SEATTLE – For just the second time since 2013, Major League Soccer will hold a Western Conference finals absent the Seattle Sounders. A campaign that began with a gut-punch injury to Jordan Morris ended with a gut-punch loss in one of the most riveting matches in MLS playoff history.
The Sounders are out of the playoffs after losing in the semifinals to the Portland Timbers, their most bitter rival, on Thursday night. For the third straight year, the Sounders rallied from a miserable start to the season to make the playoffs. Sitting at 3-9-3 and a mere point out of last place at the end of June, the Sounders posted a best-in-MLS-history 14-2-1 record over the second half of the season, at one point going undefeated over a nine-match stretch and ultimately snagging the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
But this season won’t end with another MLS Cup appearance, not after losing a roller-coaster series to the Timbers. While acknowledging the club fell short of its primary objective, head coach Brian Schmetzer was also quick to tick off a list of his club’s accomplishments after the match.
“Nothing can take away [from] nine games in a row unbeaten in a league where there is parity,” Schmetzer said. “I know there are some teams that are bottom of table or have their challenges. But MLS is a tough league. It’s growing. More teams are entering, more money is entering. And it’s a hard, hard league. And that team right there put nine games in a row together. They put together, statistically, the best half of a season ever in Major League Soccer history, at 14-2-1. So you cannot take that away from that group.
“But again, what I would say is that each one of those guys would trade any one of those two records to be continuing to play. Again, the spirit of that group, the mentality of that group, the never-say-die attitude of that group is what spurred them on to get nine games in a row, what spurred them on to go 14-2-1. The team never quit. Tonight they never quit. So that’s testament to the mentality that we’re trying to establish in this club. This has always been a winning club. We’ve always been a big club, always been a winning club. If we continue to play like that, we will have many, many more years of success. And that’s what I hope for.”
And say this for the Sounders, who returned to the playoffs for the 10th time in their 10 year history: it took an epic effort to end their hopes of returning to MLS Cup for the third straight season. The Sounders faced elimination for the first 70 minutes, were through to the next round for a fleeting 10 minutes, and found themselves three minutes from elimination again before forcing extra time deep in stoppage time. They then went down yet again in early extra time before — you guessed it — equalizing once more to force a penalty shootout.
The second-leg match offered just about everything you could want: it was a testy, furiously contested, bruising affair. Head-scratching gaffes were counterbalanced by moments of brilliance and beauty.
There were 51 Portland clearances. Sebastian Blanco was a hero and then a goat twice over before converting from the spot in the shootout. Referee Jair Marrufo managed affairs with the leniency due a match of this magnitude, spending much of the night wagging his you-can’t-fool-me finger or gesticulating for players to stand up and return to play.
More than anything, there was response after response after response from two sides stubbornly refusing to cede the night, scoring five goals in all after the 68th minute.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my teammates,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei in a nearly empty locker room after the match. “Everybody put in everything they could. It’s a do-or-die game, and I think we all treated it that way. When you lose and make an exit under those circumstances — I don’t want to say you can accept it, but it’s the one way you say, ‘OK, it was what it was.’ I’m exceptionally proud of my teammates. We’re going to need to take some time off, and then come back for next year and try to win some more trophies.”
After losing the opening leg 2-1, the Sounders entered the match needing a goal to advance, thanks to the away-goals tiebreaker. Chasing the game from the start in front of an electric crowd of nearly 40,000, the hosts dominated possession in the first half but found themselves continually pushed wide in attack, forced to settle for 18 open-play crosses and eight fruitless corner kicks.
“We had a pile of corner kicks that we couldn’t convert on,” said Schmetzer.
Seattle looked more incisive from the start of the second half, finally finding little gaps in Portland’s defensive midfield and finally making — and rewarding — little runs into central pockets of space. Raul Ruidiaz (who else?) broke through in the 68th minute after Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella bungled a routine cross: the ball bounced twice at the edge of the 6-yard box before Ruidiaz — somehow always lurking just so — smashed a first-timed shot into an empty net.
Who knew the game held four more goals?
Blanco first replied for the visitors just 10 minutes later, ripping a 19-yard shot past Frei and just inside the far post. That lead lasted all of 15 frenetic minutes before Ruidiaz (again, who else?) forced extra time in the third minute of stoppage time, sending a booming side-volley past Attinella to put the Sounders up 2-1 on the day and tie the series 3-3 on aggregate. Blanco practically assisted on the goal, inexplicably sending a defensive header back into the heart of the penalty area.
Diego Valeri then found Dairon Asprilla at the far post with a beautiful deep cross to put the visitors back on top early in extra time, only for Blanco to get called for a handball in the penalty area in the 97th minute. Nicolas Lodeiro converted from the spot to force a penalty shootout, where the Timbers held on after Will Bruin and Osvaldo Alonso failed to convert.
Lodeiro, who finished the season six-for-six from the penalty spot, never got a chance in the shootout.
“Because he wanted to [go fifth],” Schmetzer said when asked why the Uruguayan midfielder didn’t take one of the team’s early attempts. “When you have a senior team, I mean the only guy that’s not a senior player in that group was Handwalla [Bwana] and I stuck him there. But the rest of the guys wanted to shoot. Raúl [Ruidiaz] wanted to shoot first. [Will] Bruin wanted to shoot second. Ozzie [Alonso] wanted to shoot. I leave it up to the senior players. I have a list of who I think should take them. Then I go around and I ask them, I look them in the eye and say, ‘Do you want to kick? Do you want to kick?’ And I gauge their response. Then I write their names down. Those guys were very firm about taking the kicks.”
After such a hard fought loss, Schmetzer didn’t have a whole lot to say to his team.
“I’m actually at a loss for words,” he said, “because they put everything into the game. So, you can’t fault them for effort, you can’t fault them for tactics, you can’t fault them for sticking together. They never quit. So, you just thank them. You thank them for all of the effort and all of the work that they put in throughout the whole season. You just try to get them to individually take away all of the good things they had during the season, and try and build on that for next season.”