Audentes fortuna juvat. Fortune favors the bold.
It’s an old saying of the Roman figure Pliny the Elder, popular in military circles – and we used to hear the phrase an awful lot around this soccer-specific corner of the internet, thanks to one Jason Kreis.
Younger fans know him as the coach of Orlando City SC. Kreis, however, built his coaching reputation during an extremely successful stint in charge of Real Salt Lake, where he ordered the Latin version of the aforementioned nugget posted, in large letters, on the wall outside his team’s locker room at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Kreis’ RSL sides didn’t hoist as many trophies as they deserved to, but they did doggedly stick to an ethos of passing, possession and proactivity that won them both games and respect. Feast or famine, they usually insisted the game be played on their terms.
Tuesday night, the Seattle Sounders embodied that assertive mindset en route to a decisive 2-0 road win over the Houston Dynamo on the opening night of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Championships. And that mindset – even more so than the result itself – should stoke the Rave Green faithful’s hopes for an MLS Cup repeat.
Seattle’s victory provided a marked contrast with the night’s opening match, featuring Toronto FC, 2017's long-leading contenders to knock the Sounders off their title perch, who sweated out a 0-0 draw with upstart Crew SC in Columbus.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” they say. Yet on Tuesday the reigning champs were the ones rearing back with freedom and adventure, while TFC – for whom an MLS Cup would cap an historic “treble” campaign, should they dethrone the Sounders – curried a faintly fugitive air about them, the longtime favorites who’ve grown weary and wary after wearing a target on their backs for so many months now.
Shorn of suspended superstars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, the Reds were mostly risk-averse, stacking numbers in defense to stymie Crew SC’s flowing waves of possession and take a draw home to BMO Field ahead of next week’s Leg 2. Yes, it’s a bit unfair to judge a team so harshly when their devastating, touted and talented frontline is watching the game from the mezzanine level. And yes, Toronto remain the odds-on pick to finish the job at home and advance nonetheless.
But Columbus still have more than a puncher’s chance, and that’s more than the Sounders allowed the Dynamo to walk away with.
Conventional postseason wisdom says you can’t win a two-legged series in Leg 1, but that you can definitely lose it, especially for the higher seed playing on the road in that first game. That mindset has contributed to some exceedingly cagey and conservative (others would pick less charitable adjectives) first-leg matches during this playoffs.
It’s understandable, but hardly any fun – and more importantly for the coaches and players involved, ignores the potentially dramatic effect that a timely, well-executed dose of assertiveness can do to fuel a cup run.
The Sounders seized the initiative from the start, despite the foreboding setting and history of a sold-out BBVA Compass Stadium, a venue where neither they nor any of their Cascadia siblings had ever won and where the Dynamo have been imperious this year. Maestro Nico Lodeiro orchestrated the buildup. Joevin Jones kept his hand on the match’s throttle from his spot on the left wing. Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan were industrious and practical at the base of midfield.
An early goal and dual penalty kick-red card disaster for Houston’s Jalil Anibaba made it look easy, but that was luck the Sounders earned for themselves fair and square. Their prize is a healthy aggregate lead over a demoralized opponent as the series shifts to CenturyLink Field, where the Rave Green rarely lose at this time of year.
“Hopefully, we're just going to go for it, and show our fans that we want more,” Svensson matter-of-factly told MLSsoccer.com when asked about his team’s mindset for the second leg. “At the same time, we have 2-0, so we can't be too stupid. But hopefully we go for it.”
Of course there’s plenty of soccer still to be played in both of these series. The Dynamo and Crew SC may well have a surprise or two in store. But until then we’ll all be getting used to the prospect of an MLS Cup rematch.
And the swaggering Sounders have already laid down a marker for that one.