Unbelievably, it’s all still out there for the Sounders.
For all the fretting and brow-beating that resulted from their ghoulish five-week stretch, for all the nightmare scenarios that poured forth, for the self-imposed elevation of their degree of difficulty on Wednesday from a late Michael Gspurning gaffe, every goal of theirs can still be met.
The Sounders began the process of changing the narrative on a drizzly October night that had promise and doom looming with each ticking minute.
While the baseball season was ending with the simultaneously played Game 6 of the World Series, the Sounders enacted the soccer equivalent of the wild-card game, defeating the Colorado Rapids – the same team that started them tumbling toward oblivion; “embarrassed” them, in coach Sigi Schmid’s term – by 2-0 margin.
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It was only fitting that victory didn’t come easily, or cleanly, with goalie Gspurning committing a stunning handball violation in the 85th minute to force the Sounders to play a man short for the final frantic minutes. Eddie Johnson eased the angst with a clinical finish three minutes into stoppage time.
It was a night in which two wildly divergent outcomes hung in the air for the Sounders. With a defeat, all the distress of the seven-game winless streak that ended the regular season for Seattle would have come flooding back to the surface.
Heads could have rolled, including that of Schmid, a fixture for the expansion franchise. The future of players like Eddie Johnson would have been hotly debated. The fanatical Sounders fan base would have been left pondering how it unraveled so quickly after the seemingly galvanizing acquisition of superstar Clint Dempsey.
And all that still might be just down the road – about 175 miles south, to be exact. The Sounders now advance to a two-game showdown with their archrival Portland Timbers, one of the most eagerly anticipated playoff matchups in MLS history.
These two have not met in the postseason at the highest level – U.S. Open Cup and A League excluded, that is to say – since 1975 in the NASL. Should the Sounders go down to Portland, all those same questions will re-emerge, because an organization as passionate, proud and well-heeled as the Sounders deserves (and demands) more of a taste of postseason success.
But now visions of titles and parades are still dancing, re-summoned from the abyss in a display that served as a reminder of just how much potential this unit still has.
“I thought we played well,’’ Schmid said. “We were not just hanging on and scraping to get by.”
The Portland series will be feverish, to an extent somewhat lacking from the season-low crowd of 32,204, which tried its best to overcome the lack of numbers. They’ll have another chance to get crazy on Saturday after what could have been a wake on Wednesday turned out to be a warmup.
For 85 minutes, the game was redemption for Gspurning, who thwarted all shots in his second game since being benched following an onslaught of goals allowed. Then he wandered out of his own penalty area to handle a loose ball, earning a red card and ejection.
So much for any goalie controversy. Schmid wryly noted that he told substitute Marcus Hahnemann after the game that he’ll definitely be starting on Saturday, as Gspurning must sit out one match for his red card. But first, there was the matter of finishing out the game, a task that became infinitely easier after Johnson’s goal.
The Sounders’ embattled defense was up to the challenge, completing Seattle’s first shutout since Sept. 13 – also the date of their last victory.
The ensuing slump could turn out to be mere prologue to an opportune turnaround by the Sounders. Dempsey is rounding into form, and though he didn’t follow up his breakthrough goal in the last game with more scoring, he came close at least twice. One gets the feeling he’s on the verge of his Sounder breakout.
“He’s taken to his role as an attacking midfielder,’’ Schmid said. “As we develop more of an understanding of where we’re going to be, it allows him to get more balls in dangerous positions.”
And that’s the position the Sounders hope they are inching toward, at just the right time. Dangerous. Again.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org