Seattle Sounders FC’s back line punched the club’s ticket to the Western Conference finals Tuesday night. Defenders came up big at both ends of the field in a 1-0 win over FC Dallas that showcased grit rather than glitz.
The trip to the league’s penultimate playoff round is familiar. The club has made it to the conference finals in four of the past five seasons.
While Seattle’s 3-1 win against LAFC on Nov. 24 featured two of MLS’s most potent offenses, Tuesday was about two of its stingiest defenses. No. 2-seeded Seattle conceded a conference-best 1.05 goals per game during the regular season; sixth-seeded FC Dallas was a second-best 1.09.
The defensive prowess gave way to a deadlocked first half — neither side recorded a shot on target through 45 minutes.
WHAT A PLAY 😍
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) December 2, 2020
Seattle centerback Shane O’Neill broke the deadlock in the 49th minute, finding free space on a corner kick to turn a ball from Nico Lodeiro into the net with his head. It was the 27-year-old’s third professional goal and first in Major League Soccer since 2014.
O’Neill, a newcomer to the Sounders in 2020, was happy to have made the most of his opportunity.
“I’ve had a couple chances this year that I didn’t fully commit to, or my eyes were closed,” O’Neill said. “This time, I just committed to it. We executed the play and Nico delivered a great ball. I just have to keep my eyes open.”
In any other year, O’Neill’s open eyes would have been met with the sight of a chaotic celebration of his goal, especially having scored in front of where the Emerald City Supporters group normally stands. Instead, the empty Lumen Field party was confined to the teammates who mobbed him, before trotting back to begin the task of defending the minimum lead.
FC Dallas pressed for an equalizer. In the 63rd minute, O’Neill’s centerback partner Yeimar Gomez Andrade came up big. After a cross to Dallas substitute Michael Barrios rocketed off the left post, keeper Stefan Frei was caught out of position as the ball rolled to Andrés Ricuarte inside the penalty area. Ricuarte’s shot was low, lethal and might have taken the net off its mooring, but the big Colombian blocked the shot and sent it skyward.
Seattle’s back line held up mightily over the span of 90 minutes, collecting four blocks, nine interceptions, 17 clearances and 25 recoveries. Frei had a slow night between the sticks, finishing with zero saves and one cross caught as he notched his 10th career playoff shutout and 16th career playoff win — good for fourth and third all-time, respectively.
For Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer, the win was further proof of his team’s championship credentials and character.
“That might not have been the prettiest soccer game or our best performance as a team, but our team gutted it out,” Schmetzer said. “That group of players finds different ways to win. That’s what makes them champions and gives them a realistic shot at winning trophies.
“You can’t always win the right way, the prettiest way. You have to gut out some victories . . . When you come to a scrappy, good team like Dallas, we ground out a win. That makes us believe even more that we have a chance to do great things.”
Seattle will face Monday the winner of the other conference semifinal, a Thursday match between No. 4 Minnesota and top seed Sporting Kansas City. If SKC wins, it will host, while a Minnesota victory would mean another match at Lumen Field, where Seattle has won an MLS-record 14 straight playoff matches.