Clint Dempsey scored in the fifth and 20th minutes as Seattle surged to a three-goal lead, held on for a 3-1 victory and clinched its seventh consecutive berth in the MLS Cup playoffs.
Sounders forward Clint Dempsey scored twice in the opening 20 minutes and Marco Pappa added another early goal to turn what could have been a nervous regular-season finale against Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field into a comfortable rout.
Dempsey scored in the fifth and 20th minutes as Seattle surged to a three-goal lead, held on for a 3-1 victory and clinched its seventh consecutive berth in the MLS Cup playoffs.
The scoring barrage allowed the 55,435 fans (a season league attendance record) to turn their focus elsewhere and experience Major League Soccer’s inaugural Decision Day the way it was meant to be experienced: Furiously checking cellphones and scoreboards for updates on a constantly changing live bracket.
(1 seed) FC Dallas, bye
(2) Vancouver, bye
(5) Los Angeles @ (4) Sounders FC, Wednesday, 7 p.m., CenturyLink Field, JOEtv
(6) Sporting Kansas City @ (3) Portland, Thursday, 7 p.m.
(1) New York Red Bulls, bye
(5) New England @ (4) D.C. United, Wednesday
(6) Toronto FC @ (3) Montreal, Thursday
“It was definitely good for my own constitution,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid quipped afterward. “I’m sure it was good for the fans as well.”
Most Read Sports Stories
- Here's why Baseball Hall of Fame voters got it right with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
- Where things stand with the Seahawks' defensive coordinator opening as NFL teams make hires
- Mariners position overview: Could Seattle have something special brewing with its starting pitching?
- Seahawks position review: RB Rashaad Penny's late-season emergence may make re-signing him that much more difficult
- 'Dawgs helping Dawgs': How a fellow UW football alum helped former QB Cody Pickett avoid open-heart surgery
The fourth-seeded Sounders will host the fifth-seeded and defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday at CenturyLink Field, but that matchup didn’t become clear until the dying minutes of Sunday’s match, or guaranteed until the final whistle blew in Kansas City.
For the first time in MLS history, each of the regular-season finales in each conference kicked off simultaneously — with the exception of Red Bulls vs. Fire, which was pushed back with the Western Conference kickoffs to keep the Supporters’ Shield drama between New York and Dallas alive.
For their part, the Sounders players say they were focused on taking care of their own business on Sunday. They needed a win to ensure qualification — otherwise, results elsewhere could conspire to knock them into seventh place and out of the postseason.
“It’s best to focus on what you can control,” Sounders substitute Chad Barrett said, though he did cop to sneaking occasional glances up at the boards flashing out-of-town scores. “You can’t control what those other teams are doing. They’re fighting for their lives and we’re doing the same thing.”
Seattle (15-13-6) certainly didn’t play like a distracted team.
The opening goal was simple, Dempsey tapping in Obafemi Martins’ pinpoint cross. No. 2 was impressive both for the effort and the skill involved — and underlined how much more potent the Sounders’ attack is when everybody is at full strength. Dempsey says he feels as healthy as he’s been since injuring his hamstring in early August. He looked it as he hustled onto the rebound of Martins’ initial shot, using a ninja kick to put the shot under the cross bar.
“I felt sharp,” Dempsey said. “It took me a while coming back from that hamstring injury I was dealing with. … Now, I feel like I’m getting my legs back and able to make those runs behind the back line.”
When Dempsey’s shot hit the back of the net, the Sounders had already climbed to third place in the up-to-the-second league standings, with an outside shot at a first-round bye.
By the numbers
55,435 Attendance at CenturyLink for Sunday’s game.
44,245 Average home attendance for the Sounders this season, an MLS record. Seattle held the previous record with an average of 44,038 in 2013.
The only post-match critique of MLS’ new final-day format is that the league took so long to implement it.
Branded “Decision Day,” Sunday’s slate of games was an emotional roller coaster, results flooding in from elsewhere and changing the playoff picture by the minute. A few Sounders gave in to the temptation to sneak a peek, even if most of their teammates preferred blissful ignorance.
“At halftime, I think I was pretty much the only one to ask what the other results were,” Seattle captain Brad Evans said.
At one point in the first half, the Sounders rose within a Rapids goal against the Timbers of reaching second place and a first-round bye, then they quickly settled back into fourth with word of Robbie Keane’s tally for Los Angeles in Kansas City.
“I’ve never seen it this close, in any year and in any kind of a race,” said Barrett, a 12-year MLS veteran. “Any team could have gotten second and any team could have gotten seventh. It was nuts.”
Darlington Nagbe scored twice in Portland to calm Timbers’ nerves. Up Interstate 5 at BC Place, Vancouver struggled to find its rhythm against Houston until Kekuta Manneh struck in the second half to drop Seattle down another rung. Benny Feilhaber came off the bench and delivered in Kansas City, giving Sporting the lead on the Galaxy.
At CenturyLink, Luis Gil spoiled the Sounders’ shutout, but Salt Lake never threatened any more damage. The whistle blew in Seattle just seconds before it did at Sporting Park to confirm Kansas City’s win and finalize the bracket.
“We would have loved to have gotten in with a few more ties or wins, but this is how it happened,” Barrett said. “We have L.A. here. It’s what everybody wants to see.”