LOS ANGELES — Not embracing the underdog role heading into Tuesday night’s Major League Soccer Western Conference final against Los Angeles Football Club, the Sounders were confident they would capitalize on their biggest advantage: experience.
Sure, LAFC enjoyed a record-breaking second season in which it racked up 72 points (the most ever), set the all-time mark in goal differential (+48) and tied the league standard for goals scored with 85, but while the home side was playing in the conference finals for the first time, the Sounders were making their third appearance in four years under coach Brian Schmetzer.
Leading scorer Raul Ruidiaz fired a laser into the lower left corner of the net for his 14th goal of the season (and second of the night) to give Seattle a two-goal advantage in the 64th minute and the visitors held on for a gritty 3-1 victory.
Seattle will play the winner of Wednesday’s Eastern Conference final between Atlanta United and Toronto FC in the MLS Cup at noon PT on Nov. 10. If Toronto wins Wednesday, the Sounders will host the Cup for the first time in franchise history.
“The emotions I have right now? I’m so happy for the fans and proud of our players,” said Schmetzer, whose team beat LAFC for the first time in five tries. “We developed a game plan, the players executed it and we ended up winning.”
Withstanding LAFC’s 12th man — its loyal, flag-waving fans — the Rave Green dealt LAFC its second defeat all season at Banc of California Stadium and advanced to their third MLS final in four seasons. The West’s top two seeds were on even terms for the full 90 minutes, but in the end there was simply no substitute for experience.
“They had the best record — that is a great team,” Schmetzer added. “Bob (Bradley) did a great job with them. They were deservedly favored. Winning away from home is a challenge and this was not an easy game. We had to withstand a lot of pressure but we never stopped believing we could win. Our mentality has always been strong and we wanted to push LAFC into areas where they’d be less effective. They take many risks and we knew we’d have our chances.”
Each squad entered the contest with momentum. Seattle, which won the MLS Cup in 2016 and lost in the final in 2017, defeated FC Dallas 4-3 in the first round Oct. 19 and shut out Real Salt Lake 2-0 on Oct. 23, both at CenturyLink Field. LAFC earned the first postseason victory in franchise history with a 5-3 triumph over the crosstown rival L.A. Galaxy last Thursday in the teams’ highly-anticipated “El Trafico” showdown.
In four previous head-to-head matchups Seattle had lost three times and drawn once — a 1-1 result in the last meeting April 28 at CenturyLink.
“The third goal was icing on the cake,” Schmetzer said. “We still have one game left and we have to get back to work.”
One of Seattle’s most difficult tasks was trying to keep Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela off the stat sheet. The two-time CONCACAF Gold Cup winner with Mexico tallied a league-record 34 goals in MLS this year.
The back line of Brad Smith, Xavier Arreaga, Kim Kee-hee and Kelvin Leerdam allowed the league’s MVP front-runner little space to operate in the first half, which ended with the Sounders ahead 2-1.
Seattle controlled the action early, earning a corner kick in the eighth minute which Cristian Roldan flicked over the bar off a cross from captain Nicolas Lodeiro. One minute later, Ruidiaz put a shot on target but it was saved by goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who backed up Stefan Frei in Seattle before becoming LAFC’s first pick in the 2017 expansion draft.
LAFC struck first in the 17th minute when Eduard Atuesta bent a direct free kick inside the post from inside 30 yards after Vela’s fancy dribbling drew a foul.
It took Seattle less than five minutes to equalize when Ruidiaz banged home a hard drive from the edge of the penalty area for his fifth career playoff goal. Lodeiro gave the Rave Green a 2-1 lead with a well-placed strike on a counterattack four minutes later.
Frei stretched as far as he could to deflect a low shot on net in the opening moments of the second half and the Sounders survived back-to-back corner kicks to maintain the lead and quiet the crowd. With Miller straying too far off his line Lodeiro launched a high-arching shot from near midfield that nearly snuck under the crossbar in the 57th minute.
LAFC applied tremendous pressure over the last 20 minutes. Leerdam was shown a yellow card in the 82nd minute but Atuesta’s kick sailed into the stands. Nouhou nearly made it 4-1 on a solo run in stoppage time but Miller made a point-blank save.
“We scored on our chances, that was the story of the game,” Roldan said. “We doubled down on the wings, played inside-out and made them go outside.”