The Seattle Sounders clearly enjoyed their 3-1 Round One victory over LAFC last week, a satisfying vanquishing of an artful, open opponent that was reflected in both the scoreline and the stats sheet.
If that was a track meet, Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat of FC Dallas was more like a siege, a cagey grind decided in the end by small margins. A Michael Barrios shot off the post at one end, a well-executed corner-kick pick by Yeimar Gomez Andrade to carve open space for Shane O’Neill’s game-winning header at the other, and a whole lot of grafting and scheming in between.
A championship sort of win.
“That might not have been the prettiest soccer game. That might not have been our best performance as a team,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer at Lumen Field afterward. “But that team gutted it out. And I think I've stood in front of all you guys and said that that group of players finds different ways to win. And that's what makes them champions, that's what gives them a realistic shot at winning trophies. Because you can’t always win the right way, the prettiest way, the best way. I mean, you have to gut out some victories.”
At this point, as they move on to the Western Conference Final for the fourth time in five years, this is not just what the Sounders do. It’s who they are.
The fact that the night’s crucial play came from O’Neill, an unheralded offseason signing perceived mainly as a depth piece who has quietly become a regular starter, is further proof of the power of that culture.
“I've said from day one that one of the best things about this club is we're expected to win every game, and I feel like we take that on our shoulders,” said O’Neill, a Colorado Rapids Homegrown who bounced around Europe before returning Stateside for an undistinguished stint at Orlando City two years ago.
“There's a lot of pressure there but I really love that," he added. "And obviously now at the business end of things, there's that same expectation. And these games are tough. These games are a grind. But at the end of the day, we expect ourselves to show up and to win these games, so if you talk about culture, that's the biggest thing that comes to mind. We're here to win games and win championships, and hopefully we can do that again this year.”
Highlights: Seattle Sounders 1, FC Dallas 0
Seattle and Dallas have played out some riveting postseason clashes over the past half-decade, and this one proved worthy of that canon, even if it was more of a purist’s spectacle. Much like they did last week in their upset of the Portland Timbers, FCD and their coach Luchi Gonzalez managed the game cannily, frustrating their favored hosts, using the ball efficiently and keeping within striking distance until the very end.
“They did a really good job, if we're being honest,” said O’Neill. “It was a tight affair, so I think it was frustrating, but it was just one of those days where we just had to stay solid and keep believing in our defensive abilities and I think honestly I think that's the thing I'm most happy with after tonight. I mean obviously it was nice to get a goal, but I just felt like defensively we showed a lot of fight and a lot of grit … Tonight, they presented us a lot different challenge than LAFC did. But I felt like we're really growing in confidence there.”
The decisive play was a planned routine, the fruit of training-ground labor, with a typically sterling delivery from the relentless Nicolas Lodeiro and two attentive center backs whose coachability earned Schmetzer’s praise.
“So very, very pleased for Shane, he's worked hard all year long,” said the boss. “We actually practiced that set piece, and he and Yeimar did exactly what they were supposed to do. A lot of times soccer players, they listen to the coach but they do whatever they want [in the game]. Actually Shane and Yeimar are very good students of the game. And they took what we did to practice and applied it to the game. And it was a very good play, a very good corner.”
Schmetzer would not be drawn on who he’d rather face from Thursday’s semifinal between Sporting KC and Minnesota United – “I'm looking forward to sitting back on Thursday, having a nice glass of red wine watching a good soccer game, and then figuring out who our opponent is,” he declared – but there’s little question that his team will enter either match with confidence.
December, after all, tends to be Sounders season in modern MLS.