Their dramatic playoff series defeat on penalty kicks to the Timbers on Thursday after a wild 120 minutes of regulation and overtime play wasn't the dream ending Sounders fans hoped for. But given the stakes, opponent and entertainment value, it was arguably the greatest game the Sounders have been involved in over 44 years.
It was far too soon for Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer to rank anything but emotions after what might go down as the greatest game in the 44-year history of the franchise across various incarnations.
Not the greatest first half. And certainly not the happiest ending for Schmetzer’s side. But for sheer entertainment value, selling the game of Major League Soccer and given what was at stake against the franchise’s Portland Timbers rival, Thursday night’s Western Conference semifinal thriller would be tough to beat on a historical level.
For Schmetzer, fresh off a penalty-kicks defeat after a series his club rallied three times late to tie on aggregate, it for now was only the toughest loss of his coaching career.
“It’s horrible when you lose,’’ Schmetzer said. “It’s horrible when you come so close because we were close in the game. And then, having your archrivals celebrate like they did on your home field, that hurts.
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“So, there’s a lot of emotion there, within the game. Some of the highs and lows make it a tough loss. You’re up, you’re down. You’re up, you’re down. It’s definitely a draining situation.’’
But draining as it may have been, especially when Dairon Asprilla banked a penalty-kick winner off goalkeeper Stefan Frei to end a 120-plus minute marathon, those “highs and lows” are what classics are made of. And they’ll be discussing this one across MLS for years to come.
Schmetzer knows his Sounders history, having lived much of it. And it’s tough to believe even he won’t grudgingly appreciate the spectacle once he’s done being haunted by it.
This will be up there with the 1982 North American Soccer League semifinal at Fort Lauderdale, when the Sounders, facing elimination, traded six goals with the hometown Strikers in the final 36 minutes – including a tying Roger Davies strike with 43 seconds to play. From there, Kenny Hibbitt’s sudden-death overtime marker somehow kept the Sounders alive for a third and deciding Kingdome match Hibbitt would again score the winner in to send his team to its second Soccer Bowl title game.
Thursday’s thriller will rekindle memories of goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann stopping Atlanta Ruckus penalty-kick specialist Lenin Steenkamp at Memorial Stadium in 1995 to deliver an A-League championship to the Sounders. For Schmetzer, it will remind him of being behind the Sounders bench against Richmond in the 2005 United Soccer League championship match at Qwest Field, when his team squandered a 2-0 penalty-kicks lead, nearly lost, then won it when Scott Jenkins converted his sudden-death-round try and Ronnie Pascale put his ensuing attempt off the crossbar.
All-time classics require lead changes and comebacks that mess with emotions.
And that’s why, as breathtaking as Frei making “The Save” and Roman Torres converting his penalty kick to deliver the 2016 MLS Cup championship at Toronto was, it wasn’t an all-time performance. The Sounders were vastly outplayed and hanging on for dear life at the end.
No, the team’s all-time best MLS games prior to Thursday were those ending in similar heartbreak. There was the 2015 conference semifinal second leg at Dallas, where Chad Marshall’s equalizer in the 90th minute had the Sounders minutes from a stunning upset on aggregate before Walker Zimmerman’s stoppage-time goal forced an extra session and eventual Rave Green loss on penalty kicks.
Also, the decisive 2014 conference final clash of titans with the Los Angeles Galaxy at CenturyLink Field, where the Sounders jumped ahead 2-0 to take the series lead on aggregate, only to have Juninho score a 54th-minute away goal to send the eventual league champions into the MLS Cup final.
For now, Schmetzer will contemplate how a healthier Sounders team might have put away the exhausted Timbers – playing their third playoff match in eight days – far sooner. A Sounders team needing the best second half in MLS history just to make the playoffs didn’t run out of gas as much as personnel.
With a healthy Cristian Roldan and Brad Smith feeding balls in, it’s likely Raul Ruidiaz would have found the net sooner than his 68th-minute opener on a flub by Timbers netminder Jeff Attinella. And with Marshall directing the defense, it’s doubtful the Sounders would lapse like they did on Sebastian Blanco’s tying goal in the 78th minute or Asprilla’s aggregate go-ahead overtime strike.
With better communication between Kim Kee-hee and Torres, or if Roldan replacement Harry Shipp hadn’t slowed considerably before Blanco’s tying strike, the Sounders likely don’t need a 93rd-minute stoppage-time goal by Ruidiaz just to even the series 3-3 on aggregate. Nor a handball call and Nicolas Lodeiro penalty-kick conversion to erase Asprilla’s overtime marker.
But classics rarely unfold because of perfection. They often involve the biggest names coming up huge — and sometimes failing just as epically — as happened for both sides all night. The Timbers finding legs to score not just once, but twice after a seemingly back-breaking opening score by Ruidiaz demonstrated how both teams left everything on the field.
The Timbers clearly thought they’d won as overtime expired and they began celebrating. Incredibly, Blanco, Diego Valeri and others hadn’t been advised that overtime away goals don’t count as tiebreakers like in regulation play.
Yet, somehow, the Timbers again overcame that emotional swing and found another gear for penalty kicks. Ultimately, the premature Timbers celebration will only add to this game’s lore, as will penalty-round misses by Will Bruin and Osvaldo Alonso, two of the most reliable players in MLS history.
“It was a crazy game,’’ said Bruin, the career 68-goal scorer who rang his shot off the post. “It’s going to sting for a while for me personally. But that’s how it goes in the playoffs. Sometimes you punish all mistakes.’’
Likewise, Sounders fans won’t want their final memory of captain Alonso – possibly playing his last game here – to be of firing his attempt into Attinella. Or of MLS Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Frei getting some but not all of Asprilla’s clinching shot.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed to no longer be in the playoffs and have a chance to add some trophies,’’ Frei said. “But we played a good game and I’m proud of the guys.’’
They didn’t just play a good game. They played a classic, enduring highs and lows as they had throughout the season to erase a 3-9-3 start and make the playoffs to begin with.
Somebody eventually loses games like this. And Schmetzer, devastated as he was, had the presence of mind to encapsulate the larger season.
He discussed his team’s nine-game winning streak, a record in the post-shootout era, leading to a 14-2-1 best half-season finish in league history.
“So you cannot take that away from that group,’’ Schmetzer said. “But again, I’d say each of those guys would trade any one of those two records to be continuing to play.’’
The Sounders will have Jordan Morris returning from injury alongside Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, Roldan and others for another run next year, with double the offseason rest. But for now, the sting fresh, they’ll need to settle for knowing they were part of arguably the best game of their franchise’s storied history.