SEATTLE — Maybe a loss was just what the Seattle Sounders needed, the slap to the face required to start playing with the urgency demanded by a tight Western Conference playoff race.
Coming off a loss that snapped a 13-game unbeaten streak but also extended a five-game winless stretch, the Sounders played with energy and panache from the start on Wednesday night, running around and passing through the first-place Vancouver Whitecaps, romping to a 3-0 victory in front of 41,868 at Century Link Field.
Victory came at a price for the Sounders, however: team captain, designated player, and midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso left the match late in the first half with a strained thigh. Fellow central midfielder Cristian Roldan injured his left forearm early and grimaced his way through the rest of the match. Center back Roman Torres limped off late.
Midseason acquisition Victor Rodriguez opened the scoring and his MLS account in the 17th minute. The 28-year-old Spaniard collected a pass from Nicolas Lodeiro and dribbled into the arc before driving a low shot past goalkeeper David Ousted for the 1-0 lead.
Lodeiro gave the Sounders a 2-0 lead in the 62nd minute, charging unmarked on the counter into the heart of the penalty area and easily besting Ousted from 8-yards out with a first-touch shot for his fifth goal of the season. Left back Joevin Jones drove in a low cross for his team-leading 11th assist of the year.
Clint Dempsey, starting as a lone forward for the first time this season, finished off the scoring in the 69th minute. Dempsey first fed Lodeiro with a well-weighted through ball down the left touchline, then raced up the pitch to receive Lodeiro’s return cross, sending a left-footed half-volley past Ousted for the 3-0 lead.
Dempsey had also whipped a 22-yard shot off the crossbar in the 60th minute.
The visitors really only threatened in the 37th minute, when longtime Sounder Fredy Montero nearly equalized with a thunderous 30-yard free kick that seemed destined to scoot under the crossbar. But goalkeeper Stefan Frei delivered a stunning save reminiscent of his game-saving effort in last year’s MLS Cup, leaping to his left and somehow managing to push the ball off the crossbar and back into play.
The Sounders (12-8-11, 47 points) have now lost just once in their last 15 games and on Wednesday night knocked off the hottest team in the league. The three points move the Sounders into a three-way tie with the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City for second place in the Western Conference.
The Whitecaps (14-10-6, 48 points) lost for the first time since an August 12 road match against the New England Revolution, but remain surprise Western Conference leaders. And while the Whitecaps were undoubtedly outplayed, head coach Carl Robinson also did not field his first-choice roster, conceding to the realities of a three-game week and making six changes from the lineup that beat the Colorado Rapids 2-1 over the weekend.
Looking forward, the Whitecaps visit Minnesota United on Saturday, while the Sounders visit the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Nicolas Lodeiro. Scored a goal and was credited with two assists. If the Uruguayan designated player regains his otherworldly 2016 form the Sounders in turn regain their status as favorites to return to MLS Cup.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
The Victor Rodriguez goal. You could almost feel 41,000 fans — and maybe an entire organization — exhale when the Sounders scored just their second goal from the run of play in weeks. The Sounders played like a team liberated thereafter, moving and combining with an ease and energy unfamiliar for much of 2017.
MATCH TO FORGET
Tony Tchani. With the match long over, the veteran midfielder picked up a stoppage-time red card for a silly tackle.