It’s all out or nothing for the Houston Dynamo, who head to the Pacific Northwest to square off against the host Seattle Sounders on Thursday to determine MLS’ Western Conference champion in the second and final leg of a cumulative-goal series.
Seattle, the defending MLS Cup champion, returns home after a dominating 2-0 victory over the Dynamo in Houston on Nov. 21 in the first leg of the series. Because the Sounders forged two goals on the road, Houston must outscore Seattle by at least two goals to force overtime.
The Dynamo picked the worst time of the year to come up flat at home, where they had lost only once all season until the first leg of the West final. Winning by two goals or more in Seattle will be a tough chore for Houston, but playing on the artificial turf should help the Dynamo’s counterattacking style.
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Don’t try to sell Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera on the long odds his team faces.
“If we go to the statistics, we shouldn’t go to Seattle,” Cabrera said. “We should stay here because they haven’t lost, they’re very strong, but we have to write the history every day. And we have the chance to write a new chapter in our lives and our history on Thursday. We’ll see. We’re gonna try.”
Following his team’s final last training in Houston on Tuesday, Cabrera acknowledged what the Dynamo must do to combat Seattle’s style of play.
“We need to be a little bit more aggressive to try to pressure the ball on the side instead of just relaxing because sometimes they just want to move the ball,” Cabrera said. “They move the ball, they pass the ball. They move the ball, they pass the ball. It doesn’t seem like they’re looking to penetrate and suddenly they change speed and someone is making a run or someone is making a cross and they’re ready. So we’re aware of that, and hopefully we can contain them by being more aggressive.”
Seattle was hitting on all cylinders in the first leg, but it won’t have one of its top defenders Thursday.
Starting center back Roman Torres picked up his second yellow card of the MLS Cup playoffs last week, leaving him suspended for the Thursday match because of yellow-card accumulation.
It’s no small loss. Torres makes up half of one of the league’s most potent central defending duos, alongside three-time MLS defender of the year Chad Marshall. The Sounders sport an eye-popping 12-0-6 record over the past 18 matches the two have started together.
Of course, having a two-goal cushion and what is sure to be a raucous CenturyLink crowd behind them might alleviate some of the pressure that the Sounders’ defense would normally feel with Torres out of action.
Even with the home-field advantage, right back Kelvin Leerdam said that the Sounders know they are dealing with a Houston team that had one the of the more dynamic attacks in MLS throughout the season and will be in full-on desperation mode from the outset. Leerdam said he is confident his team will adapt accordingly.
“I always feel confident, it doesn’t matter what lineup we play because we trust each other,” Leerdam said. “Of course, Roman is a very important player on our team but we need everybody, every defender, every teammate to perform. For me, I feel comfortable with everybody.”
The best way for the Sounders to ensure a second consecutive MLS Cup berth is to continue their impressive form at home. In 2017, Seattle has compiled a 12-1-5 record at CenturyLink Field in MLS play, including a 2-0 victory in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Since Sept. 10, the Sounders have gone 4-0-1 at home, outscoring opponents 13-1.
Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer has implored his squad to focus on playing a smart game for the full 90 minutes, knowing that the comfort of a 2-0 lead can vanish in an instant against a team that is aggressive like Houston.
“It’s the mental side of the game that this isn’t finished,” Schmetzer said. “This game could take a turn for the worse. If they score early, then they think they have a chance.”