When the series resumes on Thursday in Seattle, the Sounders are in a precarious spot as road goals count as the tiebreaker. Any draw in the second leg other than a scoreless one means the Whitecaps advance.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei seemed irked at the suggestion his club’s inability to score in its playoff opener was because of undue caution.
Of course, a two-leg, aggregate series in which away goals are the potential tiebreaker will always spark differing opinions after a 0-0 draw like Sunday’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Sure, the Sounders were cautious at times and would have preferred a result in which they’d scored at least once.
But despite knowing they must win Thursday at CenturyLink Field to advance beyond this Western Conference semifinal, Frei says his team isn’t facing any inherent disadvantage.
Second leg of Western Conference Semifinal, Vancouver @ Sounders FC, 7:30 p.m., FS1
“You have to keep in mind that we were the away team,’’ Frei said. “So, if we were cautious, then they were even way more cautious than we were.’’
A pumped-up, Canadian-flag-waving crowd of 27,837 at B.C. Place Stadium roared in anticipation as things heated up in the final 10 minutes, with the home side pressing and the Sounders successfully repelling them. Tempers flared, bodies flew and some shoving and yelling ensued as the first MLS playoff match between these Cascadia rivals took on all the emotion expected.
But nobody could put the ball in the net.
“Yes, we understand that there’s an away goal rule,’’ Frei said. “But you can’t bank on that. I mean, they have to score now. A 0-0 tie isn’t going to do them anything at our place. And like I said, we fancy our chances going home.’’
Indeed, the Sounders throttled the Whitecaps 3-0 at CenturyLink a month ago, though most will agree regular-season results mean little now. Still, the Sounders went 11-1-4 at home this season and do seem to open up more attack-wise when there.
Their attack was undoubtedly limited Sunday by the automatic one-game suspension served by Clint Dempsey for his red card last week. Also, midfielder Victor Rodriguez was again scratched with his pulled quad, leaving a makeshift attack of Joevin Jones pushed up on left wing and Harry Shipp inserted on the right.
Jones nearly broke the scoring ice in the 36th minute, crossing the ball to Shipp inside the box. Whitecaps defender Kendall Watson arrived at the last instant to deflect the ball away, but he nearly put it in his net as it ricocheted off the cross bar.
The Sounders, meanwhile, threw a curtain around the explosive Whitecaps attack, which had routed San Jose 5-0 in a midweek knockout round game. Onetime Sounders star Fredy Montero, who’d scored three goals in two prior B.C. Place games this season between the sides, was contained this time by punishing defenders Chad Marshall and Roman Torres.
Nouhou excelled at left back in his first playoff game as Jones was pushed further upfield. Jordy Delem also got a rare start in the defensive midfield so Gustav Svensson and Osvaldo Alonso could return from injuries slowly as second half substitutes.
Right back Kelvim Leerdam nearly set up a 48th-minute goal with a good ball to the box from distance that Marshall headed directly into the arms of keeper Stefan Marinovic. Leerdam also limited the dangerous Brek Shea throughout, except for a lone 30th minute opportunity.
Shea was able to slip free and send a slow roller toward the goal line, but Torres intervened and cleared the ball.
“He got one moment, but Roman gave me good coverage,’’ Leerdam said. “That’s part of our team. When somebody’s not in good position, another person covers it.’’
Indeed, the Sounders have had their own backs throughout a season in which they’ve been tested often by injuries and absences. And whether it’s covering for an injured player, or an on-field mistake, the Sounders have emerged a confident bunch.
Confident enough, they say, that they won’t be intimidated heading in to a Thursday clash in which a quick Vancouver goal could put them at a serious series disadvantage.
“If it was a win in Vancouver, it would be different but I like our chances at home,’’ midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We play attacking soccer and we’re bound to score goals.’’
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer felt his club could have opened up more on attack in the opener.
“I actually wish we would have pushed the issue a little bit more,’’ he said. “I felt that there were opportunities in the first half … where we were able to get behind their defense and create some problems. Vancouver’s too good a team for us to sit and defend. We have to score goals.’’
Vancouver can advance to the next round with a win or any tie in Thursday’s game other than a scoreless one. Still, Schmetzer doesn’t expect that to change his team’s mindset.
“We’re going to win,’’ he said. “If we win 2-1, the away goal doesn’t matter. We’re going to play to win.’’