The Seattle Sounders are used to staring down overwhelming odds in the postseason. They are perhaps not so used to having a foot in the next round after a first leg.
Seattle’s been in the Western Conference Semifinals each of the last eight years, a frankly unbelievable statistic no other team in the league can match. But life hasn’t been easy once they got there. For six consecutive years, from 2009-2014, the Sounders either took a tied aggregate or a deficit into the second leg.
In one of those occasions - 2011 against Real Salt Lake - the Sounders trailed 3-0 after the first leg away. Last season was the first time Seattle had ever won the first leg of a Western Conference Semifinal, and even then, against FC Dallas, they gave up an away goal and eventually lost the series.
My how the tables have flipped on that account this year.
This weekend marks the second time in two years the Sounders will take an aggregate lead into the away leg against FC Dallas in Frisco. On Sunday, FC Dallas will have to overturn a 3-0 deficit Seattle put on them last weekend to take a huge step toward the Western Conference Championship against either Colorado or the LA Galaxy.
The scenarios are not kind to FC Dallas. If the Sounders manage to score even one goal - something they managed to do two weeks ago in Frisco in a gut-wrenching 2-1 loss - FC Dallas will have to score five to overcome the aggregate deficit and what would then be an away goals advantage in favor of the Sounders. Even if Seattle doesn’t score, FCD needs three unanswered goals just to send the game into extra time. Four, in that scenario, would oust the Sounders.
The reasons that’s extremely unlikely? The Sounders have been shut out just once in their past 16 games, and FCD is as out of sync in an attacking sense as they’ve been all season.
The simple answer for FCD’s troubles that is goes back to the mid-October injury to Mauro Diaz that ruled him out for the season. The No. 10 was the team’s centripetal force pulling them toward the net, and they’ve been lost in an attacking sense without his influence. FCD’s played 180 minutes of soccer since Diaz was knocked out. They have yet to score a goal in that span.
FCD coach Oscar Pareja’s answer on the road against Seattle last weekend was to basically lock up the shop in hopes the game didn’t go off the rails. Ideally that’d give FCD, which was already struggling to replace departed winger Fabian Castillo, a tight win, a draw or at the very worst a one-goal deficit headed back home. All those would’ve been more than acceptable.
Instead, Pareja got an eight-minute ride to the brink of elimination. Because it only took that long for Seattle to score all three goals.
Pareja started five defenders - Walker Zimmerman, Matt Hedges, Maynor Figueroa, Ryan Hollingshead and Atiba Harris - last weekend and precious few out-and-out attackers. With Carlos Gruezo and Victor Ulloa hanging back to shield the line, natural defensive midfielder Kellyn Acosta was asked to link the lines between those two and forwards Michael Barrios and Maxi Urruti.
It did not go well. Here’s what Acosta’s pass map looked like.
This position is the key to the Sounders’ ability to contain FCD in the second leg. Notice how little Acosta drove forward and how few passes he actually connected anywhere near the box in the run of play (three, to be precise). The more Urruti dropped to find him and Barrios swung wide to create width that simply wasn’t there, the further away from danger FCD got. Which is why they generated so few legitimate chances despite a healthy number of shots.
The Sounders will concentrate their defensive fire here, at this creaky hinge point. Whatever Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer does in the attacking third - and he has options, as we discussed in this space earlier this week - his defensive decisions will be the most important. The Sounders don’t have to score, but they do have to stop FCD from scoring. And as limp as their attack has been without Diaz, this is the playoffs. The possibilities are endless.
FCD doesn’t have many options, either. The most interesting is possibly starting former Sounders favorite Mauro Rosales in the hole underneath the strikers as the main creative impetus. Rosales is getting on in years at 35, and he’s a natural wide player, but desperate times. And Acosta is certainly not the player for that role.
Whatever FCD does, the Sounders kept a keen eye on the training table this week. Roman Torres missed the first leg through injury, and after a stint as arguably the team’s best defender they’ll want his grit back in the lineup for the most important defensive performance of the year. And Andreas Ivanschitz’s pesky injury could lead the Sounders to again start three primarily defensive midfielders in Cristian Roldan, Osvaldo Alonso and Erik Friberg.
Still, the Sounders are as healthy as a team this deep into the season has any right to be. Which is good news, because FCD is sure to throw the kitchen sink at them on Sunday. If they can weather the storm and come out the other side - and the odds are in their favor - they’ll be yet another step closer to their first MLS Cup appearance in history.