Dallas get it right tactically but Seattle find a way
I talk a lot about Seattle’s three attackers — Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz — and with good reason because when they are flying at full tilt, there’s just no stopping them. With that said, football is about constantly finding answers to new questions and one of the questions I’ve had about the Sounders was whether they could find goals, a good performance and a win in the playoffs if those three danger men weren’t quite at their scintillating best.
I got my answer while watching them beat FC Dallas in order to advance to a fourth Western Conference Final in five years. On a night where Lodeiro was mostly neutralized by an FC Dallas team that didn’t necessarily park the bus, but definitely emphasized not allowing any space in behind, Seattle did what all good teams do — they dug deep and found a different way to win
I liked Dallas’s approach a lot. They didn’t come to Seattle to just sit deep, but they also weren’t reckless in how they attacked and that’s what allowed them to have a good amount of possession while also keeping themselves defensively organized, for the most part. With a bit of luck, they could even have found an equalizing goal and sent the game into extra time.
In my view, it’s the right way to play against the Sounders because it’s very balanced. Teams that have tried to be too open and expansive have been torn apart, whereas teams that sit way too deep have to hope for a 1-0 win where every little thing goes right for them. In the end, it still wasn’t enough for Dallas because even though the usual suspects weren’t lights out like they usually are, the Sounders got excellent performances from elsewhere as several players stepped up to keep FC Dallas at bay.
Highlights: Seattle Sounders 1, FC Dallas 0
Alex Roldan did an admirable job filling in at right back once again, while further up the field, his brother Cristian covered every blade of grass. João Paulo looked more like himself and the center back pairing stood their ground even when Dallas did apply good pressure. My point is that you can’t always rely on your attacking wizards to produce magic, sometimes it needs to be a mature, solid, all-around good team performance that just gets the job done and that’s what saw the Sounders through.
Another thing this Sounders team has perfected this season is the “next man up” mentality. No matter who has been missing, the replacement has usually always stepped in and taken their chance. No one has done that better than Shane O’Neill and so it was fitting that his goal was the one to fire the club into the next round.
I speak for most Sounders fans when I say that we didn’t really expect much from him when he signed. If he turned out to be a decent depth piece we’d have been ecstatic. But he’s been more than that. He has forged a formidable partnership with Yeimar Gomez Andrade and has hardly put a foot wrong all season long.
The aforementioned Alex Roldan is another example of a player taking their chance when it was presented to them. Seattle have been able to depend on that all year long and it may be as much of a strength as the Morris, Lodeiro and Ruidiaz trident. It’s less exciting and won’t get us off our seats or win any individual awards, but it may be a truer measure of how good this team really is — being able to replace starters without the level dropping off is not something many clubs can accomplish.
What next for FC Dallas?
It’s far too soon to make any grand declarations about what this defeat means for FC Dallas’ season as a whole but we can definitely say with a degree of certainty that they are still a level or two below the Sounders — who have been the benchmark for Western Conference teams for the past few years.
What must this team do to make the leap to the next level and finally make it back to MLS Cup? The good news is that in Andres Ricaurte, I believe they have a genuine piece they can build around for the next couple of seasons at least. He wasn’t great in either playoff game, but that’s more to do with him running out of steam as the season waned down — it’s not easy to make a sustained impact in this league when you join in midseason, Lodeiro is one of the few to have done it. For the most part, Ricaurte has been fantastic since moving to Texas and his ability to unlock a defense with a pass or deliver a good set-piece are good tools to build around.
Watch: Dallas come agonizingly close to an equalizer
You can, and should, always look to strengthen defensively but they were actually quite solid there and only conceded a goal more than the Sounders. The issue was at the other end where they scored 16 fewer goals than the Sounders and 18 fewer than the Timbers. To me, it's clear they can still upgrade at the center forward position. Franco Jara had his moments this year, but is he someone I’d fully trust to power my team through the playoffs and to MLS Cup? Not as the main starter.
As long as the club is willing to blend the youth movement with some more veteran and experienced pieces, there’s no reason they can’t take a step forward next season and be in a position where they are hosting the Sounders rather than having to go to Seattle and try do what no team has done in the last 15 tries: win a game.
Can Seattle make it back to MLS Cup?
The Sounders want to face Minnesota, who take on Sporting Kansas City Thursday (8:30 pm ET | FOX). They won’t say it publicly but this is what they’ll want, not because it’ll be an easy game, but because it’ll be a home game. Despite the lack of fans in the stadium, home field continues to be a pretty good advantage for the Sounders.
They also match up well against the Loons as I think the Sounders backline has enough pace between Yeimar, Nouhou and either Alex Roldan or Kelvin Leerdam to keep up with Minnesota’s quick transitions through Kevin Molino, Robin Lod, Ethan Finlay and Emanuel Reynoso. Going the other way Seattle can also hurt Adrian Heath’s team as I don’t think they are built to just sit and absorb pressure. They want to get out and play and that usually plays into Seattle’s hands well by leaving more gaps for the attackers to exploit, especially at home.
The matchup against Sporting will naturally be tougher as it’ll be away from home, but it's not a game Seattle can’t win. The threat from Sporting will come in the wide areas where Johnny Russell can neutralize a big part of what Seattle does in getting the full backs forward, by constantly driving at them and keeping them occupied. And if Alan Pulido is fully fit, he obviously ups the attacking quality considerably. If these two teams meet, I expect a back and forth game where each believes they are the better team and are prepared to give as good as they’ve got. It would be a game that came down to a moment of magic, a defensive error or a penalty shootout — I don’t see either team running away with this one.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.