” Jaqua said. “It’s something we’re going to have to do when we’re down there. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
Ianni, who came to Seattle from Houston in a pre-season trade, looked to be an unexpected game-changer as the match progressed.
A last-minute replacement for starter Tyrone Marshall after Marshall suffered a mild ligament strain in his right knee in training Wednesday, Ianni found himself on the receiving end of service from Ljungberg throughout the match.
In the 43rd minute he connected on a header that again eluded Onstad, but this one found the crossbar and the match remained scoreless.
“We had quite a bit of room on set pieces,” Ianni said. “It was just good balls by Freddie and good movement in front of me. We got good service into the box all night. The last touch to the finish was just a little off.”
As the second half started, the tenor of the game stayed rigorous. Jaqua missed on a 53rd minute header off of a corner kick and re-opened the wound above his eye, prompting a return to the field a couple of minutes later with a full wrap on his head, becoming a symbol of the combative nature of the series.
“I think we were aware of it and I think we stood up to it. I think there were times that we put together good soccer and created some good chances,” Schmid said. “As long as we get those same opportunities there, it won’t matter if the game is physical or not. We’ll be ok.”
Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller finished with four saves on nine Houston shots while Onstad had two on 14 Seattle shots. And with a discrepancy of 18 Houston fouls to six for Seattle, the teams still were even with three yellow card cautions each.
The return match is set for noon on Sunday, November 8 from Houston’s Robertson Stadium.