TUKWILA, Wash. – A pause and a contorted face are among the frequent reactions to questions regarding Major League Soccer’s new playoff format.
Since the change was announced in December 2018 from two-game, aggregate-scoring opening rounds in which each team got a home game, anticipation has been building to see the new, single-elimination postseason style.
While the Sounders are excited about an 11th consecutive playoff berth – and third straight as a No. 2 seed – there’s the reality that one loss ends the season.
“Uh,” Sounders assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda said, wincing with a head tilt from side to side. “Let’s see. Let’s see. I have to live it. I have to go through that. I couldn’t say that is my preference right now.”
Also pausing, Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said the change is a positive.
“I still wish there was a home and away,” he added. “But really, it emphasizes how well you do during the season, I think it makes it more important. I really appreciate that aspect of it.”
Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer, sighed before giving a diplomatic answer.
“There’s never going to be a format that makes everybody happy,” he said. “The pros of this are it’s going to be super dramatic, it’s going to be super tense, it’s going to be really exciting. There’s just so much at stake. For me, that’s what makes sports fun.”
Delayed gratification is part of the reason MLS made the change. Two of FIFA’s fall international breaks fragmented the league’s postseason in the past. For the Sounders’ 2016 MLS Cup run, the six games were spread across 45 calendar days – the championship falling on Dec. 10 in Toronto.
A similar run by Seattle this season would take four games over a 23-day stretch, from the first round on Saturday to the title game Nov. 10.
The Sounders (16-10-8, 56 points) open with a matchup against seventh-seeded FC Dallas (13-12-9, 48 points) at CenturyLink Field and with a win would also host a Western Conference semifinal. Seattle is seeded fourth overall, meaning it could host the MLS Cup championship if defending champs Atlanta or New York City FC don’t win the Eastern Conference title.
Not that the club is looking that far ahead. Instead, the Sounders are leaning on past games to show they can handle the reworked playoff format. The team has won four matches with a goal in the 89th minute or later – three of those winners coming in stoppage time.
Possibly the most dramatic of those winning goals came when forward Jordan Morris raced to score in second-half stoppage time on the road against San Jose on Sept. 29, keeping Seattle in contention for the coveted second place in the West.
Often in single-elimination tournaments, teams have to win ugly or go home.
“As long as you have that mental toughness that we have shown in a lot of games this season, that we can still sprint and try to score goals, that gives us a lot of confidence going into the playoffs,” Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said. “Playoff games are not won in the first minute or the first second of the game. It’s maybe the 96th or 97th. Luckily, we have some experience this season with scoring late goals.”
Some apprehension to MLS’s playoff change comes from how it alters a team’s strategy. Dallas scored 54 goals this season and is offensive-minded.
“Now, just ’cause it’s one game, are they going to rest and take it to overtime?” Frei wondered aloud. “Does this mean away teams are going to gun for it a bit more or stick to their positives or things that they’re good at and see if they can use that to their advantage? It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”
At least everyone is experiencing the new format together, right?
“Talk to me when it’s over,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said.
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