Seattle finally broke its scoring drought and will play either Portland or Houston in the next round.
Clint Dempsey talked before these playoffs about wanting to make a difference for a Sounders team whose championship run he missed a year ago.
And in the postgame locker room Thursday night, standing drenched from a pouring rain, he described how it felt to do just that. Two goals by Dempsey in the second half lifted his Sounders to a 2-0 win and a Western Conference semifinal victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
That means Dempsey, who sat out last year’s title quest with an irregular heartbeat, now moves one round closer to helping his squad repeat as champions.
“Any time you can play in playoff games and contribute in a good way, it feels good,’’ said Dempsey, whose team faces the winner of the Portland-Houston series in the conference final. “I don’t look at it like that, that I missed out. I’m excited to be playing now and want to make the most of the time I have left.’’
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Dempsey opened the scoring in the 56th minute, then closed it in the 88th with a fine, midair finish of a Victor Rodriguez cross to the box. His teammates and most of the 39,587 fans at CenturyLink Field are glad he did. Otherwise, Dempsey’s first postseason start of 2017 might have been his last.
Neither team seemed able to put the ball in the net, seemingly a carry-over from their dreadful scoreless opener in Vancouver Sunday. And the longer the game dragged on without a goal, the more it seemed to favor the visitors.
With the series an aggregate affair and away goals being the tiebreaker, any second-half score by Vancouver would have forced the Sounders to counter twice.
But Dempsey’s first goal, on a left-footed shot from the top of the box, helped open up some of the play. Still, even with the 1-0 lead, the Sounders were in dangerous territory since any late goal by the Whitecaps could seal a series defeat.
“We were busy trying to figure out what we were going to do next because 1-0 was a dangerous lead for us,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “A very dangerous lead for us because any goal by them would have not just given them momentum but given them the chance to come out with an aggregate victory.’’
Scoring had been a problem for both teams in the series. The Whitecaps were slowed by health issues for midfielders Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera, while the Sounders were missing Rodriguez for most of the series and had to drop Nicolas Lodeiro into a defensive midfield role Thursday to replace an injured Osvaldo Alonso.
But they had Dempsey.
He’d just missed connecting on a right-footed shot in close during first half stoppage time. Before that, the best Sounders chance in the opening half had come when Nouhou made a dash down the left side of the box and was hauled down by his jersey. The crowd howled for a penalty kick, but referee Baldomero Toledo opted not to go there — even upon video review.
The opening finally came on an 88th minute rush that resulted in a corner kick.
Lodeiro took it, but instead of crossing the ball to the box, passed it short to Rodriguez — who had substituted into the game minutes earlier. Rodriguez turned and this time sent a cross over the wall of defenders. Dempsey, to the right of the goal, leapt high and kicked the ball into the net.
“I knew he was going to go to the far post with it,’’ Dempsey said. “I just tried to time my run right and was able to do that if he hit the ball wide. It came a little bit wide and I was able to be there at the right moment.’’