There was no question about the stakes in Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League match. Beat the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders qualified for quarterfinals. Lose and their supposed "1A" goal was dead before it really had a chance to get started.
The lineup head coach Sigi Schmid selected very much suggested he understood those stakes. The lineup Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson used? Not so much.
Boosted by a lineup featuring six ideal XI players and rounded out by five others with at least six league starts each, the Sounders dominated the far less experienced Whitecaps, who had just one starter held over from Saturday's match and a host of deep reserves. The Sounders cruised to a 3-0 win, getting two goals from Lamar Neagle, a goal and two assists from Nelson Haedo Valdez and two assists from Chad Barrett.
It was a perhaps predictable result given the lineups, but still a confidence-boosting one for the Sounders, who had struggled mightily against the Whitecaps over the past few years. The Sounders improved to 3-1-1 against the Whitecaps this season, outscoring their Cascadia rivals 9-4 in the process. They also survived what is roundly considered the toughest group since the CCL went to the current format.
More importantly, the win puts the Sounders into the quarterfinals for the third time in four tries. They won't learn their opponents for at least another month, but they won't be any higher than a No. 4 seed.
The goals didn't come immediately, but once they started coming they came in bunches. Neagle opened the scoring when he redirected an in-perfect cross from Barrett past a helpless goalkeeper. About seven minutes later, Valdez and Barrett both rose above the Whitecaps defense and Marco Pappa's free kick nested into the net. The goal was originally given to Barrett, but replays eventually showed that it was rightfully Valdez's.
That seemed to put the game away, but just for good measure, the Sounders added a third just after halftime. Valdez intercepted a very poor Pa-Modou Kah pass and backheeled it to Barrett, who alertly pushed it forward to an onrushing Neagle. Neagle was free on goal, but elected to shoot from about 16 yards out, easily finding the back of the net.
- The Sounders made a rather big deal out of putting a lot of emphasis on CCL, but after their midseason struggles and their still flagging health, a lesser lineup would have been understandable. But Schmid put his money where Garth Lagerwey's mouth was and put out a lineup that should be able to compete with any team in the United States or Canada. The biggest surprise was probably the inclusion of Brad Evans and Chad Marshall at center back, and it should be said they barely put a foot wrong. Overmatched or not, the Whitecaps were buzzing around and attempting to apply pressure. Neither Marshall nor Evans seemed remotely fazed and the Whitecaps never really got a great look at goal.
- Credit to the lineup choices Schmid made, but let's also hand it to a trio of players who have gone through quite a journey this year. Barrett, Neagle, and Pappa all struggled for various reasons when they were looked to for major contributions. All three played wonderfully here. Barrett didn't get a goal, but he had two wonderful passes and was dangerous throughout and Neagle looked as confident as we've seen for months. The standout performance, though, belongs to Pappa. He was everywhere and had one of his best performances in a Sounders shirt. It was wonderful to see a great reminder that this team really is quite deep when the players are put into the right situations.
- What's really great about all of this is that by the time CCL quarterfinals start next February, the Sounders should be much closer to full strength than they are now. Imagine watching a fully fit and rested Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey matching up against any team from this continent should be fun, and there's even a chance Roman Torres could be back by then. Get excited people, it should be fun.