Regardless of the team, the MLS Western Conference Champion will have overcome extreme difficulty in the past year to earn their title.
The Seattle Sounders are always expected to compete for MLS Cup, but the loss of Obafemi Martins, among other things, at the start of the 2016 season started a downward spiral for Sigi Schmid’s team. A mid-season makeover, though, saw Brian Schmetzer and Nicolas Lodeiro come to the rescue. An unprecedented spike in form has now seen the Sounders storm into the playoffs and unseat the Supporters Shield-winning FC Dallas.
Unlike their opponents, high expectations were not something that the Colorado Rapids had to worry about as this season kicked off. Pablo Mastroeni’s team was the worst in the league in 2015. But the head coach has had his management style vindicated, leading the Rapids to the second-highest points total this season. The addition of USMNT stars Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones have contributed to this success, but the team’s cohesive defense and young stars have been the crucial factors.
As the first leg of this matchup kicks off in Seattle on Tuesday evening, injuries to key players loom large for both teams. The Sounders’ Jordan Morris and Rapids’ duo Marco Pappa and Shkelzen Gashi are all dangerous attackers, and each player will be a game-time decision.
Here is a closer look at the first leg of the Western Conference Championship.
Seattle Sounders: Alvaro Fernandez (out), Andreas Ivanschitz (questionable), Jordan Morris (questionable)
Colorado Rapids: Tim Howard (out), Marco Pappa (questionable), Shkelzen Gashi (doubtful)
KEY TO THE GAME:
Seattle’s front line vs. Colorado’s back four. The Rapids recorded the lowest goals allowed in the regular season (32), seven less than their closest competitor. But the explosion of attacking dynamism that the Sounders have experienced this Fall could be too much for Colorado to handle on the night, even if Jordan Morris is unavailable. The size and fervor of the crowd backing the Sounders won’t make defending them any easier, by the way.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguayan playmaker has been a Godsend to his team, which struggled the for the majority of the year with both results and play style. The magic that Lodeiro brings on the ball, coupled with the attention he takes away from the rest of the Seattle frontline (whoever it may be) has been crucial to the Sounders’ resurgence.
In response to the two losses against the Rapids in the regular season, Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said, “We do what we need to do. We don’t like to change too much to other teams. Obviously there’s subtle tactics that you use to try and gain an advantage, but we’re trying to get our team right and firing on all cylinders and what we do best.”
In regards to Zach MacMath taking the reigns from the injured Tim Howard in goal, Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said, “What I think we’ve done this year is create a very good team and the expectation is that Zac steps in and does a really good job. Before Tim, he was probably one of the best goalkeepers in the league and the expectation is that he continues in that form.”