In the eighth minute of Saturday night’s match between Sounders FC and the LA Galaxy, Seattle was faced with a potentially nightmarish situation. Galaxy forward Robbie Keane got forward on a ball from the midfield, putting one of the most lethal scorers in MLS within moments from putting the Sounders in the unenviable position of chasing LA at the StubHub Center.
In an instant, visions of Keane’s hat trick against Seattle in May that paced the Galaxy to a 4-0 first-half lead fluttered through the minds of fans of both teams as Keane collected the ball on the move.
Just as quickly as those images materialized, they were terminated by Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.
The Seattle center back recovered, cut off Keane’s run and got the clearance. It was a sign of things to come for the Sounders FC defense as they limited the Galaxy to just two shots on goal in a 1-1 draw.
“It was a big challenge for us. He’s the guy who gets them so many opportunities. He’s a dangerous player and we needed to mark him on every play,” Hurtado said.
The 31-year-old Colombian noted that he was out for redemption. He was displeased with his performance in the 4-0 defeat to the Galaxy in May and he was determined to keep Seattle’s successful defensive run alive.
He did just that by allowing only one goal on Saturday, keeping Seattle’s goals against average at 1.00 and a paltry 0.33 on its current six-match unbeaten streak. He has started five of those six matches.
The defensive resurgence has been the product of stronger defensive effort all over the field, but has also been indicative of a resurrection for Hurtado.
A finalist for the MLS Defender of the Year and an All-Star in his first season in the league in 2009, Hurtado looked to be a cornerstone defender that Seattle could build around. However, a knee injury early in the 2010 season halted that progress. Lately, he has returned to that 2009 form, though, and Seattle’s defense has been all the better for it.
“Jhon’s been playing well,” Seattle Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “Ever since he’s come back into the starting lineup, I think he’s played well. I think he battled and won a lot of duels. He stepped in front at times and intercepted some passes.”
Hurtado finished the match with three tackles, six clearances and seven interceptions, gaining possession for Seattle nine times. Conversely, Keane – who is a top-10 scorer in the history of the Premier League and a prime candidate for the league’s MVP award this season with 13 goals and 11 assists – was left flustered and finished the match without attempting a single shot.
“It’s just something that Jhon and I wanted to take pride in today. We feel like, with as much quality as that team has, he is the engine driving that team,” said Zach Scott, Hurtado’s center back partner on Saturday night. “If Jhon and I could do a good job silencing him, their opportunities would come few and far between. Jhon Kennedy was tremendous and Ozzie (Alonso) was always in the right spot to pick up the pieces.”
The defensive epiphany has come at a great time for Sounders FC. With just six matches left on the schedule, Seattle holds a two-point lead over Real Salt Lake atop the Western Conference standings.
With the playoffs fast approaching, a strong defense is what Seattle needs to make a run at the MLS Cup.
“The mentality is getting better. Everybody is on the same page. We are focused every training and every game,” Hurtado said. “It’s been good for everyone.”