SEATTLE -- Clint Dempsey always seems to save his best performances for the biggest games. He did it again on Thursday.
Dempsey scored a pair of second-half goals — giving him five in his past four playoff appearances — to lead the Seattle Sounders to a 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference semifinals. The Sounders will next host the winner of the Houston Dynamo-Portland Timbers series in the conference finals after the upcoming international window.
Up until Dempsey’s first goal in the 56th minute, the match seemed to be shaping up as a frustrating affair for the Sounders. Despite a double-digit advantage in shots, the series remained scoreless as the Whitecaps seemed intent on waiting to pounce on a mistake.
The home side held possession and created the first real chances of the match, including a nearly perfect run-and-cross from Nouhou to Dempsey that was barely cleared out for a corner and a chance from Cristian Roldan after he made a lung-busting run into the box.
Right after Nicolas Lodeiro saw yellow for breaking up a Whitecaps counter, Roman Torres misjudged the flight of a deep ball to Montero and nearly allowed the former Sounder through on goal. He did well to muscle Montero off the ball; the forward went down easily but referee Baldomero Toledo waved off the penalty claims. Harry Shipp nearly made things happen soon after with a great pass to Will Bruin, whose touch was excellent but his momentum sent him past the ball and unable to get it to a teammate.
Lodeiro kicked off one of the most promising Sounders attacks yet with a slick through ball that threaded between multiple defenders and found the overlapping Kelvin Leerdam, but the ball was tackled away and eventually knocked out for a corner.
A bizarre sequence of events made it seem as if Seattle would be given a penalty after Nouhou was pulled down in the area and the offender, Jake Nerwinski, required medical attention...but after the eventual VAR review, no penalty was given.
Left-back Nouhou was again a pivotal part of Seattle’s attack when he sent in an excellent cross for Bruin, who just missed his leaping header. Seattle came extremely close to finally breaking the deadlock in first half injury time when Dempsey tapped a long ball towards goal with his first touch, but it bounced agonizingly wide as Bruin tangled with a defender. Despite lots of possession and numerous chances for Seattle, the half ended at 0-0.
The second half started with a bit of a bang in the form of Montero receiving a yellow card for a rough tackle on Torres. The Sounders pushed and pushed like they had for the entire first half, and it finally paid off. Joevin Jones capitalized on a mistake by Vancouver and earned a corner. In the sequence that followed, Roldan slipped the ball into the edge of the box for Bruin, who backheeled it to Shipp, whose slight touch made him slip and fall but also got the ball to Dempsey, who took a half-second to set himself up before burying it past Stefan Marinovic to put Seattle up 1-0.
The Whitecaps finally came out of their bunker after Seattle’s goal, desperately pushing for their own in what must have felt like an alien tactic considering the way they had played for the last 150+ minutes against the Sounders. Vancouver had their first shot on goal of the entire conference semi-finals in the 67th minute, when Christian Bolanos sent the ball straight to Stefan Frei.
But despite the away side’s belated attacking, Seattle made it clear that they weren’t going to just sit back and absorb pressure. A one-two passing move from Dempsey to Lodeiro and back almost netted a deuce for Deuce, but his curling shot skimmed the crossbar. Dempsey nearly got onto another chance after Lodeiro was fouled and earned a free kick to the left of Vancouver’s box. After the set piece bounced around, Chad Marshall was able to control the ball and get it in front of Dempsey, but he couldn’t get to it before it rolled out for a goal kick.
Another counterattack by Seattle ended in Kendall Waston cleaning substitute Victor Rodriguez out near the edge of the box and gave the home side a free kick in a very dangerous area. Dempsey again came close to earning his second of the night with a well taken shot from the set piece, but it (again) flew agonizingly over the crossbar.
Finally (FINALLY) All-American hero Dempsey netted his and Seattle’s second of the evening after a perfectly executed short-corner saw Rodriguez send a deep cross to the far post that Dempsey smashed home to ice the victory with just minutes to go. Seattle didn’t let up, taking advantage of the space that the Whitecaps left open in the back to keep the away side on their heels until the final minute.
The Sounders kept their lead all the way to the whistle and punched their tickets to the conference finals.