MLS got this one right.
They have ditched the home-and-away, cumulative-score playoff format which never resonated with an American audience desirous of each match producing a winner or loser.
And the bone-weary Sounders got it right too, in the end, though it took 120 frenetic minutes and then some to come away with a 4-3 victory over FC Dallas in overtime Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
In the new, single-elimination world of the MLS postseason, that pushes the Sounders forward to the conference semifinals Wednesday, back at CenturyLink.
And it pushed both teams Saturday to an urgency, bordering on desperation, that was palpable. It was a far cry from the often-mysterious (and sometimes off-putting) cat-and-mouse game that prevailed in the previous two-match format, where away goals played a disproportionate role in determining who moved on.
“The intensity of the new format is evident,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who had his customary playoff heroics with five sprawling stops in the two 15-minute extra periods.
“You can see that. Sometimes, you’re just going to have to dig deep to get through. That’s what we did.”
And Frei, a Swiss raised with the customs of European soccer but settling into American sensibilities after a college career at Cal and a long stint in the MLS, loved every minute of it.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I think this is great. I think this is great for the league, I think it’s great for football in this country. This whole chess game of not conceding at home … this is now two teams trying to utilize their strengths; whether you’re home or away, you have to go for it. You can’t just sit back and hope for something else. You really have to go and earn it.”
The Sounders did so, on Jordan Morris’ third goal of the game, a header in the 113th minute to cap a frenzied flurry of shots and deflections and tangled bodies at the net.
But they nearly tasted the fragility of this new system, where a single bad day can undo all the work of a seven-month, 34-game season.
The Sounders jumped ahead 2-0 early and then let Dallas seize control of the match. With many of their players returning this week from international duty, fatigue become a factor. And after an aggressive first half, the Sounders appeared to become passive in the second half, allowing Dallas to dominate possessions. That merely added to their fatigue.
But though Dallas came back twice to tie the game (road goals that would have put the Sounders in a dire predicament in the previous iteration of the postseason), the Sounders never allowed them to take the lead.
And then Morris, who missed last season with a knee injury, rose to the moment. His decisive goal came almost immediately after he cramped up and lay for several moments on the field, trying to summon the energy to continue. He eventually scrambled to his feet and kept the Sounders alive.
“Our internationals flew from long distances and gutted one out there,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “It wasn’t easy. Dallas was a little fresher than us in the second half. … That is testament to a really good mentality of that squad. That’s what you need to win playoff games, and that’s what you need to win championships — the right mentality. I give my guys all the credit in the world, because they figured out a way how to win.”
So did Schmetzer, who understood that every substitution, every strategic nuance, could be vital. No longer was there the luxury of knowing that they could come back to fight another day.
“Well, it was intense,’’ he said. “I think that’s what the league wants. You’ve got games that are so intense. You saw the emotion on the bench — both benches. Calls for VAR (video-assisted referee), this and that. Their team delaying when they had the advantage, our team delaying when we had the advantage. I mean, that was an intense soccer game.”
The crowd of 37,722 ignored the chill and wetness to provide the sort of tumult you’d expect in a game of that import, and that finality. The urgency for the Sounders in the end was to break the 3-all tie during the 30 minutes of extra time, so as to not place the continuation of their season on something as tenuous as penalty kicks.
“Well, they didn’t want to go to PKs,” Schmetzer said. “They were all tired. Taking a PK with heavy legs is never a good thing. That group is a very complex, talented, funny, young kind of group. They willed themselves to come up with a couple more quality moments.”
And because MLS did the right thing, those moments led to a joyous celebration on the field, and a team huddle in which captain Nicolas Lodeiro reminded everyone that they were now just three wins away from a title.
There would be no second leg, no confusing calculations of how many away goals it would take to come out ahead. This was playoff soccer the way it was meant to be.