Morris and defense see Seattle past Colorado and on to MLS Cup
COMMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- The Seattle Sounders are on their way to their first-ever MLS Cup final after securing a 1-0 victory in the second leg of the Western Conference finals against the Colorado Rapids to prevail 3-1 on aggregate.
Seattle endured near constant pressure from Colorado, but the Sounders' defense held firm and their attack bagged a priceless away goal from Jordan Morris in the 56th minute. Seattle will now await the result of Wednesday's Eastern Conference championship between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC to see where MLS Cup will be contested.
1. Seattle survives thanks to Morris, defense
As the final whistle sounded, the Seattle players were euphoric; not just at the score line, but the manner of the result. This was a match in which the Sounders were made to suffer, especially during a first half that was dominated by Colorado's high press.
It seemed like no Seattle player was capable of showing any composure on the ball. Right back Tyrone Mears was given a torrid time, as the Rapids ganged up on him whenever he was in possession. Even the normally composed Nicolas Lodeiro was guilty of some sloppy touches.
Yet Seattle was able to hang in and eventually established something of a toehold in the game after a nerve-racking opening 30 minutes. The threat of Morris on the break was always there; and only a desperate tackle from Colorado defender Axel Sjöberg kept the forward from getting a clean run at goal on one first-half opportunity.
But ultimately there was no denying Morris. A loose header 11 minutes into the second period from Jared Watts was pounced on by Nelson Valdez, who quickly played a pass from which Morris' deft finish over Zac MacMath found the back of the net. Seattle was now firmly in control, even though its scorer was on the ground for a long time after colliding with the Colorado goalkeeper.
The goal is the latest sign of Morris' maturation process. The Sounders indicated that the rookie was suffering from a virus in the lead-up to the match and he certainly looked off his game in terms of touch and passing early on. Earlier this season, Morris tended to drift out of games when things weren't going his way, but, on this occasion, he stuck to his task and bagged the one clear opportunity that came his way. There's no denying the growth in his game this season.
From that point it was left to Seattle's back line to see the game out and that it did. On a day when the Sounders weren't great with the ball, the defense -- and Morris -- made enough plays to make the lead stand up.
2. Are the Sounders a team of destiny?
It's incredible to think how far Seattle has come this season. It was languishing in ninth place when it fired manager Sigi Schmid and, when Clint Dempsey was sidelined with a heart problem in late August, it looked like another case of fate conspiring against the Sounders.
But instead of folding, Seattle has flourished under Brian Schmetzer. Lodeiro has delivered critical goals since arriving in midseason, Cristian Roldan has emerged as a two-way presence in midfield, while the back line has tightened up and delivered the plays needed. And of course Morris has also done his bit.
That said, Seattle has had its share of luck as well. It was on the receiving end of some fortuitous calls in the knockout round against Sporting Kansas City. In the Western Conference semifinals, it benefited hugely from the season-ending Achilles injury to FC Dallas playmaker Mauro Diaz. The Sounders also avoided having to face Colorado goalkeeper Tim Howard, who sustained a season-ending injury of his own, though MacMath performed well in his absence.
But Seattle knows all about injuries striking in the postseason; the fact that Osvaldo Alonso was limited in both 2014 and 2015 is just one example. Therefore it can be argued that these playoffs are simply a case of things evening out a bit, although the sight of Alonso with a big ice pack on his left knee after being substituted on Sunday may see Seattle get bitten yet.
Regardless, the Sounders have beaten the teams in front of them and, especially in the past two rounds, have been deserved victors. Now there is just one more game to go in order for Seattle to claim its first-ever MLS Cup.
3. Colorado can't make press pay off
The Rapids' reputation all season has been of a team that defends first and then tries to wear opponents down, especially in the thin air of Dick's Sporting Goods Park. But from the opening whistle, Colorado pressed the Sounders almost into oblivion, forcing turnover after turnover.
But the Rapids were unable to turn their territorial domination into goals. It's a cliche to blame a lack of production on "the final ball," but that was indeed the case here. Colorado found plenty of space on the left wing especially and got behind the Seattle defense numerous times, but the Rapids' crosses failed to find intended targets. It wasn't down to any one player either as Kevin Doyle, Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi all failed to locate teammates in good shooting positions.
It is difficult to not think that Colorado's overall lack of creativity was its undoing. Gashi was certainly a force throughout the season, as was Jones when healthy. But the fact remains that there was little else to turn to and, against a packed defense, it was always going to be difficult for the Rapids to get the goal they needed. Another creative threat -- admittedly a rare commodity in MLS -- could have been the difference.
That said, Colorado came a long way this season. Pablo Mastroeni's side found a plan that played to the strengths of the players available and went deep into the playoffs as a result. Now the trick will be to replicate it next season.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.