Tell anyone that they can head home from the away game of a two-legged series up 2-0 and they’ll take it no questions asked. Yet, there’s plenty of reason to think the Seattle Sounders should be feeling even better than they are after doing just that to the Houston Dynamo on Tuesday.
So let’s just get the reasons this is a little frustrating out of the way early. Simply put, the Sounders had the chances to make this a 5-0 dismantling. There was Nicolas Lodeiro failing to convert the penalty; Roman Torres missing an open header on the ensuing corner; Joevin Jones flubbing a chance in front of goal a few moments later; Victor Rodriguez ringing the crossbar late; and then both Henry Wingo and Lamar Neagle failing to convert the rebound on the doorstep. They also played the final 62 minutes up a man.
But that’s probably missing the forest for the trees a bit. Give them credit for the goals they did score, a wonderful header off a corner by Gustav Svensson and another perfect header from Will Bruin that came off inch-perfect passes — one from Lodeiro the other from Jones, respectively. The defense did well to limit the Dynamo’s chances, with Mauro Manotas’ chance off a breakaway the only one that looked particularly dangerous.
The Sounders also managed to extend their MLS Cup playoff-record shutout streak to 557 minutes despite having Tyler Miller — he of two career MLS starts — in goal for the injured Stefan Frei. (For perspective, the previous record was held by the 2002 New England Revolution, who held opponents scoreless for 374 minutes.) Miller only had to make three saves and never looked particularly troubled. They’re also riding a 452-minute shutout streak in all MLS matches, which bests the franchise record of 420 minutes they set earlier this year.
All of this means the Sounders will bring a 2-0 lead back to CenturyLink Field, someplace they’ve gone 12-1-5 this year and not allowed a goal in 425 minutes. All 18 of those matches have ended in a scoreline that would see the Sounders through to their second consecutive MLS Cup. Dating back to 2003 when MLS first started using two-legged, aggregate goal series, only three teams have taken a two-goal lead home for the second leg. All three of those teams (2003 Chicago Fire, 2011 Sporting KC, and 2014 New England Revolution) ended up winning the series by four goals.
So, sure, there’s plenty of reason to feel like the first leg could have gone even better than it did, but let’s not pretend as if the Sounders aren’t in an absurdly advantageous situation.
Next man up
It’s been so long since the Sounders have had Osvaldo Alonso, Jordan Morris, or Brad Evans fully fit that their absences are barely even notable at this point. Add losing Frei just a couple days before the game, though, and it was hard not to feel like the Sounders were playing this one with at least one hand tied behind their backs.
That it’s hard to imagine how much better this game could have gone if any of those players had been available is a testament to the roster Garth Lagerwey has built. Alonso has been more than ably replaced by the tandem of Svensson and Roldan — who quietly had another standout performance — while Bruin scored his 12th goal of the season in place of Morris. It’s hard to even imagine how Evans would fit into the squad right now. (Maybe he gets the minutes that Lamar Neagle is getting?)
Things were going so well in this one that Brian Schmetzer was able to pull Clint Dempsey at halftime and save him for the second leg. He replaced him with Rodriguez, someone who has played like a Designated Player and looks to be another quality pickup.
Miller wasn’t asked to do a ton in place of Frei, but he deserves credit for basically making it look easy. He grabbed balls in the box when he needed, didn’t leave any bad rebounds and generally made Frei’s absence a total non-issue. I think we’d all feel better with Frei in goal for the second leg, but Miller gave us absolutely no reason to spend too much time fretting if he has to start again.
Jones was spectacular
Svensson probably deserves the Man of the Match award for the way he absolutely destroyed anything the Dynamo tried to do through the midfield — he had seven tackles (!) to go along with 57-for-65 passing — but it’s hard to ignore how important Jones was to the offense. Jones has been steadily improving as a left mid down the stretch, and this was probably his best performance to date.
It was his run into the box that forced Jalil Anibaba to concede the penalty and take the red card, and crosses don’t get much better than the one he put on Bruin’s head for the second goal. But it was more than those two plays.
Jones consistently had the Dynamo defense backtracking and scrambling to cover. His 67-for-70 passing performance came despite a fair number of them going forward. He also had a couple good looks at goal, but he couldn’t make good contact on a chance at the back post and he put another shot just wide from a sharp angle.
It’s a shame the Sounders are going to lose Jones for nothing to Darmstadt at the end of the year, but at least it looks like he seems intent on going out on a positive note.
The gray cloud
If there was a reason to feel slightly less optimistic about the second leg it was that Torres picked up a pretty much unnecessary yellow card. It’s his second of the playoffs and means he’ll miss the home leg on Nov. 30.
This presents the Sounders with several choices.
The most obvious and perhaps most likely is to give Tony Alfaro the start. Alfaro hasn’t exactly been great, but he’s been better since the disastrous run of starts he had earlier in the year when the Sounders went 0-3-1 and allowed 13 goals. Alfaro has played 267 minutes over eight appearances since then with the Sounders yielding four goals.
The more aggressive option would be to move Lodeiro and Svensson back a line. Svensson hasn’t played center back since the Sounders’ 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, but does have 12 starts there this year in which the Sounders have gone 4-5-3 with 14 goals allowed. At his best, he gives the Sounders the sort of passing out of the back they’ve never really had. At his worst, he can struggle a bit with aerial balls and is prone to being pulled out of position.
In somewhat limited opportunities, Lodeiro has shown himself very effective from deeper positions. He’s played there about 336 minutes in five matches with the Sounders holding a 12-1 scoring advantage. Granted, none of those opponents are anything like the desperate Dynamo squad that will surely show up at CenturyLink, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he can hold his own if asked. It might also make it a bit easier to put Rodriguez on the field and drop Jones to left back, which further bolsters the Sounders’ ability to add to their lead and force the Dynamo to expose themselves even more.
Even if Schmetzer elects to go with the more conservative approach, it’s a nice option to at least force the Dynamo to prepare for this other possibility.
Stat of the game
1978 — That’s the last time any Sounders team had won a match in Houston. Coincidentally that match also featured a backup goalkeeper and a 2-0 scoreline (h/t @frankmSounders).
Quote of the match
“I hope we go for more goals. I hope we don’t just stay there and control the game. I want us to push forward. I want us to show our fans that we can score more goals at home. So, hopefully we are not just going to defend. We’ll see. We have a couple days now to prepare ourselves. First, we are going to have Thanksgiving. My first Thanksgiving in America, so that’s going to be fun.” - Svensson