The Seattle Sounders beat FC Dallas 1-0 on Friday night to complete their first round victory in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Here are the five things we learned from the series.
Fears about format misplaced
We are finished with the first round of the playoffs, so now is a good time to evaluate how the new format played out. I think it's important to start with what the loudest detractors spent most of their time concerned about. A popular take when the format was announced was this convoluted scenario where a team could theoretically advance without winning a game. This was billed as some anticompetitive tactic that would result in boring soccer. This situation didn't happen. The games were mostly exciting (unless you're Nashville) and it added an interesting wrinkle. Even if you account for the Real Salt Lake vs. Houston Dynamo series, it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that RSL deserved to advance after playing 3 close games – it's not like they were completely blown out of the water in the game they lost.
I'm not sure if MLS will continue with this format in future years, and I'm not even sure if I personally like the format, but I think we do need to allow space for things to be different. The Columbus Crew vs. Atlanta United series was chaotic and fun. There was a lot of high-stakes drama. A No. 8 seed defeated their conference's top seed (but 7 of 8 higher seeds still won). And heck, the Sounders are probably the team that can walk away from this experiment knowing they benefited the most from it.
Morris + Rusnak rising to the occasion
There were concerns about whether the Sounders would be able to create and score goals without Nico Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz in the starting lineup. That's a valid concern when those are players are club legends, especially when it comes to the MLS Cup Playoffs. However, it was the players wearing their positional shirts that took the mantle in the first round.
Jordan Morris and Albert Rusnak have had their doubters this year, but they both leave the first round having scored two goals apiece, with both of Rusnak's goals counting as game-winners. His goal on Friday night was his fifth goal in the last 10 matches for the Sounders, which coincides almost perfectly with his permanent move to the No. 10. Morris could've had a third goal, and a goal that undoubtedly would've changed the trajectory of the second game, but he was marginally offside.
If these two can keep up this form, watch out.
Sounders dominant in control
The best way to win in soccer is to have control over the game. It obviously sounds simple but it's also the hardest possible thing to do. You're trying to do one thing and your opponent is trying to do another thing at the exact same time. That's sort of what makes this sport exciting.
Over the course of three games, everything happened on the Sounders' terms. Even the three goals that Dallas scored happened because of what Seattle was (or wasn't) doing. A bad 20 minutes can definitely dampen the vibes when there's a week between games, but the Sounders were dominant over Dallas and should be proud of that.
At the crux of the domination was the way they defended. Defending isn't just a job for the defenders to do and the whole Sounders team, from front to back, took responsibility. Yeimar and Jackson Ragen were stout at the back, but even more impressive was Seattle's shape out of possession and their press. What we saw against Dallas, in games 1 & 3 in particular, was some of the best team defense this squad has ever played.
Home-field advantage, sort of
I know that Sporting Kansas City isn't everyone's favorite team out there, but they at least deserve a wink and nod from Sounders fans for doing their part to dispatch St. Louis City SC. Because of SKC heroics, the Sounders will now host the Western Conference Final should they advance that far. First up, of course, is LAFC at Lumen Field on Nov. 26.
If the Sounders have hopes of winning a third MLS Cup this year, it will have to happen on the road. The four remaining teams from the Eastern Conference all finished higher in the Supporters' Shield standings than Seattle.
So, you're saying there's a chance?
The Sounders are two wins away from another MLS Cup Final and three playoff wins away from their third Cup since 2016. It would be an incredible feat to reach the final and it would cement them as one of the greatest dynasties in MLS history. But they have to get there first. So, who stands in their way?
Up first is a recent, but familiar foe in LAFC. Seattle are winless in their last five matches against LAFC, but a similar streak didn't stop the Sounders from shocking the league by winning against LAFC in the 2019 playoffs. Moreover, LAFC hasn't won in Seattle since their inaugural match in 2018. This year's matchup is much closer on paper than in 2019, and Seattle's stifling defense is going to be LAFC's toughest matchup to date, especially for Denis Bouanga.
Should the Sounders advance past LAFC, they'll face either Sporting Kansas City or the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference Final. In SKC, you have a fearless squad who fought back from the brink of death only to defeat the No. 1 seed in the conference and have been the West's best team since about May. Houston are the 2023 US Open Cup champs and have put together a good season. There are no easy opponents from here on out.
As for the Eastern Conference? Well, let's just let those chips fall where they may and see what happens if we get that far.