SEATTLE — Shorthanded and playing their third game in seven days, the Seattle Sounders dodged a few early bullets on Wednesday night. They then slowly bent a fast-paced match to their will in front of 42,885 at CenturyLink Field, putting visiting Chivas de Guadalajara under ever more pressure as the second half wore on. And they rode a late goal from Clint Dempsey to a 1-0 victory in the first leg of this CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series.
The teams will face off at Estadio Akron in Guadalajara, Mexico, on March 14 in the second leg of the aggregate-goal series.
In the end, it had to be Clint Dempsey. After struggling early, the 34-year-old Texan looked increasingly dangerous over the course of more than an hour of scoreless soccer. He finally struck in the 76th minute, slipping into space between no fewer than four defenders in the heart of the area and tapping home a Henry Wingo cross for the lone goal of the match.
Moments later, Dempsey missed a golden opportunity to stake the Sounders to a commanding series lead, first-timing a left-footed shot over the crossbar from just inside the penalty spot.
Chivas substitute Gael Sandoval put a clean header on frame from the top of the 6-yard box in the 89th minute, but failed to seriously trouble goalkeeper Stefan Frei at the near post.
The visitors opened the match on the front foot, controlling possession from the start, but found their few real chances snuffed out by Frei.
In just the 11th minute, Alejandro Mayorga beat center back Roman Torres to an Isaac Brizuela cross, sliding to the FieldTurf to poke a shot toward the near post from 8 yards out. But Frei pounced to block the shot before swatting the rebound away from danger.
Frei delivered an even bigger save in the 34th minute, charging to stuff Alan Pulido after Torres slipped and fell to the turf, leaving the star striker alone on goal.
While Chivas saw the better of the action early, the hosts were not without chances of their own.
In the 26th minute, Dempsey gathered a loose ball off a broken counter and skipped a 20-yard shot toward the far post, forcing goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota into a diving, fingertip save.
Momentum clearly swung to the Sounders after halftime. If anything, they may well regret not converting more chances.
Will Bruin nearly opened the scoring in the 47th minute, heading a Nicolas Lodeiro corner kick past Cota but off the far post. Just three minutes later speedy rookie midfielder Handwalla Bwana — active and threatening throughout in his first career start — looked to have earned a penalty kick after being tackled in the box. Referee Mario Escobar, however, didn’t see cause to blow his whistle.
In the 66th minute, center back Chad Marshall headed a Lodeiro free kick just past the far post. A few minutes before scoring, Dempsey found himself unmarked as he gathered a Lodeiro pass inside the area, but sailed a shot over the crossbar. Right back Jordan McCrary likewise sent a header at the doorstep well high.
While the Sounders surely left some goals on the field, it was nonetheless an impressive result and an inspired second half for a tired team facing a rash of injuries. The Sounders were missing Kelvin Leerdam (ankle sprain), Victor Rodriguez (quad strain), Osvaldo Alonso (quad strain), and Magnus Wolff Eikrem (knee contusion) to injury. It was also the third match the Sounders have played since losing U.S. international Jordan Morris to a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 22.
For its part, Chivas has plenty of its own concerns heading into the second leg. Not only did they lose, they failed to find an all-important road goal. And Pulido picked up his second yellow card of the tournament midway through the second half: Chivas will head into the second leg trailing by a goal and missing its best goalscorer.
The rest of the roster has scored just seven goals in 10 Liga MX matches this season.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Stefan Frei. He wasn’t called upon often, but he came up big when needed, maintaining a clean sheet until the Sounders turned the flow of the game in the second half.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Frei’s save on Pulido, one of the better attacking players in all of CONCACAF.
MATCH TO FORGET
Javier Lopez. Failed to make much of an impact before coming off in the 67th minute.