Pablo Mastroeni fibbed. The Colorado Rapids head coach said, over the last five days, that the plan for the second leg of the Western Conference Championship in these Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs was simple: Bring the Seattle Sounders back to Denver and "asphyxiate them for the last half hour."
This was the home park where the Rapids had been unbeaten all year, the happy hunting grounds one mile high that had forced all comers to run out of steam and run out of breath over the course of this almost-magic season. This was the place born for the cagey and defensive and smothering 1-0 win.
That's what happened, but it wasn't the hosts who took home the glory. Jordan Morris's goal gave the Sounders a 1-0 win on the day, a 3-1 win on aggregate, and the organization's first-ever trip to the MLS Cup final.
Mastroeni's fib, it turns out, was simply about the timing of his plan. He didn't want to wait for the last half-hour to asphyxiate Seattle; rather, he sprung a high press on the Sounders from the opening kick, and it came damn close to working because Seattle couldn't even get out of their own end:
It was the smarter tack since a 1-0 Colorado win would have seen them through to the MLS Cup. But the Rapids did not wear their shooting boots, squandering chance after chance in the game's first stages and, in the process, just about emptying their tank. By the 25-minute mark Seattle had come into the game, and at the start of the second half they were pretty clearly on the front foot as the hosts tried to catch their breath.
As that happened, the midfield gaps that had closed down so quickly in that first wave of Burgundy pressure started to come open. The Sounders weren't generating possession, per se, but they were generating pressure of their own via the counter, and the Rapids couldn't quite keep up.
Case in point would be the whole sequence leading to the game's only goal:
Rapids smothered Seattle in the 2nd half. But look at how loose they were in midfield leading up to the goal...https://t.co/aaYULvRveA— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) November 27, 2016
That pass from Micheal Azira was ill-advised – he doesn't complete passes like that, especially with his off foot. The Rapids scrambled well enough (and capitalized on a bad touch from Flaco Fernandez) to put out the first fire, but then Jermaine Jones took a really bad gamble on Zac MacMath's clearance. Rather than dropping into midfield as a No. 10 and battling Ozzie Alonso for the second ball, he tried to play for a flick-on from Kevin Doyle – betting that the DP striker would beat Chad Marshall in the air and create a chance via Route 1.
I could understand that gamble in the 75th minute or so after some attacking subs have been made. It's still not a great one because Marshall is so good in the air, but it makes some sense.
In the 56th minute, though? That was too soon for this kind of desperation, and the cost was huge. Because Alonso is on the ball with no one around him, both Dillon Powers and Shkelzen Gashi have to push up and start to initiate some sort of pressure, and when that happens, Azira has to drop back to protect Zone 14 and try to win the second ball.
Azira was slow to realize this, though, and Jared Watts's clearance was disastrous as he turned a fire into an inferno. Four quick touches later – two from Nelson Valdez, two from Morris – and the series was over.
These are the kinds of mistakes the Rapids hadn't made all season. Their success in 2016 had been predicated on protecting that spot in front of the central defense by making it extraordinarily difficult to build through midfield against them, and the one time fatigue kicked in, they got their ticket punched.
So it goes in the playoffs, and so Seattle go to MLS Cup. The Sounders were better in Leg 1, were resilient in Leg 2, and can finally stop holding their breath because in two weeks they'll play for the one trophy they've had their hearts set on since 2009.
A few more things to ponder...
5. The Rapids really couldn't shoot:
Historically bad performance in front of goal from them.
4. If Sam Cronin doesn't earn his suspension, does that goal ever happen? He's been the key defender (yes he's a midfielder, but his job first and foremost is defense) for this team all season, and it's hard to imagine Colorado coming unraveled that quickly if he's on the field. Yellow card accumulation is a killer.
3. Doyle had another rough day whenever he was asked to be a playmaker:
I hate to keep bagging on Kevin Doyle, but your big-money attacker has to make a play here...https://t.co/Qg1NcAj7Pa— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) November 28, 2016
On this play he either has to drive the ball forward and draw a foul or take some contact and bring a winger into the play. Why attempt to thread this needle when going 2-v-5?
Doyle had just one assist in his last 24 appearances. Part of that is due to the poor open-play finishing of his teammates, but part of that is due to his inability to make the right decision or find the final touch when the ball's on his foot and he has a chance to combine. I'm still not sure why he's been put in this position in the first place.
2. Cristian Roldan keeps on keeping on in that No. 8 role that he's taken to so well. If Alonso – who was subbed off with 16 minutes left after picking up a slight knee sprain – can't go on Dec. 10, Roldan will likely have to play as more of a No. 6 in the biggest game of his young career.
1. I took a long time to drink the Kool-Aid with Morris, but he's officially surpassed the hype. No rookie in the MLS 2.0 era has come up bigger in the playoffs, and he managed it after eating some bad stuffing...
We'll find out in 72 hours whether the Sounders will be hosting the Impact or traveling to Toronto for the final. Either way it's fair, at this point, to assume that Morris will have some say on how events transpire.