The league's two stingiest defenses scratched out a scoreless draw in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal Series between the Houston Dynamo and Seattle Sounders FC. Both teams had excellent chances to score, with Seattle mounting a considerable final push, but in the end both back lines held firm in front of a sellout crowd at Qwest Field.
The scoreless draw ensured that series will be decided in Houston in 10 days' time when the teams meet at Robertson Stadium in the second leg on Nov. 8.
In a physical confrontation in the chilly Seattle air, six yellow cards were handed out in a back-and-forth battle that held more excitement than the final score would indicate.
Looking to surprise the home side, the Dynamo came very close to taking the lead with some early attacking play. In just the third minute, Dynamo defender Andrew Hainault headed just barely wide of Kasey Keller's post off a corner kick. Seattle answered back straightaway, with Steve Zakuani forcing a save from Pat Onstad on the other end.
Even after five minutes, the tone was set for the end-to-end encounter. Houston's cross-and-finish attack looked likely to score in the game's opening minutes. Off an early free kick, Keller had to be alert to come off his line to punch a ball away in front of Houston's Brian Ching. In the ninth minute, Brad Davis found himself unmarked in the penalty area but simply mishit his header.
Seattle managed to weather the early storm and battled back. Patrick Ianni, who replaced an injured Tyrone Marshall in the starting lineup, forced a goal line clearance from Houston's Brian Mullan off a corner kick. The match was played at both ends and for Seattle, Zakuani especially benefited from the extra space on Seattle's left side.
With the physical nature of the team's earlier meetings, match referee Ricardo Salazar figured to have his hands full in the contentious match. His first chance to restore order came in minute 15, when things turned ugly after a corner kick on Houston's end.
On the play, Nate Jaqua nearly scored on a header, but the real action took place in the scramble where Onstad and Fredy Montero appeared to get tangled up. Onstad rose to his feet quickly and gave Montero what could only be described as a chest bump, with Montero falling to the ground.
After both teams engaged in some pushing and shoving, Salazar showed yellow cards to both Onstad and Montero and the match continued. However, the capacity crowd of 35,807 took the opportunity to razz Onstad, booing the veteran 'keeper every time he touched the ball for the duration of the match.
Houston claimed the next chance, with Ching getting on the end of a cross and forcing a diving save from Keller.
Salazar wasn't lacking for decisions to make. In the 27th, Ricardo Clark's boot caught Jaqua upside the head, opening a cut on the big man's face. No foul was called, though, as Jaqua had to leave the match to receive treatment to stop the bleeding. As he did in the U.S. Open Cup match between the two teams, Jaqua returned to the match with a bandage on his head.
While Houston looked dangerous on set pieces, Seattle showed a little free kick flair of its own with Ianni hitting the crossbar in the 43rd minute off a service from Freddie Ljungberg. The game went into halftime scoreless with neither team holding a definitive advantage.
Both teams came out with their original starting lineups. Seattle's set pieces continued to impress, with a 52nd-minute corner from Ljungberg finding the head of Jaqua, but Montero couldn't finish Jaqua's flick.
For Houston, Davis was in the middle of most of their offensive chances and nearly found the far post off a loose ball. Keller made the fingertip save while the Sounders FC players appealed for the handball.
In the 61st minute, Seattle battled back. Jaqua, whose head bloody wound necessitated changing into a numberless replacement jersey and a new dressing, started a counterattack up the middle of the field. His vertical pass was controlled by Montero, who deftly maneuvered around his marker and shot just wide of Onstad's far post.
Seattle used the first substitution, removing Montero for Roger Levesque in the 64th minute. Jaqua moved up front while Levesque slotted into the right midfield. The game kept every ounce of energy from the first half as either team had a half-dozen chances to find the first goal. Alonso and Brad Evans each took yellow cards breaking up Houston counterattacks. Mullan and Mike Chabala earned the same punishment for Houston as both teams made it clear that any goal would have to be earned.
Jaqua, who showed more promise on aerial balls than perhaps any match this season, almost found the net on a corner kick as the action started coming hot and heavy. He then later burst through to score on a through ball, only to realize the referee's whistle had been lost in the din of the crowd. Minutes later, Ljungberg's excellent run down the right flank was cleared away by a scrambling Houston defense.
After Luis Angel Landin made an appearance as a substitute for Houston, Sebastien Le Toux came on for an exhausted Zakuani as Seattle pushed for a goal. Houston managed to keep some possession and Ching nearly made something happen with hustle, saving a ball off the touchline in front of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. His cross under duress rolled harmlessly to Keller, though, as the Dynamo looked increasingly content to come out of Seattle with a goalless draw.
Seattle had a couple of final chances in the form of a free kick and a corner kick, sending Hurtado, Ianni and Jaqua forward to try to claim a last-second goal. Neither play led to a goal, and in a final thrust Levesque went wide with a diving header in the game's dying seconds.
In essence, the scoreless draw makes the tie a single-game match to be played in Houston next Sunday, with the winner advancing to the Western Conference Championship.
Andrew Winner is a contributor to MLSnet.com.