SEATTLE– No Dempsey. No Ivanschitz. No Torres. No problem.
Hosting FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday night, the surging Seattle Sounders topped FC Dallas 3-0 in front of 37,073 at CenturyLink Field. Nelson Valdez scored for the second time in two matches. Nicolas Lodeiro provided a brace. And the Sounders delivered perhaps their best performance of the season.
All three goals came in an eight-minute stretch early in the second half.
Valdez opened the scoring in the 50th minute, beating center back Maynor Figueroa to a scorching far-post cross from Joevin Jones and driving a header into the back of the net. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz took a questionable angle on the cross and could only watch as Valdez gave his club a vital 1-0 lead.
From there the night belonged to the Sounders, who repeatedly shredded the visitors’ defense while dealing a devastating blow to their title hopes.
“After that goal,” said FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja, “I thought we could be more mature and have more composure on the field and not let them score the second one. In that part, we should have been much better.”
Lodeiro added the second goal in the 55th minute. Jordan Morris collected a pass from Valdez near midfield, charged down the pitch unencumbered until blowing by Matt Hedges near the corner of the 6-yard box, and rolled a simple cross to Lodeiro at the far post. Lodeiro, who lost Figueroa on the play, easily tapped a shot across the goal line for the 2-0 lead.
“He’s given me a lot of assists,” a smiling Morris said of Lodeiro, “so I was glad I could pay him back today.”
Just three minutes later, goalkeeper Stefan Frei gently rolled a ball out to Jones, who in turn fired a 30-yard pass down the left touchline that released Lodeiro behind the entire FC Dallas side. Lodeiro streaked into the penalty area and easily bested a helpless Seitz.
“So exciting,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said about the scoring deluge. “Also [a] relief, because we don’t want to go into Dallas with a 1-0 victory, because Dallas is really good at home. So seeing three go in [was] definitely a relief more than anything, to be honest. Super excited, though.”
Aside from a Maximiliano Urruti header that Frei easily smothered, FC Dallas never threatened down the stretch.
The teams will play the second leg of the aggregate-goal series on Nov. 6 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Lodeiro, for one, is taking nothing for granted.
“We still need to be mentally prepared for the game going back into Dallas,” said the Uruguayan midfielder. “There is a reason why they finished the league in first place. They are a good team and we can’t take anything for granted. We have to be prepared.”
The Sounders have now outscored FC Dallas 8-0 in the last two matches played at CenturyLink Field. They have not lost in nine straight home games, and have won four straight home playoff matches dating to 2014. They also wrap up a stretch of three games in seven days with three wins by a combined score of 6-1, and begin the 2016 playoffs with back-to-back clean sheets. A team left for dead in late July sits on the verge of returning to the conference finals for the third time in five years.
FC Dallas, searching for a domestic treble after winning both the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup, entered the match unbeaten in five. But they now face a Herculean task, needing at least three goals to even force extra time next weekend. And pressing for so many goals will undoubtedly leave Dallas vulnerable in back: due to the away-goals tiebreaker, if the Sounders score even once in regulation FC Dallas will need to score five goals to advance.
“We’ll keep fighting,” said Pareja. “Tonight we played against a very good team. I thought the first 20 minutes in the second half for Seattle, they were very sharp and we allowed them to get those spaces and to score those goals. Seattle punished us and I thought they were much, much better, especially in that part of the game.”
Both teams were missing key players. The Sounders were without Andreas Ivanschitz (knee strain) and Roman Torres (hamstring tightness), not to mention Clint Dempsey, out indefinitely with an irregular heartbeat. FC Dallas, for its part, was missing Mauro Diaz (torn achilles tendon), and its attack has never looked the same since it lost Fabian Castillo to Turkish side Trabzanspor this summer.
After looking uncharacteristically disjointed and sloppy in Thursday’s knockout-round match against Sporting Kansas City, the Sounders moved the ball crisply from the start on Sunday night. While FC Dallas was generally content — at least until falling behind — to drop off and defend deep while clogging the center of the park, Seattle almost opened the scoring multiple times in the early going.
The Sounders first threatened in just the fourth minute. Morris tracked down a beautiful ball over the top from Jones and found Valdez at the doorstep, but the Paraguayan designated player could only softly chest the cross toward goal, and Seitz dove in time to bat away the attempt.
In the 27th minute, Erik Friberg stepped into a softly cleared corner kick and beat Seitz with a skipping half-volley, but Hedges cleared the shot off the line. The clearance slapped off Victor Ulloa and back toward goal, but Hedges was once again there to clear the danger.
Midfielder Ryan Hollingshead made a mess of the visitors’ lone good look of the first half, sending a wide-open, 12-yard shot well over the crossbar.
FC Dallas actually outshot Seattle 6-4 in the first half, but without Diaz were mostly left attempting long, speculative shots from outside the area.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Joevin Jones. Made his playoff debut midweek against Sporting Kansas City and now has three assists in two matches.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
The 50th-minute header from Nelson Valdez, which opened the floodgates and sent Dallas into a tailspin.
MATCH TO FORGET
The FC Dallas back line. Figueroa was beaten by Valdez on the first goal. On the second goal, Hedges inexplicably refused to close down Morris, and Figueroa lost Lodeiro on the cross. The entire back line fell asleep on the third goal.