Throughout the 2014 season, the Seattle Sounders have insisted that this year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning squad is more mature than the one that suffered a late-season collapse and disappointing early playoff exit a season ago.
They took a step in proving that sentiment against in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal against FC Dallas on Sunday night, managing to pull out a tough 1-1 road draw, getting a strong all-around defensive effort and some late-game magic from goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
“We’re happy with the result,” head coach Sigi Schmid said after his side’s first game of the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T. “We talked about making sure at the end of game one we put ourselves in a position to win it in game two. We’ve always done a good job of being at home in the second game and winning the second game.”
The Sounders are now in firm control of the series and can advance with a victory or a scoreless draw in the next leg of the matchup in Seattle on Monday, Nov. 10. However, for at least a portion of Sunday’s contest, Seattle’s postseason demons of years past seemed like they just might resurface.
One year after falling 2-1 in the opener of their Western Conference semifinal against Portland, the Sounders once again faced a first leg deficit on Sunday, surrendering a 34th-minute penalty kick to Dallas midfielder Michel after midfielder Marco Pappa tripped up Andres Escobar in the box. With the lead and momentum each in favor of the home team, the pressure was squarely on Seattle to find an equalizer or face the possibility of returning home for the second leg in another postseason hole.
But in the end, Seattle showed the necessary resolve, tying the game up off a set piece header from midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and relying on its defense to take care of the rest. With Alonso’s tally, the Sounders also pocketed an all-important road goal, a feat that is magnified this season with the newly-implemented away goals tiebreaker.
“I think in years past we were maybe a little naïve coming into this first series playing away and finding ourselves in a deep hole,” center back Zach Scott said. “Now with the new away goals rule I thought we played it exactly the way we wanted to.”
Frei made the biggest play of the game for Seattle, making a huge acrobatic save on a rocket shot from Dallas forward Fabian Castillo in the 90th minute that wound up preserving the draw.
“I was just trying to stay balanced and ready to explode,” Frei said of the stop. “That’s what I was able to do. I was lucky to be able to get a good reaction out of it and make the save.”
Schmid cited the strong defensive play as an encouraging aspect of the game, considering the criticism that his squad has taken in that area at times this season.
“The big knock we took all season was our defending,” Schmid said. “I think when you look at us over the last three games I think we’ve defended pretty well.”