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Trophy hunting: Sounders advance to Open Cup semis

The Sounders rode first-half goals from Josh Atencio and Jordan Morris to a 2-1 Open Cup quarterfinal win over Sacramento Republic.

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6 min read
© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders took a quick trip to take on Sacramento Republic FC in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday night. Although things got a little nervy in the second half, the Sounders took home a 2-1 win and the chance to continue chasing a fifth Open Cup trophy.

Brian Schmetzer rolled out a legitimate starting MLS lineup, with the only changes from the group that started against the New England Revolution being Jonathan Bell for Jackson Ragen on the back line, Josh Atencio for Obed Vargas in midfield, and Reed Baker-Whiting on the left wing for Léo Chú – notably, that was the change Schmetzer made at halftime over the weekend, and Chú didn’t make the trip to Sacramento.

Those changes paid off early, starting with Atencio’s 16th minute goal to put Seattle in front. Baker-Whiting sent in a cross after Albert Rusnák found him with a through ball, but a defender headed the cross away before it could reach Jordan Morris lurking in the box. Fortunately the clearance fell right to Atencio, who took his shot off the half-volley and put it through a defender’s legs, where it took a deflection and flew into the back of the net.

Sacramento threatened to even things up, with a couple of dangerous looks from forward Cristian Parano as Seattle’s defense struggled to clear their lines. The first chance the 23rd minute looked to have possibly beat Andrew Thomas on a low, curling shot after Sacramento had some tricky passing around the top of the box and a nice dribble from Parano, but his shot continued to bend away from goal after passing Thomas and eventually went out for a goal kick. The second was a shot from distance in the 27th minute, but Thomas easily caught the ball and took the sting out of the threat.

Just a few minutes later it was Baker-Whiting once again playing provider, this time getting a smart, crisp first-time pass to his feet around midfield from Nouhou to start a transition opportunity. RBW played a Rusnák-like ball for Morris to run onto, and Morris rode a challenge and rounded goalkeeper Danny Vitiello before slotting his shot into the far side netting to make it 2-0 in the 31st minute.

Seattle rode their 2-0 lead into halftime with one more real look at goal in stoppage time. Yeimar rose up and made good contact on a header from a Rusnák free kick, but Vitiello got both hands to it to keep it out. The second half started with a shift of momentum in Sacramento’s favor. In the 49th minute Seattle’s defense was caught sleeping a little as Nouhou lost his mark, allowing substitute Juan Herrera to connect on a header that he put into the ground and through the legs of Thomas as the goalkeeper jumped to try to block the shot, shrinking the gap to a single goal.

Both sides pushed for another goal, but the closest anyone came was a Raúl Ruidíaz snap header on another good cross from Baker-Whiting. The look from inside the box was bound for goal, but once again Vitiello intervened to keep Sacramento in the game. Things did get interesting in the game’s dying minutes as a couple of questionable fouls were called around Seattle’s penalty area and a Republic player had to be substituted for a possible concussion after a nasty collision with his own goalkeeper around midfield, but in the end Seattle held on to win 2-1 and punch their ticket to the Open Cup semifinals.

They’ll face the winner of New Mexico United and LAFC on August 27. There’s still plenty of work to do before that time comes, starting with a regular season match on the road against Austin FC on Saturday, July 13.

Key moments

2 - Andrew Thomas comes out to clean up a back pass but misplays it and gives the ball up to a Sacramento attacker. He makes one diving attempt and is able to slow the play enough to scramble and make another attempt and grab the ball on the end line.

16 - GOAL! Josh Atencio picks up the loose ball after a Reed Baker-Whiting cross gets cleared to the top of the box, and his shot on the half-volley hops through a defenders legs and into the back of the net! 1-0 Sounders

23 - Cristian Parano almost levels the score after a nice dribble and some good play from Sacramento, but his shot curves just wide of Thomas’s outstretched hand and the goal post.

27 - Parano with another shot, this time from deep on a play that almost certainly doesn’t happen if Rusnák isn’t blocked by the referee, but Thomas catches it.

31 - GOAL! Nouhou first-times a loose ball into the feet of Baker-Whiting, who then plays an excellent ball in behind for Jordan Morris. Morris beats a man and rounds the goalkeeper, then slots the ball into the side netting. 2-0 Sounders

45+2 - Yeimar almost makes it 3-0 with a header from an excellent Rusnák free kick, but Danny Vitiello dives across to make a good two-handed save.

49 - Goal, Sacramento. A corner kick is served right to the back post and Juan Herrera jumps seemingly unmarked to nod it home. 2-1 Sounders

68 - Rusnák sends in a corner that bounces around in the box, but never quite falls for a Sounders attacker to get a clean shot before it’s cleared.

69 - Ruidíaz is denied a goal of his own by a diving save, getting a snap header on a good cross from RBW that’s palmed away by the ‘keeper.

90+1 - A cross comes in for Sacramento and hits off a player's back before Nouhou heads it towards goal, allowing Thomas to dive out and smother it.

Quick thoughts

The Reedaissance: I’m not going to try to convince you that Reed Baker-Whiting is a must-start player at this moment in time. Heck, I’m not even going to tell you that he has to get on the field one way or another. What I will try to tell you is that since the 19-year-old was finally able to put his lingering hamstring injury behind him, he’s been building back towards the player that looked like he could be the future at left back for the Sounders down the stretch last season. He’s gotten meaningful minutes in eight of Seattle’s last nine matches, with four starts and a halftime substitute appearance in last weekend’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. Against admittedly weaker opposition in Sacramento, Reed was deployed as a left winger and put on his best performance since the Sporting Kansas City game (up until his second yellow in that one). He’ll only get credit for one assist in this one, but he pretty much set up Josh Atencio’s goal and created more than a few other moments of real excitement. Development isn’t linear, but it’s good to see his trajectory on the rise again.

Might as well just win it: The Sounders find themselves on a very serious upswing at the moment. They’re now riding a four-game winning streak across all competitions, and are unbeaten in their last six games. It hasn’t exactly been easy in those games, but they’ve started playing better and more attractive football while racking up results and getting the team healthier. They’re working Pedro de la Vega into the squad and getting star performances out of guys like João Paulo, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and Albert Rusnák, to say nothing of Obed Vargas. They’ve climbed into touching distance of a home playoff game, and put themselves into the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. The trophy that best represents the early success of the club’s MLS era can serve as a catalyst for a new era in Seattle. They’ve already gotten to this point, so they might as well just go on and win the damn thing. Schmetzer seems to have the same perspective, based on the lineup and substitutes he used tonight.

Grinding out games: We’d all rather that the Sounders make these games a little easier. It’s downright stressful to watch, whether it’s Seattle taking a lead and letting a nearly beaten team back into the game or requiring an epic comeback to secure a result. Sort of boring 2-0 wins are just better for our collective blood pressure. That said, especially in a knockout competition, the ability to fight through that adversity and pick up the win is an absolutely crucial skill. Not only is it important, but I think it’s fair to say that Seattle have improved in that area as the season has progressed. Earlier in the year when they were claiming these results, it often felt like it was by the skin of their teeth. They took a lead and when the other side punched back Seattle tried to close up shop for extended periods of time and didn’t always walk out of the building with the desired result. Tonight they did let Sacramento back into the game, but when the hosts scored in the first few minutes of the second half, Seattle didn’t try to shut it down for the better part of 45 minutes. They tried to add to their lead, and if they hadn’t we may well be having a very different conversation.

Notable quote

Player spotlight

Josh Atencio – Atencio certainly wasn’t perfect, but his passing was (mostly) clean, he was aggressive on the dribble, won 3/5 tackles, and had the goal that got things started for Seattle. Not a bad game to celebrate going to the Olympics.