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Playoff consistency suddenly a Sounders hallmark

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This is their fourth trip to the conference finals in six years.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — One of the hallmarks of the Seattle Sounders’ MLS existence has been consistency. You’re surely aware that they’ve made the playoffs in nine consecutive years, something only one other team has ever done in the league’s history. You may even know that they have the all-time best points-per game figure of any team with at least two seasons in the league (1.617). Since they entered the league, no team has more than their 482 points.

Although their playoff success doesn’t go back quite as far, their recent postseason consistency is nearly as impressive. After dispatching the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Sounders have now qualified for consecutive conference finals for the first time in their history. They’ve also now qualified for three of the past four conference finals — with the lone exception being when they were knocked out in penalties — and have made four of the past six conference finals.

Toronto FC is the only other team to play in the last two conference finals, but no other team can match the Sounders’ postseason success since 2012. Only the Houston Dynamo — coincidentally their opponent this year — have been this far as many as three times over the past six seasons.

It’s the defense, stupid

Under Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders’ postseason success has been defined by a lockdown defense. The Sounders have allowed just three goals in his eight playoff matches, and Thursday was their sixth shutout. They’re currently riding a 467-minute shutout streak, just seven minutes shy of the MLS postseason record.

The Whitecaps were held to a single shot on frame over 180 minutes, half of which were of course played at their home stadium. While that’s partly a commentary on Carl Robinson’s entirely gutless game plan, in which he effectively ceded any semblance of a build up in order to keep men behind the ball, the Sounders deserve credit for not giving the Whitecaps an opportunity to get a cheap goal.

All Whitecaps set pieces.

The Whitecaps clearly were hoping to score in one of three ways: off a long ball over the top, on a set piece, or capitalizing on a mistake. The Sounders did a remarkable job of limiting all three areas.

Aside from an early ball over the top that Roman Torres initially misjudged to allow Fredy Montero a half look only to be cleanly knocked off the ball, the Whitecaps never really threatened to get behind the defense. Over the two legs, they ended up with just three corner kicks and two offensive-third free kicks. The Whitecaps generated no shots on those set pieces.

To make another MLS Cup final, the Sounders will likely have to do the same thing against the Dynamo, another team that looks to get out on the counter and kills opponents on set pieces.

Deuce does his thing

As great as the Sounders defense was, Robinson’s plan wasn’t looking so bad through 145 minutes or so. After all, we know as well as anyone that you don’t necessarily need to score in order to get a positive result.

To keep this from going to penalties, the Sounders were going to need someone to make something special happen. It should hardly be surprising that it was Clint Dempsey to do provide it.

Playing in his first postseason game since 2015, Dempsey was as active as ever. His 70 touches were well above his norm and his 10 shots were a Sounders club record and just one shy of the all-time MLS Cup Playoffs record (11 by Carlos Ruiz in 2005).

He came good in the 56th minute — when given just a bit of a space, he placed a perfectly struck left-footed shot into the upper corner. Dempsey followed that up with an 88th minute volley off Victor Rodriguez’s cross.

Those were Dempsey’s fourth and fifth playoff goals since joining the Sounders in 2013, passing Nicolas Lodeiro on the club’s all-time list.

FS1 color commentator Stu Holden relayed a conversation he had with someone in Seattle who implied the club and Dempsey were getting “warm, fuzzy feeling” about him coming back next year. After a game like this, it’s not hard to see why.

Don’t forget about Nico

For all their success, the Sounders are still playing without several key pieces. Among them on Thursday was Osvaldo Alonso, while Gustav Svensson was only able to come off the bench. That left Schmetzer with a tough decision: go defensive with Jordy Delem or be a bit more bold by starting Lodeiro alongside Roldan.

The decision had some risks, namely putting an offensive player in a more defensive role. But with the Whitecaps posing little threat through the midfield, Lodeiro was free to roam forward.

As has been the case in his previous stints as more of a deep-lying playmaker, Lodeiro was exceptionally active. His 137 touches and 104 passes were both among, if not the, highest totals of any Sounder this year. He also managed to complete 89 percent of those passes, including 7 of 8 long balls, and he had 16 recoveries.

It wasn’t just a reminder that Lodeiro provides a degree of flexibility the Sounders have never had, which will surely present them with some interesting options in the offseason. Performances like this also serve as a reminder that for all of Dempsey’s heroics, this is still Lodeiro’s team and he’s still its most important player.

Stat of the game

7Stefan Frei now has seven career shutouts in the playoffs, which puts him sixth on the all-time list. He’s done this in just 15 playoff appearances, all of them in the last four seasons. Every goalkeeper with more career shutouts has at least 22 playoff appearances.

Quote of the day

“From the first moment, we showed we were the team that wanted to find the game. They came to defend. There was only one team on the pitch that wanted to win, and it was us.” - Lodeiro