National Writer: Charles Boehm

Crunch time: Seattle Sounders suffer playoff setback at Vancouver Whitecaps

Will Bruin

Unprecedented achievements have been followed by unprecedented discomfort for the Seattle Sounders.

Four and a half months after becoming the first team in modern MLS history to hoist the Concacaf Champions League trophy, the Rave Green are staring hard at their first-ever season outside of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs following 13 straight trips – and the latest nail in that coffin arrived from a very non-traditional source.

Seattle have long dominated the Vancouver Whitecaps, especially in the heightened stakes of the season’s final weeks: The Sounders rode a 15-game unbeaten streak against their Canadian Cascadian neighbors into their visit to BC Place on Saturday, and you had to go all the way back to 2014 to find the Caps’ last win over Seattle in September, October or November.

Just like MLS’s history of CCL futility, that run is now over. A scorching first half from VWFC highlighted by pretty goals from Pedro Vite and Julian Gressel banked a 2-1 Caps win, with their biggest home crowd of the year on hand to savor the dramatic turnabout in this Cascadia Cup matchup.

“It's a rivalry, we wanted to win. They've made the playoffs 13 years in a row and now it's not going to look so great,” Gressel said in a postgame interview with TSN. “So that's obviously a great feeling for us, to kind of give that to them as well. After 15 losses, or not wins, against them, it feels good in front of a great crowd.”

With their own playoff odds lengthening rapidly following three straight losses in late August and early September, the Whitecaps flashed startling ferocity in all phases of the game from the opening whistle despite, unlike their guests, having played at midweek. With Seattle enjoying most of the possession, VWFC pressed tenaciously and hunted for second balls, winning an eye-popping 15 tackles on the night compared to just one for the Sounders.

The reward came via Vite’s 29th-minute opener, a swift, prettily-constructed passing sequence – a “soccer orgasm,” in the memorable words of head coach Vanni Sartini – graced by sterling work in particular from their Scottish Designated Player Ryan Gauld. Minutes later Gressel latched onto a half-clearance of a long throw-in with a stunning full volley that built a hill too tall for the North American champions to climb.

“They didn't throw anything at us that was unexpected. I believe that we didn't quite match their intensity,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer postgame, after a two-game win streak was snapped. “ … We started off with decent possession, but were our goal-scoring chances really that good, that high? Maybe not. But we had some half-chances, some balls bouncing around their box, everything. … Once they scored the goal, I felt our team played a little bit undisciplined after we went down 1-0, and certainly at 2-0 down, I think players were so driven to try and do something to get us back in the game it actually hurt us.”

Sartini’s joy was palpable, and it underlined the allure of the target Seattle wear on their backs.

"Winning the rivalry game, beating the best team on the continent – they won the Champions League! – in front of our fans … and the performance was amazing, we should've won 4-0,” said the Italian. “I’m happy, I’m really, really happy.”

Now 10th in the Western Conference table and four points off the playoff pace, Seattle still have a game in hand on Vancouver and fellow playoff chasers Real Salt Lake. But their already-tight window for qualification keeps shrinking. Now they must aim for maximum points vs. FC Cincinnati (Sept. 27), Sporting KC (Oct. 2) and the San Jose Earthquakes (Oct. 9) and hope results elsewhere break in their favor.

And they must do all this with half a dozen key starters set to depart on international duty and playmaking talisman Nico Lodeiro set to serve a caution-accumulation suspension after picking up a yellow card on Saturday.

“You never want to lose the internationals; there's still some conversations that need to be had there, and we'll sort that out when we're back in Seattle. And we'll try and get the best team possible out there, play as hard as we can to get a result against Cincy,” said Schmetzer.

Of particular interest is striker Raul Ruidiaz’s return to the Peruvian national team, who face Mexico at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Saturday, Sept. 24 before a meeting with El Salvador at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, both friendlies. Schmetzer hopes to broker an agreement to gain Ruidiaz’s availability for Seattle’s home match with Cincinnati on the 27th.

“We'll be talking about that with Peru and Raul, and we'll see if there's a solution there that would help us. Obviously, having Raul for the Cincinnati game would be a massive help for us,” he said. “So we'll try and do whatever we can to get him. Maybe he plays that game in California and then he comes back home. We'll see.”

The math says Seattle still have a chance. It will take everything they’ve got left in the tank, perhaps more, to turn that into a reality.

“Definitely,” admitted striker and former Whitecap Fredy Montero, “we will miss these points.”