This Moment

Scenarios favor Seattle Sounders after gritty win over Colorado Rapids

SEATTLE - One leg down, and nobody’s complaining.


That was more or less the feeling at CenturyLink Field as the Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders duked it out in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship on Tuesday.


For the Rapids’ part, they got an away goal, a vital weapon to have in a playoff series that breaks aggregate ties with goals scored away from home. The Sounders, meanwhile, held serve at home by winning 2-1 and taking a goals edge into the second leg away.


It wasn’t perfect for either side, but both left with something.


The Sounders have to be especially pleased with the way they closed. The Rapids snagged a 1-0 lead behind a tally from Kevin Doyle in the 13th minute, putting Seattle firmly on a reactive footing. Given the away-goals rule, the Sounders absolutely needed at least two goals to go to Colorado feeling even decent about its prospects in the series.


They got two.


Here’s a look at three things we learned from a wild playoff night at CenturyLink Field.


Lodeiro Comes Up Big Again

It’s been said so many times in his half season that the point is becoming almost moot, but it deserves repeating as often as humanly possible.


Nicolas Lodeiro is really, really good at the game of soccer.


Lodeiro was a marked man from the jump on Tuesday, drawing continual rolled coverage from Colorado’s fleet of active defensive midfielders and defenders. He started the game nominally in a wide position in head coach Brian Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1, then gradually settled into his more comfortable position centrally about halfway through the first half. This subtly forced Colorado to continually account for Lodeiro’s location as he shifted from one side to the other, inevitably finding himself in the pocket prodding his attackers forward in the middle.


Here’s what Lodeiro’s pass map looked like on Tuesday. Note that he completed 83 percent of his 58 passes.

Scenarios favor Seattle Sounders after gritty win over Colorado Rapids -

Lodeiro mostly rotated center-wide to find his space, but there was perhaps more space than he might’ve anticipated against the league’s best defense. The Rapids’ defensive shielders have typically been Micheal Azira and Sam Cronin, but the newly healthy Jermaine Jones started in one of those spots on Tuesday in place of Azira. Jones is more of a wanderer and spends less time defending, which gave Lodeiro some wiggle room.


What’s more, Cronin picked up a yellow card on Tuesday which will knock him out for the second leg on card accumulation. Jones will assuredly start there again on Sunday, probably next to Azira this time. Expect more space again.


Osvaldo Alonso, Unsung MVP

As easy as it is to trumpet Lodeiro’s success (and it’s very easy), it’s perhaps less easy to point the finger at all the things Ozzie Alonso is doing exceedingly well right now. Most of them don’t show up on the stat sheet, and defensive midfielders tend to excel in areas that perhaps don’t make postseason highlight reels. Alonso is no exception.


I’ve already made the case this year that Alonso deserved some attention for the MLS MVP award I knew he wouldn’t win. His passing numbers this year were the best of his career, and he was as defensively prolific as he’s ever been. So it isn’t exactly a surprise that by the time Tuesday’s game started the league’s best all-around defensive midfielder was full to the brim with confidence. It’d be impossible not to be.


But Alonso managed to put in what might’ve been his finest performance of the year on the biggest stage. In fact, it was the finest.


Here’s his passing day: an incredibly notable 59-64.

Scenarios favor Seattle Sounders after gritty win over Colorado Rapids -

And his day defensively is below. To decode this one, yellow represents recoveries (13), purple is clearances (4), green is tackles (5), and blue is interceptions (2). Notably, the red upside down triangles are lost tackles. Neither were any danger to Seattle's goal.

Scenarios favor Seattle Sounders after gritty win over Colorado Rapids -

The combination of the possession skill and the defensive work rate is more or less unheard of in MLS. Defensive midfielders tend to have either one or the other in spades (usually the defensive side), and coaches try to cover for the deficiency with the pieces and scheme around him. Alonso is that rare bird who doesn’t need any of that. He has both the possession wherewithal to not need a destroyer next to him and the defensive skill to trust him in space.


And he didn’t pick up a single card on Tuesday. Great news for Seattle headed into an all-or-nothing second leg.


A Bad Day Turned Good

Tuesday had the potential of turning into a very bad day at the office for the Sounders. The Rapids’ early goal – Doyle’s third in this building in two seasons - meant the Sounders needed multiple responses against the league’s best defense to go to Commerce City in the second leg with an edge at all. Colorado, it should be noted, hadn’t given up more than one goal in a game since Oct. 8.


That changed on Tuesday. A huge night from Cristian Roldan, a goal from Morris, a closed-up shop at the back and the Sounders are streaking into the second leg with an edge. Now it’s scenario time.


The Sounders have far more favorable scenarios on their side to reach the MLS Cup final than Colorado. The Sounders merely need a draw to reach the final (they’ll obviously go with a win), which is an important detail. Including the playoffs, the Rapids are 12-0-6 at home this year. A not insignificant part of that is the altitude, something that saps teams that aren’t used to training a mile into the sky. Another part is simply Colorado’s stymying defense.


But the Rapids have drawn six times at home, which significantly ups the odds. If Seattle needed a win, the situation would be considerably more dire. A draw? Difficult, but provably doable in 2016. And Seattle can even get in with a loss, provided they only lose by one goal and score at least two.


What’s more, Seattle got some good news in the form of injuries on Tuesday. Morris had been limited in practice last week, so the fact that he was able to not only go 70 minutes but also grab a goal spoke to his fitness level. Whether or not he’ll be able to go the full 90 on Sunday, chances seem fairly good.


The same went for Andreas Ivanschitz, who hadn’t played since pulling up with an injury on Oct. 12. He came on late for a cameo, something that could help him force his way back into the starting XI in Colorado. Plus, in his first game back Roman Torres looked like his normal, intimidating self.


The Sounders are in good shape as they take to the road this week. Nothing comes easy in Colorado, but as of now they stand one positive result away from the biggest match in MLS franchise history.

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