SEATTLE — Colorado Rapids forward Dominique Badji stepped up to the penalty spot in the 53rd minute on Sunday, fully ready to spoil the Seattle Sounders’ party.
Although they were down 1-0, the Rapids had been up a man since Clint Dempsey was sent off in the 24th minute and were the beneficiaries of an unfortunate hand ball on Harry Shipp. If the Rapids had tied the game, they would have inched closer to earning a draw and preventing Seattle from clinching a Knockout Round bye in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, a postseason for which Colorado had not qualified.
But then something happened.
Badji pinged his penalty off the post, it was cleared to danger and the 10-man Sounders never looked back en route to a 3-0 win.
“It’s what we’ve been priding ourselves on all year,” said Shipp, who started his first match since July 19. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of injuries, even now. Guys playing out of position. We won soundly last game and soundly again this game, no matter who’s playing. Even if that penalty had gone in, we have full confidence in our team that we were going to get a second and third goal to win the game anyway.
“The difference between a win and a loss is so slim, especially in the postseason when teams are going to be more cautious defensively,” he continued. “You have to be able to break teams down, and we’ve been able to show a right balance between patience and going forward when those holes arise. You saw that today.”
Even down a man, the Sounders forced a penalty kick of their own just 10 minutes later as Rapids defender Axel Sjöberg dragged down forward Will Bruin and was sent off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity. Nicolás Lodeiro converted the ensuing penalty kick and added another tally in stoppage time to send the Sounders into the postseason on a high note.
“It’s massive,” Head Coach Brian Schmetzer said of securing the Knockout Round bye. “We need all the help we can get. My mantra has been ‘next guys, step up,’ so we would have dealt with it, however this game would have ended up, we would have gone through and done our normal routine.
“That’s a pretty tough group, a pretty resilient group,” he continued. “Yes, it’s great to have those extra couple days, but at the same time, they want to play, they want to keep these games going because they’re feeling good about themselves.”
Now Seattle plays a waiting game as the Knockout Round matches happen later this week. The Sounders will face the No. 3 Vancouver Whitecaps if they defeat the No. 6 San Jose Earthquakes, or the winner of the No. 4 Houston Dynamo versus No. 5 Sporting Kansas City if San Jose wins.
What made Sunday’s commanding win all the more impressive was that the Sounders accomplished it with a plethora of key figures missing. Ozzie Alonso (quad), Jordan Morris (hamstring), Gustav Svennson (hamstring) and Víctor Rodríguez (quad) all did not factor, in addition to Dempsey’s early exit.
Much of what drove Seattle to last year’s MLS Cup title was an underdog mentality, one that took shape in the dog days of summer and matriculated on a frigid night in Toronto. The Sounders did not need that heading into this year’s postseason as they enter as one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, but Schmetzer is looking to conjure up some of last year’s magic to help spark another deep run.
“I’ll have to look back on how we won playoff series against quality opponents,” he said. “It’s continuing to do what we do. I believe in the way we train the team. I believe in the way we play, in the system of play that we have. I believe in the players themselves.
“If you have a good routine going and you’re confident in your abilities as coaches and players, sometimes you’re not going to win every game, but you’re going to give yourself a good chance. The mentality of this group is very strong.”