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Postgame Pontifications: The will to win

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Sounders continue to show they won’t go down easy.

Lindsey Wasson/Sounders FC

SEATTLE — In a season full of twists and turns, it probably only made sense that the Seattle Sounders’ first game of the MLS Playoffs would follow a similar script.

The Sounders started blazing hot, recalling their first six games of the season when they looked downright unstoppable. They followed that up with some frustrating play that turned into downright panic in surrendering a 2-0 lead — basically what happened to them over the summer. Then they pulled it together just in time to take another lead, surrender it again, and then close it out with an overtime goal to advance. That too basically mirrored the Sounders’ post-Gold Cup performance.

It was by no means the most satisfying performance, especially for anyone who was under the impression the Sounders might suddenly pull themselves together and cruise into the Western Conference finals. But it did showcase the defining characteristic of this team: its ability to find ways to win.

Credit to FC Dallas, the youngest team in MLS easily could have crumbled after the Sounders clinically executed their game plan for the first 37 minutes. The Sounders weren’t dominating possession, but they were repeatedly finding space behind the FC Dallas defense, breaking the press with relative ease and creating chances from transition. You could imagine Sounders coaches watching it all unfold with broad grins, surely believing the lead was more likely to grow than shrink.

Instead, Dallas took advantage of a poor clearance and fortuitous bounce to pull one back in the 39th minute and then absolutely dominated the match for the next 30 minutes or so.

But just as it would have made sense for Dallas to fold when falling behind, there was some potential for the oldest team in the league to simply tire. The Sounders didn’t do that either. While Dallas dominated possession throughout the final 80 minutes of the match, the Sounders kept generating chances. They weren’t necessarily pretty chances through quality build-up, but they were the kinds of looks teams who win playoff games tend to create. Goals scored while being dragged down or after a goal-mouth scramble. No chance better showcased the Sounders’ willingness to sacrifice their bodies than the one they didn’t score after Ryan Hollingshead somehow managed to clear Raúl Ruidíaz’s flying volley off the line.

There was a determination on display that the Sounders weren’t quite ready to give up on this run. I don’t know that they’ve given up on the idea that it’s all going to suddenly click into place and a well-oiled machine is going to magically emerge, but I think there’s also probably a confidence that they can figure it out regardless. This was, after all, the third time in the last 12 games that they’ve coughed up a 2-0 lead at home, and they’ve allowed eight different leads slip away during that time. But it’s equally notable that the Sounders haven’t actually lost any of those games and have now won three straight in which that happened.

On the year, they’ve managed to claim 10 points from games they trailed at some point and nine points in games where they allowed the first goal. That more than balances out the six points they’ve dropped in games they led at some point.

This may not be a mark of a great team, but it is a sign that this team knows how to get the job done, even if they don’t always make it look as easy as we’d prefer.

And Victor Rodriguez makes them better!

It made perfect sense for Brian Schmetzer not to force Victor Rodriguez into the starting lineup. Rodriguez missed the regular-season finale, has struggled to stay healthy all year and very well may not have had the fitness to play a full match. But he still managed to influence the match plenty in his 53 minutes.

Almost from the moment Rodriguez entered the match, the Sounders were able to turn the possession tide. While FC Dallas had dominated about 60 percent of the possession during the first 67 minutes, from that point forward the Sounders won the possession battle in five of the next six five-minute increments and split it in the other. More than the simple possession numbers, the Sounders more than doubled the rate at which they were generating shots during Rodriguez’s time on the field (.13 shots per minute vs. .28). The shots were generally of higher quality as well, with 13 of the 15 the Sounders took coming from inside the penalty area as opposed to 4 of 9 in the first 67 minutes. Rodriguez had two key passes and four shots on his own and it was his pass that started the attacking sequence for the winning goal.

It’s still not entirely clear if Rodriguez is fit enough to start against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, but there should be no question that he offers something the Sounders still can’t quite replicate without him.

All hail Jordan

No player’s upward trajectory is ever perfectly straight. Jordan Morris had a borderline spectacular rookie season before injuries slowed him considerably in 2017 and completely robbed him of his 2018 campaign. Similarly, Morris started well in 2019 before leveling off a bit in the couple months before the Gold Cup.

Over the last few months, however, he’s been on an absolute tear. He took his play to an entirely new level against FC Dallas. It wasn’t so much that he put on some sort of technical display. Rather, he showed the kind of killer instinct many have doubted he would ever develop. Beyond the three goals, was how he scored them. The second featured a defender literally dragging him to the ground as he redirected the ball into the net and the third saw him fighting for a loose ball to head it into the net. You could also see it in his three tackles, three interceptions and two clearances (all of which either tied or set season-highs). For good measure, he also beat his defender on the dribble three times.

There were signs that Morris was tiring even in regulation. But to Schmetzer’s credit, he trusted Morris enough to conserve his energy in a way that would still allow him to defend effectively and be ready to pounce on chances. On the winning play, for instance, Morris starts off near midfield with his hands on his knees, recovering from his run through several pressing FC Dallas players. He then alertly moves into the box, staking out a position on the weak side ready to pounce on a loose ball. When ball ricochets around the box, he beats everyone to it.

The Roman wall

I don’t know what the Sounders are thinking as far as Román Torres’ future, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s going to be starting for however long this season lasts. Aside from the misplayed clearance on Reggie Cannon’s goal — it probably should have been dealt with before it got to him — Torres barely put a foot wrong. His 11 clearances were four more than he had in any other game this year with five coming in the 30-minute overtime.