In the span of 11 frantic, season-altering minutes on Sunday, the Seattle Sounders went from in the playoffs, to a few points inside the red line, to clutching onto their playoff hopes for dear life. How quickly things can change in the crucible of the MLS season’s latter stages.
The Sounders grabbed an early 1-0 lead through a beautifully worked Nicolas Lodeiro free kick in the first half. At that point, Seattle was in the playoffs, no questions asked. They took that edge into the 79th minute, edging ever closer to a postseason berth that seemed impossible two months ago, when Maxi Urruti beat Stefan Frei from in close on a free kick rebound.
The hits didn’t stop there. FC Dallas got a second in the 89th when Carlos Ruiz, the 37-year-old Guatemalan veteran of five different MLS clubs, finished beautifully over his shoulder to beat Frei again.
Carlos Ruiz. It had to be Carlos Ruiz.
It was almost hard to believe. From in the playoffs to clinging to the ship for dear life in the blink of an eye. So it goes in MLS sometimes.
With that in mind, here’s a glimpse at three things we learned.
Brief Lapses Prove Costly
In many ways the Sounders deserved something out of this game. A point, at least. They were dominated in possession (60-40) and were doubled up in shots, but in terms of moments of sheer danger the teams were relatively even. In fact, the Sounders probably made better use of their moments on possession, even if they were numerically fewer.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of that was out wide.
The Sounders fully expected FC Dallas to charge at fullback Tyrone Mears and Joevin Jones on the edges, and it showed. A year ago in the postseason, FC Dallas made mincemeat of the flanks in a 2-1 win. Determined to button up the outside, the Sounders weren’t beaten there this time around. And that’s certainly something to praise.
Mears had maybe his most cohesive 90 minutes of the year and totally shut down the otherwise dangerous Tesho Akindele. Jones, meanwhile, was a nightmare matchup for the speedier Michael Barrios, who had very little input into the game’s outcome in the run of play.
That’s why the two lapses that led to both late FC Dallas goals were so frustrating. They weren’t an even reflection of the wider game, which was choppy and lacked fluidity throughout.
The second goal was a sheer piece of brilliance from Ruiz. He split Roman Torres and Zach Scott, who was forced on when Chad Marshall was subbed out with what appeared to be an injury in the 63rd minute. Neither tracked Ruiz as tightly as they could’ve - there’s really no excuse for letting a 37-year-old sub as well known as Ruiz have that much space - but in the end it was simply a brilliant finish.
The bigger trouble was the first. Herculez Gomez allowed the chance with a slight push on Ryan Hollingshead inches outside the box. That gave way to the free kick that Urruti finished in a thicket of defenders, none of whom could clear it in time. That should never have happened, on multiple fronts.
Goals Change Games; So Does Alonso
You hear the refrain all the time that goals irrevocably alter games. So much so, in fact, that it almost becomes rote. Of course they do, right? But sometimes they really do completely shift the way a particular game is played and in this case Sunday’s match went from a scuffling, tight-lipped affair to a completely open can of worms in the final 10 minutes.
And Urruti’s goal was to thank.
Over the first 80 minutes, it looked as though FC Dallas was happy to see out the match with a few more speculative chances and take the Supporters’ Shield race into the final weekend down a point to Colorado. FC Dallas was not its normally incisive self, and it certainly didn’t seem willing to fully open the attacking floodgates.
Urruti’s goal, which came on a brief moment of silliness from Seattle’s perspective, gave FC Dallas new life. Suddenly they poured forward with renewed vigor, ultimately leading them to a second. It certainly didn’t look all that likely even 15 minutes earlier.
Part of that was on FC Dallas, but a larger part traces back to Seattle’s lack of its veteran leader in the middle of the park. Entering Sunday, Seattle had lost 12 of its previous 15 matches on the road without Osvaldo Alonso. Now you can make that 13 of 16.
In matches like these that get stretched late on, Alonso’s ability to both slow down the game and perhaps stick a foot in for a tactical foul every now and again is invaluable. The Sounders simply didn’t have that, and now they’ve averaged 37 percent possession in their only two games without him this year. Perhaps unsurprisingly they’re 0-2 in those games with a combined margin of defeat of 5-1.
The Sounders were in this game to the end, but if you’d ever questioned Alonso’s value to this team above any other one player, perhaps now’s the time to stop.
Head Down To The Wire
This was the exact eventuality the Sounders hoped to avoid when they were bouncing off a bye weekend for a matchup against Houston less than a week ago; needing a win in the final game of the season to progress to the playoffs.
The Sounders’ path to the playoffs on Sunday was pretty cut and dried, and the odds were in their favor. If the Rapids could even managed a road draw against Portland, Seattle’s loss wouldn’t even have mattered. The Sounders would’ve been in the playoffs regardless. Until FC Dallas stunned Seattle with two late goals it didn’t even look like they’d need Colorado’s help.
Instead, the Sounders got their doomsday scenario. Portland win. Seattle loss.
Colorado was unable to take care of business on Sunday and Portland emerged 1-0 winners. Now, four teams are playing a dangerous game of musical chairs for three playoff spots. And all four are within two points of one another headed into the final weekend. This is what that looks like after Sunday’s madness.
From Seattle’s perspective, the club is still in a place of self determination. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, the Sounders will leapfrog Real Salt Lake with a win against RSL in the finale next weekend and enter the playoffs as a No. 4 seed. If they draw or lose though, they open themselves up to a dizzying array of consequences. Depending on what happens with Sporting KC-San Jose and Portland-Vancouver, the Sounders could be anywhere from fifth to seventh at the end of the day.
It’ll certainly make life interesting on the final weekend of the season. Even if it didn’t have to be.