Sounders FC exits MLS Cup Playoffs after pressure-packed performance

For 73 days - more than two months - Sounders FC was quite literally unbeatable. After losing in Honduras to CD Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League on Aug. 26, it almost seemed like the Sounders wouldn’t do it again. Through myriad circumstances, they avoided losses by all manner of theatrics.

Headed into the critical second leg of Seattle’s Western Conference Semifinals series against FC Dallas in Frisco, Seattle was 7-0-4 in its 11 games in all competitions since losing in Honduras. That included a gritty 2-1 win in Seattle last weekend thanks to a dramatic 87th minute winner from Clint Dempsey.

On Sunday, the streak ended in heartbreaking fashion. As close as Seattle came, there wouldn’t be a 12th.

After a pressure-packed, nail-destroying 120-minute match that wound through regular time and extra time with the aggregate scoreline squared at 3-3, FC Dallas took penalties 4-2 to snatch the up-for-grabs spot in the Western Conference Championship. FC Dallas faces Portland in the finale for the right to move on to the final stepping stone before MLS Cup.

Sunday was the ultimate end of Seattle’s wild ride this season through possession soccer in the spring, an injury-fueled nadir in the summer and a masterclass of counter-attacking summer in the fall. It all felt like it ended too soon for the Sounders, who came so close to making the Western Conference Championship but fell just short against the West’s top-seeded team.

“I thought the team did well considering all the obstacles and all the difficulties we had this season, with all the injuries and people being out,” Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “Obviously they got (midfielder Kellyn) Acosta back tonight. We were still short three starters. But at the end of the day I thought they showed a lot of character, a lot of desire, the three games in a week, winning all three of those games, and pulling back today when we went down 1-0. I think there’s a lot of character that’s been brought out by this team. But at the end of the day it wasn’t enough.”

For nearly the entirety of the 120 minutes, Seattle defended as if its very life hung by each clearance, cross and diving header. The Sounders needed a draw or a win to ensure it moved on, and any loss aside from a 2-1 result would’ve spelled curtains.

It just so happened that’s exactly what they got, but not before a battery of nerve-fraying moments at the death.

It seemed for a time Seattle might make it through regulation with a much-needed scoreless draw. The Sounders once again were without defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and captain center back Brad Evans due to injury, thrusting the central midfield duo of Andy Rose and Erik Friberg back into the limelight for a third straight game and pushing veteran Zach Scott back into the lineup next to Chad Marshall.

And yet despite FC Dallas’ young roster continually rolling forward with the run of play for the majority of the match, Seattle brushed away attack after attack.

Perhaps the most notable moment of the first 84 minutes from Seattle’s perspective was a sprawling kick save from Stefan Frei that denied Kellyn Acosta a seemingly sure goal. FC Dallas ultimately out-shot Seattle 25-11, and the Sounders were forced to make an incredible 37 clearances over the course of the match. That save from Frei exemplified the kind of game it was from Seattle’s back line: Emergency defending of the highest order and consequence.

Frei in particular had a night worth remembering. Without his at times gravity-defying saves, Seattle would never have even made it to extra time.

And yet they were nearly to the finish line in the first 90 when Tesho Akindele stepped in front of a cross from Michael Barrios in the 84th minute and deposited his header past Frei for a 1-0 lead. If the game ended there, FC Dallas would’ve gone through on away goals. But it didn’t.

In the 90th minute, Seattle earned its fourth and final corner of the match, and Chad Marshall scored one of the biggest goals of his career. Late sub Marco Pappa swung in the corner and Marshall managed to find it at the far post to equalize the game at 1-1 and put a firm foot into the next round. In the blink of an eye, Seattle went from out of the playoffs to into the Western Conference Championship outright. The partisan crowd of more than 17,000 was suddenly dead silent and Seattle retreated to defend frantically for the final minutes of added time.

The lead didn’t last. Yet again, the game turned into an emotional whipsaw and a complete change in direction added to the dizzying mystique of one of the maddest games in MLS postseason history.

On FC Dallas’ very next attack - yet another cutting break down the right flank from Barrios - sub Walker Zimmerman got his head to a redirected ball of a corner kick, and FC Dallas led 2-1 with time left in injury time. It was hard to believe so fast after Marshall’s consequential header, but in this game everything seemed possible.

The only score that could’ve pushed this game into 30 minutes of extra time was 2-1 to FC Dallas through 90 minutes. That’s exactly what happened, and it led to one of the most nerve-destroying finishes possible.

That Seattle defended wave after wave of FC Dallas attacks over the final 30 minutes without conceding was a point of praise in itself. Scott had seized up with a cramp in injury time and gutted through the final 30 on one good leg. Marshall continued poking away attack after attack, looking every bit like the only player to ever win three MLS Defender of the Year trophies. Substitute Cristian Roldan played left back for the first time in his career and kept the deadly Barrios from assisting on any more goals. Andreas Ivanschitz shifted from the flank to central defensive midfielder. Dempsey routinely retreated to defend and essentially served as a box-to-box midfielder for the final half hour.

Everybody defended when it mattered. All that contributed to one of the grittiest efforts in team history, but it couldn’t ultimately get them through the shootout.

Conventional wisdom holds that experience may not tell late in a 120-minute match, but it tends to come to bear in pressure-packed situations like shootouts. As much of a toss-up as penalties can be, a cool head and experience can often help tip the balance. But tell that to all 20 years of FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.

Gonzalez came up with two monster saves in the shootout, first on Ivanschitz and a second time low and to the same side against late sub Chad Barrett. Meanwhile, none of FC Dallas’ shooters missed, and Zimmerman hit the finale to take it 4-2 and send the home crowd into hysterics.

That sent Seattle home for an offseason that certainly seems far too long a time to go without soccer right now.

“I don’t think it hits you yet,” said Frei, who made eight saves on Sunday. “Even when you have a bye week, when you have three or four days off, after three days off, you have that itch again. You miss being in the locker room. You miss playing with your teammates. That, immediately, is the first thing I think of. It’s going to be way too long of an offseason and I’m going to miss my guys, not being able to stick together and fight. I’m going to miss it.”