The path to MLS Cup is rarely a smooth one. As satisfying as it was to watch the Seattle Sounders pick apart Los Angeles FC last week, that kind of game was never going to define the journey.
The LAFC game was fun, clinical even. It showed what the Sounders can do when they are at their high-flying best. It was also a bit of a mirage.
No, if the Sounders are to become just the fourth team to ever repeat as MLS Cup champions, history tells us they’ll need to figure out how to win when the path is rutted, pot-holed and grid-locked. Such was the path on Tuesday when the Sounders faced an FC Dallas team whose success this year has been largely predicated on a stifling defense.
Unlike the previous round where the Sounders were repeatedly able to create chances out of transition and with smooth interchanges, this week was considerably more uneven. The ideas were still there, the desire ever present, but Dallas was the half-step quicker they needed to be in order to disrupt the final pass or deny the shots. Dallas defenders blocked six shots and made seven interceptions in or around the penalty area.
The Sounders needed to find an alternate route.
In this case, it was a set piece. Although designed set-pieces have not really been much of a hallmark of the Brian Schmetzer-era, they turned to one in the 49th minute. Shane O’Neill lined up next to Cristian Roldan and behind Yeimar Goméz Andrade. Roldan curled toward the near post, dragging a defender with him, while Goméz Andrade barely moved and effectively set a pick on O’Neill’s mark. O’Neill floated into a pocket of space and made clean contact, redirecting his header inside the far post.
Although the match opened up considerably after the goal and the Sounders threatened to add another at various times — while also coming close to giving up one themselves — O’Neill’s goal ultimately stood up as the match’s only score. That was enough to put the Sounders through to the Western Conference finals for the fourth time in five years.
“That might not have been the prettiest soccer game, that might not have been our best performance as a team, but that team gutted it out,” Schmetzer said during the postgame press conference. “I think I’ve stood in front of all you guys before and said that group of players finds different ways to win. And that’s what makes them champions, and that’s what gives them a realistic shot at winning trophies.
“You can’t always win the ‘right’ way, the prettiest way, the best way, you have to gut out some victories.”
For all the ways the Sounders have found to win this year, their ability to win ones exactly like this was so far unproven. During the regular season, the Sounders built a goal-difference of +21 mostly on the back of a league-leading nine multi-goal victories. They had not, however, won a single 1-0 match this year and were just 2-3-6 in matches decided by one goal or less.
Even in the two previous one-goal victories, they also had dramatically outplayed their opponents and were a bit unlucky not to have won by more. If this team had a weakness, it seems to be in close matches.
In absence of that second goal, the Sounders ratcheted up their defense. Maybe more emblematic of their performance was not the set-piece goal, but the way they defended Dallas’ best look of the night. After allowing Michael Barrios to sneak in behind Nouhou to put a shot off the post, Yeimar quickly recovered to get into position to block Andres Ricuarte’s follow-up attempt. Cristian Roldan then won the header to clear the danger and the entire backline moved up to keep Barrios offside.
In case there was any doubt about where that shot was going before Yeimar blocked it... pic.twitter.com/93R3PxogSI— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) December 3, 2020
Yeimar’s block was one of a season-high six the Sounders made in this game, just another illustration of their willingness to find new ways to win even if that means they need to winterize their tires.
“We grinded out a win,” Schmetzer said. “For the team to believe they can win in different fashions, in different ways, that’s make us believe even more than we can do great things.”