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Sounders lock down defensively, ride third consecutive clean sheet to brink of conference semifinals

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The Seattle Sounders rode Major League Soccer’s joint-best defense into the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and picked right up where they left off with a dominant 2-0 win over FC Dallas on Monday night at Lumen Field in the first match of a best-of-three opening series.

Seattle finished the regular season with just 32 goals allowed, a club record for fewest conceded in an MLS season, and Stefan Frei led all goalkeepers with a career-high 14 clean sheets. The Sounders suffocated a Dallas team that managed just two clear-cut opportunities all match, something Frei was quick to try and correct.

“The margins, the room for errors does not exist in the playoffs,” said Frei. “That’s how it goes. That’s football. But we survived those moments, and then I think we had a really, really good game.”

The Sounders entered the postseason as one of the most in-form teams in the league and extended their unbeaten streak to 10 matches (5-0-5). Seattle, which hasn’t lost since August, has allowed just seven goals during that stretch and has pitched a shutout in each of the last three matches.

“The group mentality defensively has led us to be a really hard team to break down and score goals against,” said Jordan Morris, who scored his seventh career postseason goal in the win. “It starts with Stef, he’s unbelievable, then the four defenders and [João Paulo] and Josh [Atencio]. The collective effort from the group to press well. Our pressing has come a long way in this stretch.”

Frei is the focal point in defense, as the ageless veteran continues to come up big when his team needs him most. One of the most decorated goalkeepers in MLS history, the former MLS Cup MVP has a knack for clutch plays, and his early heroics in the first half on Monday helped change the trajectory of the match.

“You gotta have players who make plays,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “We very easily could have been down one- or two-nothing…I just can’t believe why he’s not in the finalist group for Goalkeeper of the Year, I just don’t get it. I have no idea.

“There’s been so many saves in critical moments of games where Stef has done what goalkeepers are supposed to do, which is keep the ball out of the back of the net,” he continued. “In the biggest moments, he keeps the ball [out of the net], he keeps our team in games.”

Yeimar, who is a former MLS Best XI defender and 2023 finalist for MLS Defender of the Year, has played exceptionally well at center back alongside breakout star Jackson Ragen, and the stellar defensive work of Nouhou at left fullback was evident yet again against Dallas. He tied for a team-high 12 duels to go along with two tackles and an assist to boot.

“That was one of [Nouhou’s] better games I’ve seen since he’s been at the club,” said Schmetzer. “He was locked down defensively in the first half, [Jáder] OBrian is a talented player. He didn’t get anything past him. His offensive contributions, those were a bonus.”

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Now the focus for Schmetzer & Co. shifts toward an away tilt at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday (6 p.m. PT; Watch on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV). There is no aggregate scoring in the best-of-three opening round series. A win would see the Sounders advance to the conference semifinals, while a Dallas victory would send the series back to Seattle for a decisive rubber match on Friday, Nov. 10. If the match ends in a draw, there is no extra time, and it will go directly to penalty kicks to determine a winner.

Heading on the road is never easy in MLS, especially in the playoffs, but after holding serve at home, the Sounders know that Dallas will be eager to flip the script. Locking down Dallas’ attack will be the first step, something Seattle has done all year with aplomb.

“It’s a great result at home to win that first game,” said Morris, “but now we know the job’s not done.”

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