Although the score line may have been the same, the Seattle Sounders’ 3-1 Round One win over LAFC in this year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs felt different than last year's postseason meeting with the Black and Gold.
Seattle’s victory at Banc of California Stadium in the 2019 Western Conference Championship is widely considered the greatest game the Sounders have ever played, and it needed to be to get a result at the home of the Supporters’ Shield winners and heavy favorites. But this past Tuesday, Seattle came out on the front foot from the get-go and never really let LAFC into the match, putting in a dominant 90-minute performance that never really felt in doubt.
“Until that penalty we conceded, I felt like we were in complete control of the game,” said defender Shane O’Neill, who made his first MLS postseason start since 2013 with the Colorado Rapids. “That gave everybody a lot of confidence to just play freely. It was a playoff game so there was a lot of intensity and emotion going into it, but the way we came out, it settled everybody right down.”
“It was a good night for us,” he said. “I thought the ball moved really well, we were able to defend higher up the field and make it really tough for them.”
The Sounders will need to pick up right where they left off when they host FC Dallas in the Western Conference Semifinals on Tuesday night at Lumen Field (6:30 p.m. PT; FS1, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM). Overshadowed by Seattle’s masterclass in Los Angeles last year was Dallas pushing the Sounders to extra time in a 4-3 thriller in the opening round of the playoffs.
“They came and they played us straight up,” said Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “They didn’t have any fear. They came after us, they didn’t quit when we got 2-0 up. It took heroics from Jordan Morris to get us through [in extra time].”
COVID-19 greatly impacted the MLS schedule this year, and as a result, Tuesday’s meeting will be the first of the season between the two sides. FC Dallas and Head Coach Luchi Gonzalez will be looking to avenge last year’s defeat, as they travel to Seattle with a more veteran-savvy group led in particular by forward Franco Jara and midfielder Andrés Ricaurte.
Dallas gutted out a penalty kick shootout win at the Portland Timbers in Round One, falling behind in the 82nd minute before forcing extra time on a stoppage-time goal from 17-year-old Ricardo Pepi. Still, the Sounders are confident in their group of steely MLS veterans and proven playmakers, in particular Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Morris, all three of whom found the back of the net against LAFC.
Jordan Morris celebrates his match-winning goal in extra time against FC Dallas in 2019
“It helps when you’re going out there with guys who have been so successful in this league for so many years,” said O’Neill. “We’ve seen it at times this year when we really pick up the intensity levels in games that we can really dominate teams and really change games with our commitment levels. That’s the beauty of the playoffs, you’ve got 90 minutes to just leave it all out there.
“That’s how the [postseason] games have been going,” he continued. “It’s the team that can go that extra mile, have that extra bit of quality, but also that extra little bit of drive and determination. In these one-off games, it’s so critical.”
Supporters’ Shield winners the Philadelphia Union and reigning Eastern Conference champions Toronto FC were each upset in the first round, two unlikely results from two teams who, like the Sounders, were among the favorites to capture 2020 MLS Cup. Schmetzer and his staff are wary of how volatile MLS can be and are driving home that point to their players.
“We still prepare the same way and actually drive them harder because we know it’s the playoffs, we know it’s MLS,” said Schmetzer. “In 2020, we have a long way to go, but we certainly are confident that we can win a few more games.”
Added O’Neill: “For us it’s about that mentality piece, that desire, that hunger to up the tempo consistently. I feel really confident that if we come out with the right energy levels and mentality, we’re going to be a tough group to beat.”