Budding rivals

Having already played four times in their inaugural season, Seattle has become fast foes with Houston.

“When you play somebody five times in a year, you get to know them a little bit,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid laughed at training Tuesday.

After four meetings already this season the Sounders and Houston Dynamo will square off for the fifth and final time in the most meaningful matchups of them all in a do-or-die second leg of their Western Conference Semifinal series.  The two budding rivals drew 0-0 in front of 35,807 at Qwest Field last Thursday, so it will be a 90-minute, last-man-standing battle at Robertson Stadium Sunday at noon (KING 5 TV, KTTH 770AM).

“The more you play against somebody, the little things get leftover from one game to another,” Schmid said.  “All of those things collect in your memory bank and that’s what creates a rivalry.”

Seattle won two of the four meetings this year, drawing the other two.  But this has been anything but a one-sided affair, as each game has been a physical, competitive encounter.  And as familiar as the two clubs have been this season, the connections between the two extend much further.

Dynamo players Craig Waibel (1999-200), Brian Ching (2001-2002) and Cam Weaver (2006) and head coach Dominic Kinnear (1995) all adorned A-League/USL Sounders uniforms in their careers.  Additionally, UW product Mike Chabala and Gig Harbor native Tally Hall wear the orange Dynamo kits.

The two teams have several parallels, too.

As an expansion club, Seattle has had unprecedented success.  But just four years ago when the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, the club was an instant success, winning championships in their first two seasons in Texas.  That led to high expectations from the fans, players and management, much like in Seattle.

“Houston’s fans have high expectations, our fans have high expectations and I think that comes from ownership and management as well.  That’s a cultural and philosophical issue and one that we take very seriously and talk about every way,” Seattle owner/GM Adrian Hanauer said.

Added Schmid, “As I said before, they have been and are still the preeminent team in the Western Conference and we’re the new kids trying to stake our claim.  That’s what makes it a good rivalry too.”

That competitive nature was prevalent in the first leg of the series, when the two teams earned a combined six yellow cards in a 0-0 draw. 

“The first game’s always a bit cagey because you don’t want to put yourself in a hole at halftime,” Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller said.  “Sure, we would have loved to have had a lead, but we’re very confident in the way we’ve been playing away from home.  I feel great.  I think the team’s well rested looking good and we’ll be ready to go.”

While Houston certainly counts among the Sounders most touted oppositions, they are by no means the only team that fits that mold.

“Frankly it feels like every week we go out we’re playing a rival.  Given our crowd and our stadium and the atmosphere, teams come into Seattle turning it into a rivalry.  There have been some chippier, more emotional games than you get out of an expansion franchise,” Hanauer said.  “DC turned into a rivalry.  Both LA teams turned into rivals and Houston turned into a rivalry.  But you have to put the four games behind you and make it a one-game series.”

Houston plays a similar style with the Sounders, attacking in creative ways from all parts of the field, all while maintaining a stingy defense.  Houston and Seattle both allowed a league-best 29 goals this season and ranked first and third, respectively, in goal differential.  But in the first leg, the Dynamo went on the defensive to preserve a draw to keep home-field advantage.

“I think they are a very good team.  I like the way they play and they try to play some good soccer for the fans and enjoyable to watch,” Sounders FC midfielder Freddie Ljungberg said.  “Unfortunately the last game was a bit different because the rules are different and they didn’t have to go forward and a tie was good enough.  So I felt a little bit sad for the fans in the stadium.  It was probably a little bit of a stalemate game and not the most fun to watch.  It will probably be more open down there and we have played well against them before.”

In that regard, the draw was not a bad result for Seattle, as they have shown an ability throughout the season to be at their best in wide open games.

“We don’t feel that it was a negative result,” Keller said.  “Now we feel confident that we don’t have a hole to climb out of so we can just go there and play and get the victory.”

Undoubtedly, the game’s importance won’t get lost on the Houston crowd, which has quickly rounded up tickets for the Sunday game.

“I heard it’s sold out, so it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” said Keller.  “We are looking forward to going and disappointing a lot of people in Houston.”

Let the rivalry commence.

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