Following a 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Championship at BBVA Compass Stadium, the Seattle Sounders return home to CenturyLink Field on Thursday, Nov. 30 (7:30 p.m. PT; ESPN, ESPN Deportes, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360 AM | TICKETS), just 90 minutes away from their second consecutive MLS Cup appearance.
And for the first time in club history, the Rave Green will look to lift the Western Conference Championship trophy in front of what will assuredly be a raucous home crowd.
Leg 1 in Houston saw third-year goalkeeper Tyler Miller, with seven career First Team appearances to his name, step into a starting role as 2016 MLS Cup MVP and 2017 All-Star Stefan Frei suffered a right hamstring strain during training in the days leading up to the match. Miller was largely untested by the Dynamo offense, but Head Coach Brian Schmetzer believes that Frei’s injury isn’t long-term and the Swiss-American goalkeeper could be available for Leg 2.
In front of Miller, the center back pairing of Chad Marshall and Román Torres continued their dominance when together on the pitch. In their last 18 matches when both Marshall and Torres start, the Sounders are an astonishing 12-0-6 with a plus-27 goal differential.
"The back six was incredible,” Miller said after Leg 1. “For me, it was an easy game. They were blocking shots left and right. They put in a tremendous performance. I never felt threatened tonight. It’s always a great feeling.”
The Sounders have currently gone 557 postseason minutes, or nearly six full matches, since last conceding a goal. This MLS postseason record dates back to Leg 1 of the 2016 Western Conference Championship when Colorado Rapids forward Kevin Doyle scored in the 13th minute.
Offensively, the Sounders appear to have found their groove since the second half of Leg 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals when forward Clint Dempsey tallied two goals against the Vancouver Whitecaps to see the Sounders through to the Conference Championship.
Last Tuesday night in Houston, midfielder Gustav Svensson picked up where the Sounders last left off heading home a Nicolás Lodeiro corner kick in the 11th minute to put the visiting side up 1-0. Shortly thereafter, Lodeiro could have put the Sounders up 2-0 after Joevin Jones drew a penalty kick when former Sounders Jalil Anibaba dragged him down in the 18-yard box, but Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis was able to push Lodeiro’s penalty attempt aside.
In the midst of all the action around the penalty, referee Chris Penso showed Anibaba a red card for denying Jones an obvious goalscoring opportunity and Houston would play the remainder of the match with 10 men. Anibaba will miss Leg 2 in Seattle as will the Dynamo’s main goalscoring threat, Alberth Elis, who will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
The agony of the missed penalty kick wouldn’t linger for long, however. In the 42nd minute, a streaking Jones pinged a picture-perfect cross to Will Bruin just outside the Dynamo six-yard box, and the former Dynamo forward did what he does best placing his header up and over the outstretched body of Willis for the Sounders’ second goal.
“Will’s goal was a really well-crafted goal,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer after the match. “That was a very good piece of technical soccer skill. It’s just testament to Will. He, again, has been a really good pickup for our club.”
Added Bruin: “Whenever I’m fired up and feeling good before a game, that’s better for me,” Bruin said of his anticipation before the match. “For me, mentality is a big thing. I was ready to play, I was focused on it. I didn’t want to get overhyped because sometimes you think about too much, you can overanalyze. I wanted to keep it simple, connect my passes and get in good spots to score.”
The only blip from the match for the Sounders occurred in the 88th minute when Torres received a yellow card for unsporting behavior. As a result, he will miss the second leg due to yellow card accumulation.
The Dynamo face an uphill battle with the two-leg series heavily in Seattle’s favor with two away goals. Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s side has to beat the Sounders 2-0 in regulation just to send the match to extra time.
Add in the fact that the Sounders have lost just one match at home since Schmetzer took over as head coach in July 2016 and Cabrera will have his hands full game-planning.
However, Schmetzer and the squad aren’t resting on their laurels.
“The message after the game was, ‘You cannot fall asleep for any moment in time,’” said Schmetzer. “We play to our strengths and try to dictate tempo to other teams…We will approach [the second leg in Seattle] the same way. [The Dynamo] are too dangerous to sit back and let them dictate tempo on our home field. That would be a mistake.”
If the Sounders can withstand the goal-seeking Dynamo early on in Leg 2 and add a goal of their own, the Rave Green will be hoisting the Western Conference Championship trophy in front of a home crowd in their 2017 home finale.