Stefan Frei, out with a hamstring injury and missing only his second game all year, became a mere footnote on a night after a first-half offensive barrage put the Sounders in control of the playoff series.
HOUSTON — A somewhat frustrated-sounding Gustav Svensson epitomized the uneasiness hanging over the Sounders after they’d administered a playoff dismantling that looked all-too-easy.
After all, no team had come in to BBVA Compass Stadium this season and waxed the hometown Houston Dynamo quite like the Sounders did in Tuesday night’s Western Conference Final opener. Svensson had the only goal his team needed on a first-half header in what became a 2-0 win that gives the Sounders a strong edge toward returning to the MLS Cup final.
That they did it in front of a hostile, stadium record crowd and without injured goalkeeper Stefan Frei made the result even more stunning. And yet, as good as things went, against a Dynamo team that had lost just once previously at home all year, there was a sense it should have gone much better.
“If you look at the result, I’m very happy,’’ Svensson said. “But as the game turned out, we won 2-0 and we were one man up. If you ask me, I think we should have done much more.
“Not only scoring,’’ he added. “We should have had more possession. We should have just killed this game.’’
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Indeed, a 29th minute red card issued to onetime Sounders defender Jalil Anibaba gave them the man advantage the rest of the night. Moments after Anibaba was sent off for hauling down Joevin Jones in the box, Nicolas Lodeiro had his penalty kick stopped by a diving Joe Willis.
In a two-game aggregate series where away goals are the tiebreaker, that Lodeiro miss could loom large. And even though Will Bruin headed home a Jones ball in the 42nd minute against his former team for the 2-0 lead, the series isn’t nearly as over as it might have been had three or four shots gone in Houston’s net.
Sure, the Sounders would have gladly taken this result pre-kickoff.
As is, the 22,667 mostly-angry fans trudging out of the stadium had a look of resignation about them. They know the Dynamo now must score at least twice in the second leg Nov. 30 at CenturyLink Field or the Sounders will return to the MLS Cup against either Toronto or Columbus.
Still, whether it was the Willis save off Lodeiro, or Roman Torres taking his second yellow card of the playoffs late – earning an automatic suspension for the second leg – this wasn’t the lethal blow it could have been. And whether this amounts to mere nitpicking by a defending champion squad striving for perfection, or a legitimate concern that things could quickly unravel on them, too many voices echoed the same uneasiness.
“It was a little undisciplined at times,’’ Svensson said of the second half. “And a lack of experience I think. But we have to learn from that.’’
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said his postgame message to players was they can’t fall asleep at any moment. And Schmetzer feels they did just that at times.
“We’re obviously pleased with the result,’’ he said. “But we could have played better in the second half.’’
And thus, a series that by halftime looked like it might already be over still has life in it.
“It’s not over yet,’’ Schmetzer said. “And what we have to understand is that we could have played a little bit better, a little smarter.’’
Nevertheless, he’ll take the result; especially on a night Frei was scratched with a right hamstring strain suffered Sunday in training in Seattle.
“If it was an MLS Cup final, I would have played him,’’ Schmetzer had said pregame. “But I’m not going to take a risk and have him do something worse in the first game of a two-legged series.’’
Backup Tyler Miller made only his second start this season – and third of his MLS career – and was solid when needed, though not severely tested.
Schmetzer could not say whether Frei would be ready for the second leg. But the Sounders, by-and-large, hope they certainly are.
“We’re a little disappointed with that second half because it would have been nice to get another one and make it 3-0 or 4-0,’’ Bruin said, adding his teammates got “too comfortable’’ and “a little sloppy’’ trying for that third goal.
“We need that killer mentality to say ‘We’ve got to get the third’ and ‘We’ve got to get the fourth’ and put this series to bed.’’
But a player who lost two MLS Cup games with Houston during six seasons here now is just 90 minutes from a third crack at a title. His time spent playing here came flooding back as he delivered a snap-header past Willis for the two-goal lead.
“It was kind of weird because I’ve had a lot of celebrations in that corner before with the Dynamo bench right there,’’ said Bruin, who seemed somewhat subdued after the goal. “I realized that wasn’t my bench I was running to celebrate at, so I was kind of by myself.’’
The celebrating was similarly muted in the visitors’ locker room.
A team that’s been-there, done-that before, knows nothing has been won yet. And until it is, they figure it’s best to keep the revelry to a minimum.