PORTLAND, Ore. — Gathered in the locker room following a chaotic and nearly disastrous first half, a sense of calm permeated the group.
Rather than yelling at each other after blowing an early 1-0 lead by allowing a pair of avoidable goals, or bemoaning the loss of two starters to injury, the Sounders were keeping their heads.
“Nobody was down,” Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam said of the halftime mood. “Everybody was positive. We knew we could do better in the second half and still had the second game.”
Losing 2-1, especially against your biggest rival, is obviously far from ideal. But that it was only 2-1 feels a bit like a minor victory, especially given all the circumstances and how close the match felt to completely going off the rails for the Sounders.
By the time Chad Marshall was stretchered off the field in the 40th minute with what turned out to be a meniscus injury, the momentum had clearly swung to the Timbers’ side. The combination of celebration-induced smoke, ceaseless singing and cramped confines made for a rather chaotic setting.
Rather than being consumed by it all, the Sounders managed to get through the half without further incident and were arguably the better team in the second half. It could almost been seen as an analogy for their regular season.
“We’ve had so many setbacks this season, this is nothing for us,” Leerdam said. “We’re going to go home and do the best we can.”
Stefan Frei was even more steadfast in his belief.
“We’re not out,” he said. “I wouldn’t even call it a setback. A setback would be going back home down 3-0. We’re in this. We got an away goal, we’re confident in our play at home and we believe we have a better team than them. They have some guys who can punish you, but I think we believe in our ability we have in the squad and we can pull something off.”
The numbers back up Frei
There’s obviously still a lot of work to do, but Frei isn’t just sharing platitudes. The reality is that historically, higher seeds fare well in the MLS Cup Playoffs even if they head home down a goal.
From 2003-13, MLS used a straight aggregate system in two-legged series. On 15 different occasions, the lower seed won the first leg by one goal. In eight of those series, the home team was able to advance. Looking at only the four series where the lower seed won the first leg 2-1, the higher seed ultimately advanced in three of them.
In 2014, MLS started using away-goals as a tiebreaker. Four times the higher seed has scored at least one away goal while losing Leg 1 by a single goal. In three of those instances, the higher seed advanced. Interestingly, the Sounders were the only team to buck that trend when they advanced past the higher-seeded Colorado Rapids in the 2016 Western Conference finals after winning the first leg 2-1.
Add it all up, and since 2003 higher-seeded teams that score at least one goal on the road and only trail by one goal heading into Leg 2 have advanced 75 percent of the time. You have to like those odds.
Staunching the bleeding
I doubt Brian Schmetzer knew all of that, exactly, when he was figuring out how best to replace Cristian Roldan, but I’m sure he understood that a 2-1 deficit was at least manageable. I think that knowledge has to inform any discussion of Brian Schmetzer’s decision to call on Waylon Francis.
Let’s be clear — Francis has not been very good for the Sounders. In just under 600 minutes, he has only a single assist. I was as surprised as anyone to see him suiting up.
But Schmetzer probably wasn’t looking for the player with the best upside; rather he wanted someone who could keep the situation from getting worse.
As uninspiring and seemingly conservative as the choice was to go with Francis, I think we can safely say it worked out OK. Francis repeatedly found himself with position deep in the Timbers’ territory and while he was unable to do much positive with any of that, he at least kept Portland’s defense on its heels.
Given how well the Sounders looked in Harry Shipp’s limited minutes, it’s entirely possible they could have grabbed another goal if he’d played more. But I think there’s a good chance that if Shipp had been the player Schmetzer originally inserted, that he’d only be available for limited minutes in the return leg. I also suspect that Schmetzer would have preferred to use Shipp earlier, but was understandably reluctant to use his third sub too early.
The situation with Handwalla Bwana is a bit less concrete. Essentially, Schmetzer suggested he was hesitant to toss the rookie into a match that was going the way this one was. Bwana has played less than 500 minutes in his professional career, has only started once since the end of May, and has never played extended minutes in a setting quite like this. Using him certainly would have been the bold choice, but I’m not at all convinced it would have been the smart one.
Preparing for Leg 2
My strong suspicion is that Schmetzer will be far more aggressive in Leg 2. The smart money is probably on him starting Shipp at right mid and possibly replacing him with Bwana around the 60th minute if the Sounders still need a goal. Assuming Brad Smith is available, Schmetzer may also use Smith either as a defensive replacement for Shipp if the Sounders are leading or insert him in place of Nouhou if they’re chasing a goal. They obviously also have the option of bringing in Will Bruin and switching into a two-forward set.
At Marshall’s spot, the smart money is on Román Torres reprising the role he played on Sunday. The only other plausible scenario would be for Gustav Svensson to slide back with Jordy Delem slotting in at defensive mid.
Given that the Sounders lost two of their most important players on Sunday, these seem like pretty good options.
The game in one gif
Totally cheating here, but I figured this gif from the day after the game would put a smile on your face. As best we could tell it went Svensson —> Nouhou —> Kim Kee-hee —> Osvaldo Alonso —> Frei —> Nicolas Lodeiro —> Ruidíaz —> Francis —> Leerdam —> Torres —> Victor Rodriguez.
Quote of the Day
“2-1 is nothing. We have the game in our hands.” — Alonso on the deficit
One stat to tell the tale
47 — FiveThirtyEight gives the Sounders a 47 percent chance of advancing, despite going into Leg 2 trailing by a goal. Feels about right.