The Sounders will try to wrap up this MLS Western Conference semifinal series next Sunday when they play the second leg in Frisco, Texas.
This year, the Sounders are doing it the hard way. And that might be the right way.
They’ve pursued the crown before as the anointed ones, heading into the playoffs as the credentialed elite, the team to beat. And sure enough, they did get beat, always, which leaves the MLS Cup as the one beacon of success they still are chasing.
And now they’re doing it hungry, doing it raw and tired, fueled by emotion and ambition and maybe a little bit of frustration. Or, check that, a lot of frustration. Sometimes, it’s better to be underdogs than overlords. Just ask the Seahawks.
Nothing is accomplished yet, but Sunday’s 2-1 win over FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field exemplifies what the Sounders hope is their new urgency. Playing their third game in a week, each of them either a true must-win situation or something very close, they spotted Dallas an early goal — it’s particularly damaging to do so at home, given the tiebreaking formula employed by the MLS — and then stormed back for the win.
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The Sounders will try to wrap up this Western Conference semifinal series next Sunday when they play the second leg in Frisco, Texas. Clint Dempsey, whose go-ahead goal off a free kick was a thing of beauty (and also of deception; no one, even coach Sigi Schmid, was quite sure until the last moment whether he or Andreas Ivanschitz was going to take the shot), said their emotional pitch will be easy to maintain.
“We have everything to play for in these games,’’ he said. “It’s basically, if you don’t get the right result, you’re out. We’re fighting for our survival, and we’re showing our character, showing how much we want to do well in this competition. This is a trophy we haven’t won, and we’re trying to capture it.”
That helps explain why the Sounders have exploded for eight goals in those past three games, and how they managed to trump Dallas’ energy level even though their foe had a first-round bye.
“I thought at the end of the game, we almost looked fresher than they did, and they hadn’t played in a week,’’ Schmid said.
If adversity breeds character, the Sounders have earned theirs this year. They endured a brutal stretch of eight losses in nine games in June through August, when injuries and international departures drained their continuity, and threatened to bury their season. Even Schmid missed two games with health issues.
They still aren’t quite at full strength, missing three key players on Sunday, but the Sounders are playing with a verve and confidence that seems to be growing. Schmid said he was particularly tickled by the “joy and exhilaration” that Dempsey displayed after his goal at the 86th minute.
“He has his goal in terms of what he wants to achieve with this team,’’ he said.
Schmid showed some intense emotion himself when Ivanschitz equalized the game with a beautiful run and finish in the 67th minute. Schmid knew the ramifications of the rally, citing statistics that show how infrequently teams come back from halftime deficits in the MLS.
“The ability to come back from a deficit and win speaks volumes for our character,’’ Schmid said. “We’re a team that believes. One goal wasn’t going to deter us.”
Zach Scott said the Sounders are beginning to think of themselves as a second-half team. Just ask the Kansas City Royals how powerful it can be to rally late, and most importantly, to know you always have that capability.
“We said going into halftime, you almost play downhill out here as you head to our fans (in the supporters section),’’ Scott said. “That’s the way we needed to play, to play downhill. The fans will lift you up and kind of suck that ball into Dallas’ end. We were disappointed (to fall behind), but we knew we’d grind through it and get one, or two.”
Just like the Sounders grinded through a 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake last Sunday that ensured their playoff status, and endured a wild 3-2 victory over their nemesis, the Los Angeles Galaxy, that kept them alive on Wednesday.
“It says a lot about the team,’’ Schmid said. “It says a lot about the guys knowing that this is the moment, this is the time, and stepping up at this moment.”
The Sounders of the moment aren’t as exalted as they once were. But they hope this new path is the one that takes them to the top.
Editor’s note: A caption for Clint Dempsey’s winning goal was corrected to say it came on a free kick.