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Joe Nicholson

Sounders FC attack finds groove in nick of time against New York Red Bulls

Marco Pappa wheeled away from the spot of his triumph and fixed a look of stern accomplishment on his face. His brows furrowing into deep trenches over his eyes, Pappa looked like a man who’d just punctured a hole into a day’s worth of frustration. For a number of reasons, not least of which was confidence, the goal was that important.

Just 20 minutes later, Clint Dempsey provided the touch and Chad Barrett the finish that proved just how important that moment had been. The New York Red Bulls’ staunch defensive effort had cracked under the weight of Pappa’s finish. Dempsey and Barrett atomized it entirely.

Pappa’s equalizer in the 69th minute seemingly saved a point, but Dempsey’s deft chip and Barrett’s tap-home finish a minute into stoppage time brought home all three points with a stirring 2-1 victory. Since closing out a wearying road trip with a comprehensive 2-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Seattle is 2-0-1 and astride MLS with 26 points, one better than closest Supporters’ Shield chaser D.C. United. Through its first 13 games, Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid could hardly have hoped for more than where the team currently sits.

Sunday’s match was perhaps Seattle’s most frustrating within its current run of 10 points from its last four. Uncowed by Seattle’s home advantage, formidable league-leading defense or its record-breaking possession metrics, the Red Bulls pressed through the midfield and harried Seattle’s prodigious attacking trident of Obafemi Martins, Dempsey and Pappa.

Throughout the match’s opening half and the first portions of the second, Sounders FC struggled to meld together coherent passages, and the front three could never quite connect the dots. Much of that was down to the Red Bulls’ daring press and aggressive style. They finished the match with 19 fouls – more than double Sounders FC’s total – and continually drove forward.

Not many teams have the temerity to attempt that level of press against Sounders FC, arguably the league’s best possession team right now, at CenturyLink Field no less. But Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch isn’t like most coaches.

“It’s that school of soccer that Jesse Marsch comes from, which is, you commit tactical fouls in midfield to slow the opponent down,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said. “When you look at a lot of the tactical fouls that were made in the midfield, there was one that happened almost in our end, and the referee doesn’t yellow card the guy. If he doesn’t foul the guy, we’re on a 3-v-3. Part of it is their aggressive style in terms of pressing, but part of it is also their awareness of doing those kind of fouls to make sure the game slows down at the right time.”

And until the 69th minute, it had. The Red Bulls fed off twin midfield engines Felipe and Dax McCarty, who took turns stepping up and dropping while Sacha Kljestan dove into the pockets of space they created. That also helped blunt the Seattle attack considerably. Sunday was one of the few times all year when the trident looked out of sync.

Which explains Pappa’s frustration release when he finally bagged the equalizer. That seemed to augur something more positive for Sounders FC, which looked as coherent in the final 20 minutes as it had all afternoon.

“I played against Jesse,” said Sounders FC centerback Brad Evans, who came off injured in the second half but said after the match he felt fine. “I’ve done preseason trainings with him when he got together guys in LA. From minute one, it’s 100 miles an hour, and it’s, ‘We’re going to press, we’re going to win.’ That’s the way that he played, and that’s the coaching style that he’s brought to that team. And it’s worked. They’re really good.”

Not good enough to escape Dempsey’s clawing gravitational pull. As the match stretched into extra time still tied, Sounders FC had gradually become more bold going forward. So when Dempsey lofted a feathered chip toward the far post – Barrett got the final touch, but the ball was headed in anyway – it felt like a natural extension of the work Pappa had authored less than a half hour earlier.

Another timely goal, another three points.

It was ultimately Marsch’s desire to play at a breakneck pace that left the smallest of cracks open late. Even at the death, with a road point in hand, the Red Bulls didn’t back off. Which wasn’t an enormous surprise considering Sounders FC was playing its third match in nine days and the Red Bulls had a full week’s rest. Plus, Marsch’s tactical ideology is among the league’s starkest. But right back Chris Duvall left the door open for Dempsey just long enough for Sounders FC to waltz through and snag yet another three points.

Whether or not this was Seattle’s best performance – it assuredly was not – the post-match tenor was similarly appreciative of the effort. Even on off days, this Seattle team is proving remarkably resilient. Another three-pointer – the team’s eighth of the season – is ample proof of that.

“Third game in [nine] days, playing against a good team that’s fresh, just the mental fortitude, the mental toughness that they showed today, going down a goal…for our team to show the resiliency to battle back and win it in injury time, it just speaks a lot about the team’s character,” Schmid said. “To put in the effort that they put in today, I was extremely proud of them.”

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