Seattle Sounders on solid footing heading into second leg of Western Conference Championship

For the entirety of their MLS existence, the Seattle Sounders have been flirting with an MLS Cup Final. It’s been so close so many years, and yet like a mirage it’s inevitably shimmered away before the Sounders could reach it.

In five of the club’s previous seven seasons, Seattle finished in the Western Conference Semifinals within shouting distance of the league’s ultimate game. In 2012 and 2014, the Sounders were on its doorstep with appearances in the Western Conference Championship. In reality, the Sounders have spent their entire MLS lifespan sitting outside the door to the MLS Cup Final, patiently knocking for a portal that has never opened.

That day could be upon us. And at the very least, it’s never seemed like a closer proposition.

The Sounders, of course, are on the road this weekend (Sunday; 1 p.m. PT; ESPN; 770 KTTH, El Rey 1360am) to face the Colorado Rapids in the second leg of their Western Conference Championship series. In the first, the Sounders gave themselves a slight inside track on finally reaching a final that’s eluded them for years. Winning in Commerce City - something no team has done all year - seems like a difficult proposition, but they don’t need to. Thanks to their 2-1 aggregate edge, the Sounders need merely draw, something teams have done six times in Colorado this year.

Much more doable.

The simplicity in understanding the task ahead of course doesn’t make it any easier. The Rapids are notorious for grinding out wins when they absolutely need them this year, like a Western Conference Semifinal win over the LA Galaxy that required penalties after the second leg. The Sounders will be wary of that fact.

But there’s also the baldfaced fact that the Sounders have never been in better position heading into the second leg at this time of year. In 2012, Seattle took a smoldering crater of a 3-0 aggregate deficit into the second leg against the LA Galaxy. In 2014, the only other time the Sounders were at this stage, they trailed the Galaxy 1-0 going into the second leg. The Sounders were unable to overturn the aggregate deficit both times.

This is the first time Seattle is streaking into that second leg with an advantage. And it might not be wise to expect them to simply bunker up and play for the scoreless draw.

If the brief but wildly successful Brian Schmetzer era can be defined by any major, overarching point, it’s in the attacking verve they’ve shown since he took over in July. Yes, his tenure neatly coincided with the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, who’s had a lot to do with that, but the Sounders are a more holistically successful attacking unit under Schmetzer. They’ve been shut out just once since he took over, and they’ve racked up 31 goals in those 18 games. Average close to two goals per game over a span of months and you’ll go places.

The Rapids surprised some in the first leg by trotting out a seemingly completely healthy Shkelzen Gashi. Judging by his postgame comments on Tuesday, Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni was just as surprised Gashi was ready to go as the rest of us. Gashi’s inclusion in the central midfield directly influenced the Rapids’ lone goal, which gave them a vital lifeline in the second leg. If Colorado scores early, Seattle needs to find an equalizer or it’s curtains.

But the Rapids will be without one key name in the midfield: Sam Cronin.

U.S. National Team midfielder Jermaine Jones missed a good chunk of the season with an injury, and as an answer Mastroeni started Cronin and Micheal Azira next to one another to fill in the gap. It wasn’t exactly the most creative midfield, but it was devastatingly effective defensively. When Jones returned, Mastroeni slotted him in for Azira and played him next to Cronin, which is how it looked in the first leg.

But now that Cronin’s out on card accumulation, you can probably expect to see Jones and Azira on Sunday. And that’s relatively good news for the Sounders.

Jones is a nomad at heart. He’s positionally unpredictable, and he’s just as likely to be in the attacking third as he is to stay home and defend. Take a look at the Rapids’ average positioning map from Tuesday. Jones, No. 13 in the graphic, sat next to Cronin, No. 6. But look how high their average line was - almost exactly at midfield.

Now look at the Rapids’ average positioning from the May 21 game between these two with Cronin deployed next to the deeper Azira (No. 22).

Note the differences. For one, Azira is more of a defensive anchor than either Jones or Cronin. If Mastroeni opts to go with Azira-Jones, expect that to stay the same. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Jones pulled Cronin up with him as he stepped higher and higher into the midfield. Jones wants to step up and make plays, and he can’t do that from deep. Cronin took the bait and often went with him.

This naturally created space in behind to operate, even if it was quickly closed by Colorado’s excellently reactive defending. In the first leg, Lodeiro managed 46 of his 57 passes in Colorado’s half of the field. Even defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso found space, registering nearly 60 percent of his 64 passes in Colorado’s half at an outrageous 95 percent accuracy. You don’t get that kind of maneuverability with Cronin and Azira deployed together, something that can’t happen for a second game in a row.

The Sounders have more momentum to feed off than they know what to do with: a galvanized city, an attack turning over with the strength of a Maserati engine, an Alonso in the form of his life, and the MVP-caliber form of Lodeiro gluing it all together. And while Clint Dempsey is still on the shelf, the Sounders traveled to Colorado with a fully clean bill of health. Everyone available traveled.

The Sounders once again stand outside the door to the MLS Cup Final. Sunday will let us know if they’re finally able to pound it down.

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