Defending their MLS Cup championship begins with the Sounders needing to execute more on the road than in two prior trips this season to face Sunday’s opening playoff opponent.
Two times the Sounders traveled to Vancouver and on both occasions outplayed the Whitecaps only to come away mightily displeased. The first occasion, back in April, saw them lose 2-1 on a pair of Fredy Montero goals. Then, just two months ago at B.C. Place Stadium, they drew 1-1 despite playing most of the second half a man up and protecting a lead.
The Sounders were a much different team at home against the Whitecaps a month ago – winning 3-0 – but realize the importance of doing well on the road in a short, two-game aggregate series.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said Thursday. “They’re very lethal up top, very efficient up top. They’re a good counter team. They’re crafty.”
Montero and the Whitecaps proved that in the two matches they hosted. The former Sounders star has three goals in the two games played at B.C. Place, with the quick-strike counterattack proving beneficial to Vancouver both times after the Sounders had largely controlled possession throughout.
Vancouver qualified for this Western Conference semifinal by blasting San Jose 5-0 in the knockout stage at B.C, Place on Wednesday night. The Whitecaps were up only 1-0 in the second half, but executed several set pieces late to blow things open.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer is well aware of how the Whitecaps can strike quickly and execute with precision. That’s why, even though he says he’ll “approach the game to try and win,” the Sounders cannot afford to come out too aggressively and get burned on the counter.
“You can’t go crazy because it’s not a one-game series,” he said. “But if you play conservative, sometimes you can get burned, too. So, there’s a fine balance there. So, we’ll go out and try to win the game.”
Indeed, giving up multiple road goals the way they did against the Whitecaps in April could quickly negate any home-field advantage the Sounders gained by finishing second in the conference. And yet, away goals are used as the tiebreaker if the aggregate score is even after two matches, so it behooves the Sounders to try to put the ball in the net Sunday and not merely play for a scoreless draw.
“You have to try to put them under some pressure without giving away the counter,” Schmetzer said. “You can’t give away silly fouls. That will hurt you.”
Speaking of which, the Sounders were somewhat fortunate this week when forward Clint Dempsey received no additional suspension after his red card Sunday for elbowing Mike da Fonte. Dempsey, who was fined for his refusal to immediately leave the field, will miss Sunday’s opener with an automatic single-game red card suspension.
Schmetzer said he’d discussed the incident with Dempsey and told him he must show better discipline. Dempsey had apparently taken a blow behind the play in the moments leading up to the elbow.
For now, Schmetzer and the coaching staff are preaching to the rest of the team that they must maintain focus at all times. In the late-August game at Vancouver, players admitted afterward that a lone defensive lapse in an otherwise strong performance is why they’d settled for a draw instead of a win.
That and the fact the Sounders couldn’t put a second ball into the net. They’ve struggled to finish in both Vancouver road games; a problem the club appeared to resolve their final two home contests, outscoring opponents 7-0.
But they were a different team on the road this year, going just 3-8-7 compared to 11-1-4 at home. That and the playoffs – as the Sounders learned a year ago – can be an entirely different experience altogether.
Nicolas Lodeiro, who scored the only Sounders goal on a penalty kick the last time these clubs played in Vancouver, said the ability to execute is primary this time.
“We need to do more of our stuff,” Lodeiro said. “We know them and how they play well. But it’s more about how we do.”
Lodeiro noted that, though they weren’t happy with the 1-1 road draw in late August, the Sounders actually played very well and did manage to score. Doing that again this time, he added, would be a very favorable result given the importance of road goals in settling a tied aggregate series.
“It’s completely different now,” he said. “Because now, you have two games – one on the road and one in Seattle. So we must learn from our last time in Vancouver.”
And if they do, it would give them an immediate series edge ahead of next Thursday’s final leg.