In this permanently off-kilter season, the abnormal has become routine. And in the MLS, that has meant a torrent of upsets that already has ridded the playoff field of some of its most formidable squads.
But for the Seattle Sounders, playoff time means elevation to a higher plane — or at least it has in their glorious run to three championship finals and two titles in the last four years.
On Tuesday, in their 3-1 first-round victory over LAFC at Lumen Field, the Sounders showed that their patented second wind is immune, at least for now, to forces that might be inclined to knock them down. Up to and including a pandemic, and all that entails.
“We showed maturity as a team,” Nicolas Lodeiro said afterward through an interpreter. “There are certain things we need to improve, of course, but in general it was a real good game. Beyond the individual efforts, as a team we played really, really well.”
The Sounders didn’t enter the postseason riding a wave of momentum like in past years; their season has been predictably uneven in a year that has been played in fits and start. Or more accurately, fits and re-starts.
No matter; when the game mattered and the margin for error disappeared – loser-out matches tend to do that — the Sounders were at their finest. Their “Big Three” of Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris each had a goal, a classic case of stars rising to the moment. But it was an exquisite team effort that stymied an LAFC squad many felt was primed, and certainly inspired, for an upset.
The tone of this game was established on a sequence of less than three minutes in the first half, when Lodeiro took a beautiful pass from Morris at the 18-minute mark and buried the ball in the net. And then, almost immediately on the other end, Carlos Vela coaxed a penalty in the box and set up for what seemed to be a surefire equalizer.
But Vela, one of the greatest scorers in MLS history, the 2019 MVP after setting a league record with 34 goals, struck a perversely tepid PK attempt. It headed straight, and without much force, at Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who gratefully wrapped it in his arms.
That was crucial in determining Seattle’s victory, and ensuring that the Sounders avoided another potential landmine – a supremely motivated LAFC squad that came to Seattle with revenge on its mind. You might recall that last year, the Sounders registered one of the most glorious victories in their history – and no doubt the greatest that didn’t directly deliver an MLS Cup – by defeating favored LAFC, 3-1, at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference finals.
The atmosphere was frenzied that October night, and the absence of such a highly charged playoff vibe was starkly evident Tuesday at Lumen Field, which sat empty and silent. Just add that to the list of potential pitfalls for the Sounders, which uses the energy of its fans as a catalyst but had to draw from other sources.
Again, no matter. Just like the absence of three key players didn’t deter them. Though to be fair, LAFC was hit much harder by player absences. Four starters were out with positive COVID-19 tests, including, most notably, Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi.
“The night felt like a playoff game,” Morris said. “It was definitely a different feeling. There were jitters. You knew there was more at stake, so it was more exciting. But you can never replicate having fans. We missed them, because it would have been rocking.”
“In reality, it feels really strange,” Lodeiro added. “One thing beautiful about this city and this team is the fans we have. From previous years’ experience, the day of (a playoff) game is a beautiful experience…But in this situation we’re living today, even though we miss that, we have to set it aside and focus on the task, which is to win the game.”
The Sounders even survived a rare egregious miss early in the second half by Morris, who received a perfect pass from Nouhou with the net looming in front of him and a multitude of possibilities to slip it by LA goalie Pablo Sisniega. But the ball squirted harmlessly to the right of the net as Morris bent his head in immense frustration.
“Not my finest moment,” Morris said with chagrin afterward.
That was, in fact, the first of a flurry of three great scoring chances in a five-minute span by the Sounders that failed to find the net – the latter two by excruciatingly small margin. But any creeping doubt was pushed aside by a booming goal from Ruidiaz, himself recently recovered from a COVID bout, in the 66th minute that put the Sounders up 2-0.
In a postseason where chalk has been obliterated, and status quo is status no, the Sounders provided a dose of normalcy. Their tensest moment came in the 77th minute, when LA’s Eduard Atuesta knocked home a goal from close range off a Vela cross to make it 2-1. But just three minutes later, Morris brilliantly weaved his way into open field for a goal that all but sealed the result (after an apparent LA goal was waved off by an offside call).
The lesson for the rest of MLS is an ominous one. The postseason has begun, and regardless of the disruptive forces at work all year, the Sounders look primed and ready to make a run.