It has been a year. But here’s a taste of normalcy for MLS fans: the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas are once again meeting up in the playoffs. Not even a global pandemic could keep the two apart. COVID-19 protocols precluded the usual regular-season meetings between the two rivals, but on Tuesday night they nonetheless face each other in the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years.
The second-seeded Sounders host the Western Conference semifinal at Lumen Field, where they have posted a 9-1-2 all-time record against sixth-seeded FC Dallas. That dominance was, of course, fueled by supporters who will be absent on Tuesday night (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1).
Past playoff contests have been fraught and closely fought. The Sounders won the two-legged series in 2014 courtesy of the away-goals tiebreaker, while Dallas needed penalties to escape with victory in 2015. Last year’s single-elimination first-round match was a seven-goal bonanza requiring extra time before Jordan Morris completed his first career hat trick in the 113th minute for a 4-3 Sounders victory. The Sounders have won three of the four encounters, outscoring Dallas 12-9 across seven matches.
The Sounders arrive in this year’s conference semifinals on the heels of a fairly comprehensive 3-1 victory over an LAFC team decimated by COVID-19. FC Dallas, for its part, went on the road and outlasted the Portland Timbers 8-7 on penalties after extra time ended in a 1-1 draw.
Here is a closer look at Tuesday’s Western Conference semifinal:
The clubs didn’t play each other as MLS limited long travel days and overnight stays.
Players to Watch
At 31, big of heart and selfless in spirit, Lodeiro is once again arguably the best playmaking midfielder in the league. His boundless energy can at times lead him on a walkabout, but of late the Uruguayan has been locked in and a privilege to watch by any measure.
After FC Dallas fielded the youngest team in MLS last season, the 32-year-old Argentine striker was signed to provide a dash of veteran seasoning. Results have been mixed, to the tune of seven goals and zero assists in 20 matches for a club that finished 17th in the league in scoring. Nonetheless, the talent is there, and Jara had a good-looking goal called back for offside against the Timbers.
Matchup to Watch
Thiago Santos vs. Raul Ruidiaz, et al.
Santos anchors the back of FC Dallas’ all-important central midfield trio, freeing Andres Ricaurte and Jesus Ferreira to foray forward in support. If Seattle’s own triumvirate of Lodeiro, Morris, and Ruidiaz is revved and humming along at anything resembling last week’s mesmerizing clip, center backs Matt Hedges and Bressan will need ample protection. Santos may well end up the visitors’ most vital cog, particularly if head coach Luchi Gonzalez comes to play.
You could make arguments for Kelvin Leerdam, Alex Roldan, Brad Smith, Joevin Jones, and Xavier Arreaga — if you knew which of them were actually starting. Morris you can ink in on the left wing with a Sharpie. An MLS Best XI honoree, the Sounders will rely on his speed and strength if Dallas presses, and on his vastly improved passing and poise if the visitors ask the Sounders to possess.
It just never ends with these FC Dallas kids. Out goes one promising Homegrown fullback — Reggie Cannon, off to Boavista — and like clockwork in steps another. A revelation this year, the 19-year-old Reynolds will have his hands full defensively on Tuesday, especially if Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer starts Jones or Brad Smith at left back over the more offensively limited Nouhou. Either way he’ll also see more than his share of Morris, Lodeiro, and Ruidiaz. FC Dallas will also need its fullbacks to stretch the field, both to keep the Sounders honest and to fortify a too-often insipid attack of its own.
The defending champion Seattle Sounders have reached the MLS Cup final in three of the last four seasons, hoisting the trophy twice. They are at home, where they dominate both as a matter of course and against this particular opponent. General manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey has stockpiled an arsenal of next-level talent that could be flourishing in more prestigious leagues. He can boast of not one, not two, but three Best XI selections.
FC Dallas has won just once in 12 all-time visits to Lumen Field, and has been outscored 28-9 in the process. They also won just once in nine road games this year (1-5-3).
It’s hard to pick against the Sounders.
And yet Luchi Gonzalez does seem to be brewing something special in just his second season at the helm for the Hunt family. Sure, FC Dallas is a sixth seed facing a second seed on the road, but FC Dallas was a seventh seed facing a second seed when they played the Sounders on the road last season. They gave the Sounders everything they could handle and then some, tying the match after trailing both 2-0 and 3-2. FC Dallas was the better team for long stretches of the second half, and would probably have won if the Sounders’ goalkeeper wasn’t named Stefan Frei.
Much will depend on Gonzalez finding a way to threaten without leaving gaping holes in behind. He has spoken about his team learning its lessons after giving up four goals to the Sounders in last season’s playoffs. Yet when facing the Timbers in the first round, FC Dallas sometimes looked to have taken the lesson too well in passively ceding much of the field and living dangerously as the Timbers pinned them back.
It’s the Sounders’ match to lose, but don’t count out FC Dallas. Either way, they’ll probably do it up again next season. Maybe even with fans.