Playoff soccer returned with a vengeance to CenturyLink Field about three months early and just in time for a Sounders team still living down its dismal first half of the season.
Sunday night’s tilt with conference-leading FC Dallas was at its pushing, shoving, mouth-jawing best with both sides marking some territory as the season heads toward its final 10-match stretch. For Nicolas Lodeiro, whose free-kick goal provided his team a 2-1 victory, this game certainly felt different from some of the home snooze fests turned in earlier this year.
“It felt like a final,’’ Lodeiro said. “Of course, it was like a playoff. Dallas is the best team in our conference. We played like it was a final, and we fought like it was a final. We needed to win.’’
And win the Sounders did for a fifth straight time, running their unbeaten streak to eight games in front of 39,522 fans soaking in the intensity and helping ratchet it up in the closing minutes. Dallas defender Reto Ziegler got tossed in the 91st minute for an alleged head butt on Raul Ruidiaz that the irate opponents insisted never happened.
The visitors lost their composure completely — helped by some pestering Cristian Roldan antics — as the final minutes of stoppage time ticked away with little more action on the field. Both teams continued verbally sparring with one another long after the final whistle and had to be separated while heading back to the locker rooms.
Lodeiro’s goal on a low free kick from the far right side of the field in the 63rd minute somehow curled its way around multiple players from both sides and beyond stunned goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. It curbed the momentum Dallas had gained 11 minutes prior, when Dominique Badji erased a first-half Chad Marshall goal by directing the equalizer home off his chest after some pretty passing from close range.
The Sounders, scrapping and clawing with Dallas every step of the way, held on and moved three points back of Real Salt Lake for the final playoff spot. They also sit within four of the Los Angeles Galaxy — who play here Saturday — and LAFC for fourth place in a Western Conference now looking wide open.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer threw a veteran-laden starting lineup out there that included newcomer Brad Smith at left back. Incumbent left back Nouhou was a healthy scratch after being pulled at halftime last weekend — the coaching staff apparently displeased with his play.
Schmetzer said Nouhou not dressing for this game was a “coach’s decision’’ and did not elaborate further, other than adding the 20-year-old is “a great kid. He has a really bright future.’’
Smith helped ignite the team right off the bat, making a strong run down the left flank and nearly setting up a goal with a solid cross that barely eluded his onrushing attackers.
“We just finished preseason in England,’’ the former Bournemouth player said. “I’m just getting into my groove, and it will take me a few games to get everything going. But for now, I’m happy with my performance and the team doing well.’’
Schmetzer was pleased with the newcomer’s play and the way his team responded to what he felt was a hungry Dallas squad not willing to settle for a draw.
“Credit to our team,’’ Schmetzer said. “Because even through some of the chaos, some of the tackles and some of the other stuff, I think for the most part our guys kept their composure.’’
That wasn’t always the case earlier on this year — including in a 3-0 loss at Dallas — when the Sounders went through a string of games in which they took red cards. But whether it’s the new faces such as Smith and Ruidiaz, or the improved play by Lodeiro, Osvaldo Alonso and others, this is not the same Sounders team preyed upon by opponents the first few months.
Since the start of July, they’ve beaten Dallas, New York City FC and tied at Atlanta against bona fide playoff contenders. And they’re doing it with an intensity they haven’t always shown.
Marshall, whose header off a Loderio corner kick opened the scoring in the 41st minute, agreed this game felt just a little different.
“We’ve had some battles with them over the years,’’ Marshall said. “Every game with them is usually super intense.’’
And with upcoming matches against the playoff-positioned Galaxy and Portland Timbers these next two weeks, things seem unlikely to calm down anytime soon.