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Talking Points: Backline shines

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Sounders keep the clean sheet in win over Dallas.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — While the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas have tendency to meet each other in the MLS Cup Playoffs, their encounters have rarely played to a familiar script. We’ve seen low scoring affairs (2014), penalty heartbreak (2015), unexpected blowouts (2016) and extra-time shootouts (2019). With the Sounders as the prohibitive favorite based on payroll, seeding, experience and home-field advantage (such as it is), the mostly likely outcome would seem be somewhere between a blowout and a comfortable win. But then that was expected to be the case last year, when FC Dallas took the eventual MLS Cup champions to the limit in extra time. So it was anyone’s guess how this year’s edition of the matchup would go.

Turns out we got a 2014 model.

On a night when the Sounders’ “big three” never really got untracked, it was low-profile offseason addition that saw the Sounders through to their fifth Western Conference final. It was a grind of a game, marked with misplaced passes at critical moments, and misfires on goal when the Sounders did get opportunities. But one well-timed header was all they needed for the Sounders to survive and advance. They now wait for the winner of the Sporting Kansas City matchup against Minnesota United, and the Sounders will surely be rooting for team from the land of 10,000 lakes to pull off the upset, as that would give them a home match for the right to go to MLS Cup for the fourth time in five years.

They can’t all be masterpieces

After the game, head coach Brian Schmetzer conceded that this wasn’t the Sounders’ best performance. In contrast to the first-round 3-1 victory over LAFC where the Sounders displayed dynamism and lethal finishing, this more resembled a horse race on a muddy track. That’s not to say the Sounders weren’t the better team on the day — they out possessed, outshot and out-dueled FC Dallas — they just didn’t have the extra gear. Schmetzer credited FC Dallas for some dogged defense, and it should be noted that the playoff matches between the two are typically close affairs. Sometimes however, you’ve just got to grind out a result, and that’s what the Sounders did.

Shane O’Neill comes through

Shane O’Neill, who was presumed to be the third center back behind big-money signings Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Xavier Arreaga, had previously worked his way into the starting lineup over the last couple of months. So it would be unfair to call his inclusion in the side a surprise. That said, he was about the unlikeliest players to score the game-winner. O’Neill’s goal was well taken of course, but he was clearly more excited about the team’s defensive performance. O’Neill, in particular hardly put a foot wrong all game, stepping up to snuff out attempted passes from Dallas into the final third, and generally being a calming presence.

Big-Time Backline

It would be unfair not to mention the performance of the entire back four in helping the Sounders secure the shutout. All four of the Sounders defenders were outstanding. If not for O’Neill’s offensive heroics, you could make a case for Nouhou as man of the match. One defensive slip aside, he was fantastic all match long, breaking up attacks on the defensive end, and even starting multiple offensive attacks that probably deserved a goal, but for the Sounders relatively poor attack going forward. Yeimar gets most of the defensive plaudits, but he showed why he deserved them, clearing a likely goal off the line in the 62’, and winning most crosses sent his way. Alex Roldan didn’t have the dynamic game going forward he did against LAFC, but his defensive performance was arguably more impressive, given his recent switch to the position. He more than held his own in multiple one-on-one battles, and was steady transitioning from defense to attack.

Cristian Roldan makes his mark

Cristian’s ears might have been burning after Schmetzer’s postgame comments about his brother’s performance versus LAFC, and while he didn’t get on the scoresheet, Roldan displayed an all-around game which speaks to his ability to play multiple positions at a high level. Roldan was ferocious in defense, winning most of his duels, and particularly in the second half was able to exert his influence on the game. Like Nouhou, he was probably unlucky not to get an assist, as he was able to get to the endline on several occasions and provide dangerous services that the Sounders just weren’t able to finish on the day. His play in the 82’ to provide cover for Nouhou, who Michael Barrios had beaten, was a key moment to keep FC Dallas from a dangerous chance late in the game.