MLS Soccer

Sounders await rare opportunity to clinch conference title at home

Seattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey, left, kicks the ball away from Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Aly Ghazal as Sounders’ Harrison Shipp looks on during the MLS soccer Western Conference semifinal Nov. 2, 2017 in Seattle.
Seattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey, left, kicks the ball away from Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Aly Ghazal as Sounders’ Harrison Shipp looks on during the MLS soccer Western Conference semifinal Nov. 2, 2017 in Seattle. AP

Never before has the Seattle Sounders FC been this close to clinching any type of Major League Soccer title on their home soil.

Last year they had to travel to Colorado to decide the Western Conference title and then on to Toronto, where they won their first MLS Cup. In two prior conference finals decisive matches at CenturyLink Field in 2014 and 2012, the Sounders trailed on aggregate entering both games.

Not this time around. The Sounders lead 2-0 by virtue of their win in Houston last week against the Dynamo. That means the Sounders can clinch their second consecutive conference crown at home Thursday by allowing fewer than two goals when they play the Dynamo in a game that’s already tracking for between 44,000 and 45,000 fans and has a chance to be their biggest playoff crowd in franchise history.

“I think it means the world to us, to Seattle, to our fans,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said Monday. “They deserve it. They stuck with us through a lot last year is what it seems like – two years. It’s almost been a continuing season. They deserve it. We know we’re going to have a great crowd and a crowd that’s rocking. They always help us. To win it in front of them is going to be special.”

Since the firing of coach Sigi Schmid in July 2016 and the ascent of Brian Schmetzer in his place, the Sounders have gone 22-13-13 in regular-season play and 7-1-1 in the playoffs – including the MLS Cup win at Toronto last December. It’s been arguably the best multi-season run in team history, though one in which the biggest playoff victories have mostly come on the road.

It’s the mental side of the game. You have to remind them that this isn’t finished.

Coach Brian Schmetzer

There are, of course, risks that the Sounders could get a little too amped up in front of a huge home crowd with so much on the line. Schmetzer said Monday that he’s already implored his team to play smart and be cognizant of having the two-goal cushion.

“It’s up here,” he said, pointing to his forehead. “It’s the mental side of the game. You have to remind them that this isn’t finished. This game could take a turn for the worse. If they (the Dynamo) score early, then they think they have a chance.”

Schmetzer said his squad’s tactics will be the same. They’ll try to establish a quick tempo, create scoring chances and defend against Houston’s notorious counterattack. But the messaging and the film work will keep stressing the need to play intelligently, despite the team containing a number of veterans with various league titles under them already.

“Again, they’re human,” Schmetzer said. “So, whenever they see a sniff of a goal opportunity they might try and force a pass inside or whatever. And the ball turns over and all of a sudden it’s a counterattack. So playing smart means making sure that one of two things happens.

“If you see the opening that you want, make sure your pass is good. Or if it looks like it’s a little tight, then let’s come out (to the side), establish some possession over here and bring it back over and then that gap might be even wider. So you can slip a pass through.”

Much will depend on how aggressively the Dynamo come out. They know the Sounders will be without center back Roman Torres after his automatic suspension for a second yellow card in these playoffs. Schmetzer had little-used, second-year defender Tony Alfaro working out at that position with the regulars Monday and seemed to suggest he will start in place of Torres.

“We would prefer that everybody’s healthy and we have a better choice, but no, Tony will be fine,” Schmetzer said. “He’ll be fine. He’s played in some big games for us. He’s come off the bench, and sometimes it’s harder to come in like that when a guy goes down.”

Alfaro, 24, has started nine MLS games in two seasons and made 21 appearances overall – 15 of them this year.

Schmetzer does have the option of dropping midfielder Gustav Svensson into the center-back role instead. But Svensson, who manned the position a couple of times this year, is more comfortable in a defensive midfielder’s role, and the team seems to figure they’re better off with him there than potentially weakening two positions.

Svensson has been filling in for the injured Osvaldo Alonso, who trained with the team Monday. So did forward Jordan Morris, who could suit up Thursday for the first time since straining his hamstring two months ago. Spanish midfielder Victor Rodriguez is another player who has missed considerable playoff time and could come off the bench in the second half.

“All those guys, if the game dictates I can put them in I’d love to put them in,” Schmetzer said.

Last year, the Sounders beat the Colorado Rapids at home in the first leg of the conference final and then clinched on the road. In their two other conference final appearances, both against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Sounders trailed 3-0 on aggregate in 2012 and 1-0 in 2014 by the time they arrived back home for the second leg.

As expected, they had no chance to win in 2012 and were easily eliminated. But they were only a goal down entering the 2014 contest and drew a franchise-record playoff crowd of 46,758. Indeed, the Sounders, buoyed by the huge crowd, grabbed a 2-0 lead and series advantage by halftime, then tried desperately to hang on. But Brazilian star Juninho scored for the Galaxy in the 54th minute to knot the series at 2-2 on aggregate.

The away goal was huge and loomed as the series tiebreaker. Try as they did, the Sounders couldn’t add another and though they won the match 2-1, the Galaxy took the series.

This time around, the Sounders enter with a lead as well as a big advantage in away goals.

“They’re going to be gunning for us,” Roldan said of the Dynamo. “They have nothing to lose, and I think it should make for an exciting game.”

Just not too exciting, if the Sounders can help it.