VANCOUVER, B.C. — Well, that happened.
There was absolutely nothing pretty or attractive about Sunday’s Western Conference Semifinal that saw the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps combine for just a single shot on goal, setting a new record for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The best chance either team produced was a near own-goal off Kendall Waston, and the two teams combined for less than one expected goal.
Vancouver and Seattle combined for 0.88 expected goals.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) October 30, 2017
That's the fewest in any of the 379 MLS games this year (reg season & playoffs).
There was tension galore, undoubtedly. B.C. Place had one of its biggest-ever crowds and had an atmosphere to match. It felt like a playoff game. But no one can be faulted for being a bit less than transfixed by a match in which neither team seemed particularly interested in pressing the action.
Who’s fault is that? On one hand, the Sounders wasted their opportunity to grab a road goal and while head coach Brian Schmetzer said the primary goal was to register a shutout, a 1-1 tie would have been undeniably preferable to the scoreless one they actually got. Still, past experience probably told Schmetzer that it’s far easier to lose a two-legged series on the first leg than it is to win it, and the Sounders clearly avoided a fate anything like some of their previous series when they opened on the road.
At the same time, the Whitecaps were the home team and the ones coming off a chest-thumping 5-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. If momentum can carry over from one game to another, they were the ones riding it. They also knew the Sounders were missing several key players, some of whom were virtually guaranteed to be available for Thursday’s second leg. Their opportunity to seize hold of the series was now.
Instead, they appear content to head to CenturyLink Field where the Sounders lost just once in 17 regular-season games and where the Whitecaps lost 3-0 about a month ago. Fair play to them, but it seems like a very conservative play from a team that ostensibly matches up reasonably well with the Sounders.
That conservative game plan
The Sounders came into this game knowing that the Whitecaps like to do two things: get out on the counter and wait for set-pieces. The Whitecaps were limited to just two corner kicks — both of which got the B.C. Place crowd impressively loud — and only a single free kick in anything like a dangerous spot. None of those set pieces resulted in shots.
The Whitecaps were a bit more effective in generating dangerous chances in transition, but for any heartburn they may have caused, the end product was failing to put a single shot on frame.
Primary Sounders nemesis Fredy Montero was again held largely in check. The striker was mostly isolated as a lone forward and the Whitecaps were seemingly content to let him try to beat the Sounders center backs in one on one battles, rather than dropping him in order to better combine with teammates. The result was being limited to 34 touches and three shots, two of which came from dangerous spots but both of which were also blocked. The Whitecaps’ best-looking chance came in the 95th minute when Cristian Techera put in a cross to Montero at the back post, but Frei was able to parry it away.
Despite starting Jordy Delem over the apparently-still-recovering Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson, and pressing a possibly-less-than-100-percent Chad Marshall into action, the Sounders defense more than held up its end of the bargain.
But that offense ...
There’s no point in sugar-coating this: the Sounders won no style points going forward. And if you look at all the road playoff games during the Brian Schmetzer era, it’s kinda par for the course. At FC Dallas, the Sounders had just eight shots and 42 percent of possession; at Colorado they had six shots and 36 percent of possession; and at Toronto FC they managed just three shots and 46 percent of possession. Given the reality that the Sounders came out on the positive side of all three of those games, it’s hard to argue with the tactic.
By these standards, the Whitecaps game wasn’t that bad as the Sounders had a 7-6 shots advantage and won the possession battle 54-46. It wasn’t the Sounders’ fault that Carl Robinson chose to treat a game at B.C. Place like a road game.
That said, most of the game’s best looks came from the Sounders. There was the dangerous cross that Joevin Jones put in that nearly resulted in the Waston own-goal; there was Chad Marshall’s header that produced the game’s only shot on target; and both Harry Shipp and Nicolas Lodeiro got themselves quality looks only to have their shots blocked.
Schmetzer’s teams have consistently put themselves in positions to get the results they need, even if there’s an aesthetic cost. In this one, they weren’t about to fall into the trap Robinson was trying to set. Dull? Sure. Pragmatic? Definitely. Successful? We’ll see.
The second leg should look very different ...
Part of why Schmetzer was rightfully content to kick the can and set himself up for a Leg 2 at home wasn’t just the normal reasons. The Sounders will have the added benefit of having not only Clint Dempsey back from suspension, but presumably Alonso and Svensson closer to full fitness.
These three players give Schmetzer a whole host of new options. You may remember that the last time the Sounders hosted the Whitecaps at home, Dempsey was deployed as a false 9 with Cristian Roldan serving as more of the No. 10. Theoretically, the Sounders could do that again as Svensson and Alonso could play as defensive mids.
As of this writing, it doesn’t seem particularly likely that Victor Rodriguez will be able to fully reprise the role he so effectively played in that game, but three out of four certainly ain’t bad.
Schmetzer could also choose to start Will Bruin up top and put Dempsey underneath. This seems more likely if either Svensson or Alonso aren’t quite 90-minutes fit. But the point is that just having these options forces Robinson to prepare for multiple, significantly different looks.
It’s entirely possible that Schmetzer could end up ruing the lack of an away goal, but the percentages add up pretty well in his favor here. There are a lot more reasons to think Schmetzer has this series right where he wants more than vice-versa.
Stat of the game
46 — Clearances are a funny stat. On one hand, their indicative of an active defender. Pull the lens out a bit and they can sometimes tell us a broader story about which team was more heavily bunkered in. The Whitecaps, the home team let’s remember, had 46 clearances to the Sounders’ 18.
Quote of the day
“You have to keep in mind that we were the away team today. So, if we were cautious, they were even way more cautious than we were. Yes, we understand that there’s an away goal rule but you can’t bank on that. They have to score now. A 0-0 tie isn’t going to do them anything at our place, and like I said, we fancy our chances going at home. I think we’re a strong team at home, we’ve established a really good home record over this year and we’re going to take it to them.” - Stefan Frei