Seattle takes a 2-1 goals advantage into the second game of MLS series
FRISCO, Texas — In the wide-open spaces of north Texas, roads are drawn at right angles. Every intersection represents a chance to change course, with north, south, east and west spreading boundlessly toward a flat horizon.
The Sounders find themselves at a similar spot in the road before the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal series against FC Dallas.
For seven MLS seasons now, Seattle has maintained its status as a regular championship contender and annual playoff participant. Yet the club has yet to even reach an MLS Cup final, let alone lift the trophy itself.
MLS Western Conference semifinal, Leg 2, Sounders @ Dallas, 4:30 p.m., FS1
The playoff game Sunday at Toyota Stadium could have far-reaching consequences.
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A victory — or draw, or one-goal defeat in which Seattle scores at least two goals — would qualify the Sounders for their third conference finals in four seasons. Anything less, and Seattle will fall in the conference semis for the fifth time in seven seasons, a round that has become an absolute baseline for a club with its ambition and resources.
“We have to make these chances count,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “There’s not going to be any kind of philosophical change. But does it impact a decision here or there? Yeah, because this team is built to win. If you reach the conclusion that this team can’t win, then you have to move pretty quickly.”
Seattle carries a 2-1 scoring lead into the second leg, but that’s far from impeachable. Dallas is a tough team to strategize against, a team with no qualms about sitting back and seizing its moment. FCD controlled long stretches of the first game, pushing for a second away goal that would have been vital.
The Sounders’ front office is unlikely to blow up the roster and start from scratch no matter how the match goes Sunday.
Star forwards Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are this team’s keystones. Heavy summer investment in new signings Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz, Erik Friberg and Roman Torres mean this team is locked into a win-now approach for at least another few seasons.
Any fallout is likely to disproportionally affect the back end of the rotation, and maybe even taken-for-granted veterans.
The 2013 Real Salt Lake season is instructive. Under then-GM Lagerwey’s direction, RSL had stagnated after peaking with its 2009 MLS Cup win and 2011 CONCACAF Champions League finals appearance. Salt Lake hadn’t struggled, necessarily, but its core started to age.
So on Dec. 3, 2012, Salt Lake traded popular Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola to New York and Will Johnson to Portland. Despite the turnover, a younger, fresher RSL made it all the way to the 2013 MLS Cup final before losing to Kansas City.
It can seem simplistic — and almost counterintuitive — to put so much weight on the often-fickle postseason. The eight-month regular season provides a much larger sample to draw from. But the playoffs are where teams are ultimately judged, and pressure can often reveal a team’s truest self.
“You see, in the biggest moments of the biggest games, what type of player comes through,” Lagerwey said, “what kind of group comes through.”
Seattle came through against Los Angeles a week and a half ago, slaying its longtime nemesis via a 3-2 victory in the knockout round. The Sounders’ veterans delivered in the first leg against Dallas with second-half goals from Dempsey and Ivanschitz providing the edge.
But with one, long-standing hurdle conquered, Seattle has at least one more to topple if it’s going to approach the expectations it opened the season with.
“If you lose in the first round to a young, hungry team,” Lagerwey said of FC Dallas, “I think you start to have conversations.”
The Sounders have said from preseason camp that they would be judged on their performance in the postseason. Following a 2014 that brought both Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup victories, it was MLS Cup or bust.
That road goes through north Texas, where the crossroads face yawning prairie, and oil derricks churn silently while you ponder your next move.