Nicolas Lodeiro scored twice in the second half as the Sounders won 3-0 and clinched second place in the Western Conference.
Their ticket punched to a first-round playoff bye, the Sounders spent the aftermath of Sunday’s regular-season finale discussing duels won and lost.
Ultimately, a 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids came down largely to individual battles not found on any score sheet. The Sounders certainly lost some of those, the biggest when Clint Dempsey was ejected in the 24th minute, leaving his team short-handed and earning an automatic one-game suspension when the Western Conference semifinals begin next weekend.
But the Sounders also won their share, especially when it came to Will Bruin freeing himself up inside the box. It was enough to survive a second-half scare and clinch second place in the conference as the Sounders look to repeat as MLS Cup champions.
The Sounders play in the conference semifinals as a No. 2 seed. Leg 1 is Sunday on the road. Leg 2 is at home, Nov. 2. The series is an aggregate-goal format.
“Score lines like 3-0, or multiple-goal games, or shutouts come from the team driving to make sure that they win everything,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “Every tackle. Every 50-50 duel. And if you win your battle in your part of the field, you help your team become more successful.
“I constantly look at the stats sheet and we’re winning duels a lot. And I think that has something to do with it.’’
The “duels won’’ statistic after this one had the Sounders winning 60 percent. They dominated early, with Bruin converting a Kelvin Leerdam goalmouth feed in the ninth minute to put the home side ahead.
Nicolas Lodeiro would add a pair of second-half goals to complete the scoring in a game far closer than the final score indicated. In fact, despite the Sounders avoiding the dreaded sudden-death knockout round of the playoffs and finishing with their best home mark ever at 11-1-5, things nearly turned disastrous for them.
A crowd of 44,370 at CenturyLink Field might have thought the Sounders were about to blow the lowly Rapids out early. Bruin nearly made it 2-0 when he hit the post minutes after his goal, while Colorado appeared to be playing out the string.
Everything changed after Dempsey swung an elbow that connected with the head of defender Mike da Fonte behind the play. Upon video review, Dempsey was issued the red card by referee Christopher Penso.
The Sounders were already missing midfielder Victor Rodriguez to a mild quadriceps pull suffered in training on Friday. They were also without injured midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson, so Dempsey getting tossed was the last thing they needed.
Though Colorado needed until the 40th minute to register its first chance, Stefan Aigner nearly connected on a point-blank bicycle kick that Stefan Frei made a huge stop on. The reeling Sounders regrouped somewhat at halftime and appeared to have steadied themselves until an inadvertent 60th-minute handball by Harry Shipp led to a penalty kick and the game’s potential turning point.
But striker Dominique Badji fired it off the post to Frei’s right, enabling the Sounders to maintain their 1-0 lead.
Minutes later, Bruin sprinted in to the opposing box for a Joevin Jones cross and was hauled down by defender Axel Sjoberg.
Once again, referee Penso went to video review, ejected Sjoberg and awarded a penalty kick. Lodeiro didn’t miss, firing the ball low and past keeper Tim Howard – possibly playing his final game – to his left for the 2-0 lead.
With the sides evened out by the Sjoberg red card, the Sounders cruised. Lodeiro added his second goal on a nice run late in stoppage time as the Sounders secured extra rest for injured players ahead of Sunday’s opener of a two-leg clash against either Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City or Houston.
They’ll play the second leg of that series at home on Nov. 2.
“I thought the (Badji) penalty kick was very important for the momentum of the game,’’ Lodeiro said. “When he missed, it gave us some confidence and then we got the penalty kick. And the (Sjoberg) red card helped, too, because then we each had 10 players to finish the game.’’
Schmetzer was clearly irked by Dempsey taking the red card and his temperamental antics getting in da Fonte’s face immediately afterward. He said he’ll speak with the star forward about it and repeatedly stressed the need for players to maintain composure as the playoffs begin.
“I’m not allowing one play to derail what we can accomplish,’’ Schmetzer said. “That won’t happen. That I can guarantee you.’’
This time, it didn’t.
Lodeiro stepped up, playing another monstrous game in the defensive midfield in Alonso’s absence. Leerdam also was a force throughout, dribbling by Colorado players and beating them to loose balls.
And Bruin was again an offensive threat targeted physically throughout. He nearly drew a first-half penalty call when knocked down inside the box and finally did after Badji’s crucial miss.
“I think I’ve been getting kicked a lot this year, but that’s the nature of the position and how it is,’’ Bruin said. “I feel like if you keep knocking, keep doing the same stuff, eventually you’re going to get something.’’
Just like the Sounders in an up-and-down season that forced them to claw at times. But they’ll now open their title defense right about where they’d hoped to be.