What does a perfect Western Conference Final look like? For a Sounders fan, it was Seattle versus Houston, last Thursday night: a shutout, three goals thanks to a dynamic attack, an early curtain call for Dempsey, Morris back, no injuries, etc. The result wasn’t in doubt, with only slight Houston pressure early that the Seattle defense turned aside before slowly, adamantly squeezing the life out of the Dynamo and cruising to an aggregate 5-0 win. This was a great team brushing aside a good team that had been playing well.
Stefan Frei – 8 | Community – 7.8
Frei only had three saves, but they were timely and, most importantly, clean, never allowing Houston to attempt a rebound or second chance shot. Stefan looked mobile after missing the previous game with a leg injury, and while he wasn’t forced into any incredible saves, he was great with his footwork and management of the back line.
The Sounders keeper looked calm all evening long, consistently moving the ball around the back with passes from Marshall or Svensson and smoothly clearing any danger. In the 25th Frei was forced off his line with Vicente Sanchez getting in alone and Stef was fantastic, diving to the side in such a way to force Sanchez wide of goal without allowing him a good angle; the shot hit side net. Frei’s angle was so smart, with zero chance of clipping the opponent for a penalty. Later in the half he made back to back saves on Tomas Martinez shots, with each needing a dive and both being cleanly corralled.
The second half was about game management, with Frei casually spraying around passes to his teammates and showing off some nifty foot skills. Up big on aggregate, Frei took no chances, refusing to pass the ball across the face of goal and instead clearing up the wing, a little veteran play that might go unnoticed. He had a poor throw out in the 84th that was stolen and turned into a good Houston chance, but the game was over by then.
Nouhou – 6 | Community – 6.7 (off 68’)
For the most part, the Hou had a quiet game against Houston. He had a few tackles, a clearance, but only 71% passing. That’s fine for a defender, especially in a game where Seattle was so dominant offensively that they didn’t need to mess around in the back. More importantly, he wasn’t beat, adding another game to his résumé where the opponents failed to get in behind him. Nouhou is a lot of soccer things all at once, but he doesn’t let players in dangerous spots down the left.
The young left back started off with a risky pass across field to Leerdam in the first minute, but settled down and worked well with Marshall to lock down the left side. Offensively, Nouhou was eager to charge into the attack, showing off his exceptional pace to offer a wide option when Seattle pushed forward. His 11th minute overlap and cross put Houston on their heels, but he was more occupied with stuffing Alexander any time the Houston player tried to get around him 1v1.
Nouhou got an unnecessary yellow card for holding onto the ball after a foul, and it took some sage advice from noted calming influence Dempsey (!) to get his head back on straight. During the rest of the match the Houtrain was chill, notably bailing out of a play in the 51st to safely avoid any chance at another card situation and showing a nice maturity to his game before subbing off in the 68th.
Chad Marshall – 8 | Community – 7.8
Marshall just excels in the postseason, continually raising his already impressive game to a different level every year. In this match he was terrific, completing 90% of his passes while leading the team with four clearances and popping up all over the back line to support his defensive teammates. Chad doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being as mobile as he is, and his massive tactical sense allows him to move even faster by taking near-perfect angles in defense.
In the 4th minute Chad was across behind Nouhou to support the young left back, something he did repeatedly whenever Houston tried to sneak down the left of the Sounders defense. He wasn’t just covering the center-left either; Marshall popped up on the right of the defense in the 14th minute to defend against Sanchez with Svensson pulled high. He did that a number of times, although Houston did attack in behind him in the 25th while he was over protecting the opposite side. In the 39th he closed out Alexander extremely quickly, preventing a shot.
In the second half Marshall was clean, calm, and everywhere any time Houston tried to push through. His fastest sprint of the game may have been in the 64th minute, as he teleported almost instantly to the scrum following the red card fracas, inserting his giant frame between Jones and others to prevent further harm.
Gustav Svensson – 7 | Community – 7.4
Asked to fill in for Roman Torres, the Goose did what he does: put in a smart, steady, controlled performance while contributing to yet another Seattle shutout. Svensson led the team with four interceptions and he dealt beautiful passes from the back while completing 88% of his tries. He went a phenomenal 9/11 on long balls, often jump-starting the attack by producing midfield penetrating passes from deep.
In the 6th minute Svensson was across to help Leerdam, and these two were very in sync most of the night, switching cleanly and dealing with the dangerous Sanchez cutting in off the left wing. The one time that Goose was caught in between, Sanchez snuck in behind in the 25th minute, and it took a Frei move to prevent a great chance. For the remainder of the first half, Gustav maintained strong defensive positioning, recovering to the middle and distributing forward through Nico and Cristian.
After halftime the game opened up a little, especially after the red card, and Svensson’s mobility was essential to cover the increased spaces. He repeatedly stepped up into the deep defensive midfield to keep the Sounders offense on the front foot. In the 71st he shut down Cubo Torres and stole the ball, part of a strong defensive effort from Seattle against the elusive striker. In the 85th, Goose redirected a short corner back across the goal that nearly earned him an assist.
Kelvin Leerdam – 7 | Community – 7.4
Once again Leerdam had a quiet match, without much standout play: 82% passing, three tackles, two interceptions, two clearances and few exciting notes. Upon further inspection, though, Kelvin had the second most touches on the team. He did smart work in possession, continually linking up well with the midfield while offering a consistent wide outlet.
Leerdam started out slowly, getting beat by Sanchez in minute 6. I thought he was lucky not to be called for an early foul. He recovered nicely, however, warming up into the game and beautifully handling an over the top attempt to Mauro Manotas just two minutes later. Offensively, Leerdam popped up in the 20th to deliver a near-perfect early angled cross that just missed Dempsey. Kelvin was beat by DeMarcus Beasley in the 36th and was forced to foul him, but he closed out the half by earning a late corner upon which Seattle nearly capitalized.
In the second half Leerdam was solid, offering another angled cross that forced a save in the 71st before creating a turnover with Roldan two minutes later, which led to the third Sounders goal. He finished off the game with a great defensive play in the 82nd where he remained goal side of the Houston attacker inside the box.
Cristian Roldan – 8 | Community – 7.9
Roldan had an incredibly productive game, combining with Lodeiro to dominate the deep defensive position while popping up in the offensive third to overload areas and stay continually aware of any Houston runs through the middle. Cristian crushed the defensive stat book to the tune of five tackles, three interceptions, and a blocked shot, while also contributing a key pass on offense. His 6/8 long balls were often switching the ball out of pressure and opening up the opposite side for an attack.
In the 10th minute we got a great look at how improved Roldan’s touch is, as he quickly found Rodriguez who pushed the ball to Dempsey on the break. Two minutes later Cristian destroyed the midfield and again looked forward after a steal to release Clint. Later in the half another midfield steal started a 5v3 break that saw Roldan himself burst into the attacking third as an option. He finished off the period by closing out a defensive tackle in the left corner behind Nouhou and clearing the trouble.
In the second half Roldan changed midfield partners multiple times with zero drop in performance, combining well with each teammate who came into the middle. In the 73rd he dropped back to support Leerdam and they created a turnover that Seattle transitioned into a third goal. In the 80th minute Roldan was still playing hard, roaming from sideline to sideline to close down the Houston attack and ensure the shutout. A 72nd minute errant giveaway in the midfield was his only misstep on the evening.
Nico Lodeiro – 9 | Community – 8.1
Lodeiro looks phenomenal in a deep lying playmaker position, and his fitness allows him to both command the field from the defensive midfield and also create and support attacks upfield. He is just everywhere on the field when playing next to Roldan, and clearly trusts his partner to cover his erratic movement. This guy touches the ball more than anyone else, maintains 90% passing efficiency (64/71) and creates chance after chance while also offering three tackles and three interceptions defensively. The coaches should consider whether he is most effective in this position.
In the 6th minute a quick 1-2 with Dempsey cleared a congested midfield before releasing Jones up the wing into massive space. In minute 11 this defensive mid got all the way to the end line and dropped in a nice cross. In the 22nd Nico was back in the middle before drifting to the left of the box and patiently recycling the ball. He drew multiple defenders which allowed Rodriguez to utilize the space in behind him for the first goal, the finish to a smart, intricate buildup.
In the second half Lodeiro took the reins offensively and pushed the ball vertically. Minute 57 saw a deft touch through the middle perfectly into space for V-Rod, who created a goal. In the 73rd it was Nico with his head up, dribbling directly through the heart of Houston’s defense and pulling players to the middle before dropping off a nice pass into the run of Shipp en route to the Sounders’ third goal. This was the end of the scoring, but not the end of beautiful setups from Lodeiro, who found first Morris in behind in the 78th and then Svensson in the 85th, each being assist-worthy passes.
Joevin Jones – 8 | Community – 7.9 (off 76’)
This was one of my favorite games from Jones at an outside midfield position. We saw him exhibit both his usual incredible offensive ability but also an improved spatial awareness through the middle. Joevin was incredibly clean with the ball, going an almost unheard of 45/46 passing in the attacking midfield! He supported Nouhou much more this game, dropping into space and offering a tackle when necessary, and looked to make cohesive runs into space for others.
Jones is one of the best in the league at making counter attacking runs up the left wing and he terrorized Houston all series with his pace and timing. This game was textbook in releasing Jones into space; he always found a smart pass to an open teammate. In the 26th this was Dempsey in space, opening up the entire field to attack. In the 40th Jones nearly found Bruin with the exact same early cross that they scored from in Houston a week prior. In between, Joevin helped on defense in the middle and even dropped back and switched with Nouhou on occasion.
In the second half Jones continued to pester the Houston side until breaking through in minute 57. With Seattle attacking through the middle, Joevin showed impressive pace to churn up the left side in support of a Rodriguez run, and he was paid off by a releasing pass that put him into the box. Jones ran onto the ball and cleanly one-timed a perfect assist to a sliding Dempsey that was just beautiful to watch. I don’t mind Jones’ 66th minute yellow for defending his teammate, and he kept his cool after. There were a couple times that Joevin was watching on defense, and he still struggles when not near the sideline. But he’s so massively effective going forward that as long as the team adjusts, he presents Coach Schmetzer with an interesting decision next week.
Clint Dempsey – 8 | Community – 8.0 (off 59’)
Clint Dempsey is playing with a fire right now. I’m not sure when he’s been more engaged as a Sounder. Nearly everything he’s done in the playoffs has worked, and he looks especially in tune with his midfield teammates. Against Houston he (like Jones, Nico, and V-Rod) was incredibly accurate, going 18/19 passing, scoring once, nearly scoring multiple other times while leading the team in shots and moving intricately in tune with others to dice up a Houston defense that had been very good coming into the playoffs.
In minute one we got a glimpse of Houston’s regard for Dempsey, as he drew five defenders before slipping Bruin through. Two minutes later a first-time touch again released Bruin through, and these two were combining well up front. In the 12th minute it was Roldan’s turn to find Dempsey who worked with the young midfielder to earn a corner kick. Moments later Clint was dragging three more defenders around while Bruin ran free. After connecting through the width, Clint popped up in the middle of the goalmouth and just missed getting a foot on a beautiful Leerdam cross in minute 20. The first Sounders goal had Clint pulling the defense asunder before peeling off to offer a pass had Rodriguez needed it. A few minutes later Dempsey flicked on to Bruin and they worked a give and go that nearly released Bruin into clear space on goal. Deuce took a few moments from terrorizing Houston to lend a positive word to Nouhou after his yellow, a bit of veteran leadership I was happy to see.
In the second half Dempsey and V-Rod just toyed with the defense, continuously connecting with each other while finding Leerdam or Jones when width was needed. In the 57th Dempsey expertly stayed onside for a stunning Jones pass and easily finished past keeper Joe Willis for his curtain call after a hugely effective match.
Victor Rodriguez – 9 | Community – 8.6 (MOTM)
This guy may be the key to unlocking the full potential of Seattle’s offense. He showed how beautifully this team can play with him as a focal point. V-Rod was 34/38 passing, constantly pushing the ball forward into dangerous positions while opening the scoring himself. Rodriguez truly did it all, leading the team with five tackles to boot! I am so impressed with his tactical ability: it has led him to seamlessly combine with the attackers around him and be nearly unstoppable.
I noted his quick, one-touch passing in the first minute, but most remarkable is how he works tactically in the Sounders system. If you watch, it’s as if he has a 12-yard rope tied to Nico and Clint, never getting closer than that but constantly drifting into the spaces that they create. It’s uncanny how effortlessly he moves, like in the 22nd minute when he drifted from the right side to the middle in support of Nico cutting through. With Lodeiro near the end line, V-Rod came left to receive the ball before making a diagonal run that he briefly flattened out to stay onside. When his slicing run was rewarded with a slick pass from Bruin, there was no hesitation before a strong finish; this intelligent combination play produced a beautiful first goal.
When Victor wasn’t cutting apart the defense, he was across to the middle to break up a Houston attack (26’), soon releasing Jones up the wing. Five minutes later Rodriguez dummied to Nico in space and finished off the half putting Leerdam in on goal for another great chance. The second half was even more of V-Rod, with the Spaniard spraying passes around and combining with teammates to eviscerate any hope Houston had of a comeback. In the 47th he had both Bruin and Dempsey open and chose The Bear, who was offside. A few minutes later he again showed a strong defensive presence, chopping the ball away and turning up field. In the 57th, Lodeiro found V-Rod in space. Victor’s first touch was — as always — attacking goal, and he drove at the defense so strongly that when Rodriguez found Jones wide, the ball was in the back of the net two touches later. It is such a joy to watch these Sounders combine in space, and the creativity added by V-Rod is dumping nitrous in the tank.
Will Bruin – 9 (MOTM) | Community – 8.6
Will Bruin was extra motivated to play against his ex-team and boy, did he put on a show. His passing was a paltry 59%, and he only touched the ball 26 times. He didn’t offer a dominating holdup game, or batter the Dynamo physically. Instead he torched Houston to the tune of a goal, an assist, countless creative touches and movement while constantly running away from the defenders who tried in vain to contain him. Bruin even showed a Nelson Valdez-level of defensive work, repeatedly dropping to support as a first line of defense.
In the 3rd minute Bruin outran defender Leonardo and you could see his eyes light up at the matchup. In the 6th minute Will got just enough holdup to be effective, pushing the ball into Dempsey’s gravitational field. In the 11th minute when Bruin just missed a cross and overhead try, he didn’t pout; he chased the damn ball all the way to midfield and won it back for Seattle. The Bear wasn’t just hard work: when given the ball in the 22nd he showed tremendous agility and technical skill to lay off a perfect pass to V-Rod for an assist. This was nifty footwork for the big guy who continued to be active and connect with teammates. In the 31st he turned in traffic and took a shot that was easily saved, but again chased down the ball moments later near midfield to win possession. This effort was contagious throughout the defense, even inspiring Joevin to join in.
With the field opening up after half Bruin repeatedly found himself in good spaces, usually trying to run off the back shoulder of the center backs. In the 57th minute Will dropped into his own defensive half to win a header that fell to Nico who kick started goal number two. In the 73rd minute Bruin checked to the ball, and then released when it went wide, diving expertly at goal. His finish from a sublime Shipp pass was clinically chipped over Willis to close out the scoring. Bruin nearly scored multiple more times, with only a slip preventing him from getting on the end of a late Svensson pass.
Bruin missed a few backheels and give and go’s, and was offsides on multiple occasions that killed good attacks, but that’s more than acceptable as he completely dominated his matchup with the Houston center backs, torching them all night.
Jordy Delem – 6 | Community – 6.5 (on 59’)
Delem has quietly improved a ton this year, and he looks very confident on the ball now. His touch was great, and he came in and moved the ball around cleanly (88% passing). Jordy was calm in tight spaces and looked like an MLS midfielder. In the 65th he was up high to win a header that eventually got Martinez sent off. His 69th minute switch to Jones was beautiful. When pushed back to play outside back, Delem exhibited a confidence on the ball that we haven’t seen this year. In the 84th he wasn’t across quick enough to support the middle from an outside back spot, but no harm came of this mistake.
Harry Shipp – 7 | Community – 7.4 (on 68’)
Brought in to control the ball and close out the game up a man, Shipp and his mustache more than delivered. Harry not only had a perfect 100% pass completion rate, but a majority of them were first touch, intricate pass-and-move combinations that were beautiful to see. His best pass was of course his 73rd minute assist, a marvelous outside of the boot look to Bruin that was so perfectly fashioned that it curved around the defense and onto Will’s foot magically in stride, nearly forcing itself into the net. It was one of the best Sounders passes this year, and it came from a sub who had been on the field for five minutes. Just incredible.
Jordan Morris – 6 | Community – 6.4 (on 76’)
Welcome back, kid. We missed what Morris can bring, such as his 78th minute run that saw Nico put him in with an over the top ball. Jordan trapped it full sprint, got his body in between the defender and the ball and got a near-post shot off that nearly scored. Morris looked great in his appearance, combining well with others and showing off his speed and skills. He will be another awesome weapon for the final.
Hilario Grajeda – 8 | Community – 7.1
Another very nice refereeing job allowed this playoff game to be about the players and the play on the field. I thought Grajeda did a good job maintaining order and only blowing the whistle when necessary. Both teams played relatively cleanly, and the cards were used appropriately to contain problems.
There were only a few calls that I didn’t like, one being a 50/50 challenge from Nico Lodeiro versus Sanchez that saw Nico get the ball and both players collide and a foul called on Lodeiro. Another was a late foul earned by Cubo Torres while he was on the ground that could have been dangerous play by the Houston player.
Otherwise, Grajeda was spot on all night. His yellow card on Alexander for holding Dempsey on a break was the correct call, although an advantage may have been prudent to see if Seattle could finish off the break. The referee rightly ignored a Boniek Garcia flop in minute 50, trying to earn a red card in a silly dive after charging into Deuce. Garcia earned his own yellow 10 minutes later on an easy call. The biggest decision of the night was aided by VAR, and I thought that again Grajeda made the right call. When Martinez deliberately retaliated against Delem by shoving his face into the turf, it was appropriately red carded. It’s an intentional attempt to hurt someone, striking their head/neck, and was obvious retaliation. I hope the referee staff in the final does as well as the teams that have worked the playoffs for Seattle so far.
Houston Dynamo MOTM
Coming into the match in need of two goals, Houston couldn’t muster the offensive fireworks required. That said, when they did look threatening in attack, it often came via the work of Vicente Sanchez. (It should also be noted that Dylan Remick came in a close second in the voting, surely for his versatility as he lined up at right back, and not his status as a former Sounder.)
Back to back finals. I truly believe this team is much better than last year’s, and that we have the better team going into the MLS Cup. Let’s bring it home!