Just a handful of days ago, Seattle Sounders were facing questions about how fit they were to advance in the MLS playoffs, after a controversial winner lifted the team over Sporting Kansas City despite them being vastly outplayed in the knockout round.
Nobody will be asking those questions now.
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The Sounders pulled off the biggest surprise of the MLS playoffs so far, earning a dominating 3–0 win over Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup winners FC Dallas in the first leg of the teams’ Western Conference semifinal.
Nelson Valdez continued his role as unlikely playoff hero, opening the scoring in the 50th minute with a header after Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz failed to gather a cross from Joevin Jones. Jordan Morris set up Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro with a brilliant run five minutes later, then Lodeiro doubled his goal tally with a breakaway, also assisted by Jones, in the 58th minute.
That eight-minute outburst could be the beginning of the end of a brilliant FC Dallas season, one that has not only brought the team the aforementioned trophies but also renown throughout the league. However, Sunday was the team’s most high-profile test after losing playmaker Mauro Diaz to a torn Achilles on the second-to-last game of the regular season. It was one that it failed.
To make up for Diaz’s absence and provide more defensive cover, coach Oscar Pareja elected to set up Dallas in a 3-5-2 formation, with wingbacks Atiba Harris and Ryan Hollishead supporting a three-man central defense of Maynor Figueroa, Walker Zimmerman, and MLS Defender of the Year candidate Matt Hedges. The changes did not work, as Seattle found plenty of room to operate on the flanks, and Dallas never appeared totally comfortable on the attack.
Here are three thoughts on how the first leg of this series went down:
FC Dallas showed its “Mr. Hyde” side
A year ago, FC Dallas was able to get a late away goal in a 2-1 loss at Seattle in the first leg of the team’s conference semifinal. It was able to survive, earning a 2–1 win of its own at Toyota Stadium before topping Seattle on PKs. Now, meeting again at the same stage, having earned the exact same seeds, the Sounders knew they had to put the Texas side in a bigger hole should they take the lead. That’s exactly what they did.
Valdez’s opening goal took the pressure off Seattle, then Lodeiro followed with the second. But the most important strike came three minutes after that, with Lodeiro streaking all alone through a suddenly-hapless FC Dallas defense to put the Shield winners in a 3–0 hole.
One of the great paradoxes of this FC Dallas season has been that for as good as the side has been through the majority of the year, it has also shown a tendency to let bad situations get much worse than they ever should. At various points in 2016, Dallas lost 5–0 to Houston, 3–0 to Vancouver, 4–0 to New York Red Bulls, and 5–0 to Seattle. That last result was the last time the team suffered that type of collapse, and it was all the way back on July 13th. However, the teams’ self-destructive tendencies showed up again at the worst possible time on Sunday. Valdez’s opener left Dallas stunned, and Lodeiro’s seemed to sap whatever desire Dallas had left. That set the stage for the final goal, in which Lodeiro took advantage of a Dallas defense that seemed to be entirely asleep.
In the regular season, Dallas could mask bad losses like this with a few more stylish wins. Now, the team has only one game to make up for its failings on Sunday, and it has no margin for error.
Jordan Morris was fantastic
Valdez will grab many of the headlines from this game, and that won’t necessarily be undeserved. Having struggled through a nightmare of a season and a scoring drought that reached almost exactly one calendar year, the Paraguayan striker hit his first goal of the year earlier this week against Kansas City in the knockout round, then made his second of the season another playoff winner against Dallas.
However, in Sunday’s game, the real star of the attacking show was Morris. After all, it was the American rookie’s near-post run that drew two defenders on Joevin Jones’s cross, leaving Valdez all alone with a matchup advantage over Maynor Figueroa to capitalize on Seitz’s goalkeeping error.
Then, of course, there was Seattle's second, set up by a brilliant run and pass from Morris that gave Lodeiro an easy tap-in. Receiving the ball at midfield, Morris not only recognized that he’s been given acres of space on the flank, he then ran full-speed into that space, scanning the field with his head up and keeping ridiculously close control of the ball despite his blazing rate of speed. He capped the sequence with an inch-perfect final ball across the face of goal.
All of that is to say nothing of Morris’s tremendous work rate throughout the match, all the way to chasing down Seitz to apply pressure for a harmless clearance in stoppage time. With Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey each unexpectedly leaving the team this season, a lot of attacking responsibility has fallen on Morris throughout 2016. He appears to have learned from it.
While Seattle may have advanced out of the knockout round in controversial circumstances, it looked like a team with all the confidence in the world against the regular season’s best team on Sunday. Even in the first half, the Sounders enjoyed more meaningful possession, worked harder off the ball and was first to nearly every tackle in defense.
With the home crowd behind them, the Sounders looked like they have so often under Brian Schmetzer: a team with belief in itself, willing to do all the little things throughout a 90-minute game and with more than enough creative talent to back that up. If the Sounders can avoid a historic upset next week at Dallas, they’ll be a tough out for either LA or Colorado in the next round.
Elsewhere in the first legs of the MLS conference semifinals: