Clint Dempsey comes up huge to lead Seattle into the conference finals
SEATTLE -- Three thoughts on the Seattle Sounders' 2-0 Western Conference semifinal win against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
1. Dempsey turns in one for the ages
There had been speculation prior to kickoff as to whether this could be Clint Dempsey's final match at CenturyLink Field. It is the Sounders' call whether or not to pick up the 34-year-old's team option for 2018 -- and after earning close to $3.89 million this season, that decision is going to be agonized over in the front office.
Dempsey's arrival in the summer of 2013 was a watershed moment in the modern history of the club, a personification of its long-term ambitions. It would be unfair to label him a bust, or anything close to it. The Texan has netted nearly 50 goals in more than four seasons in Seattle, and he helped deliver the memorable Open Cup/Supporters' Shield double back in 2014.
There is a bit of a sense, however, that he hasn't completely lived up to the outsized hype that heralded his arrival. Through no fault of his own, Dempsey missed out on last year's dramatic MLS Cup run with an irregular heartbeat, and he had yet to deliver the type of transcendent moment that so defines legacies.
He went a long way toward changing that on Thursday night with a classy double that came at a time his team was struggling to find a goal.
Vancouver's stubborn rearguard frustrated Seattle for more than 145 minutes stretched over the two legs of the series, and it was beginning to look as though the Sounders would never find their way through. The 39,587 rain-soaked fans girded themselves for the possibility of extra time, and penalty kicks beyond it.
Then in the 56th minute, Dempsey found himself in a little pocket of space atop Vancouver's box. He shimmied himself free, swung his left leg back and splashed a perfectly placed strike into the corner of the Whitecaps net. Then 32 minutes later, when a 'Caps goal still could have knocked Seattle out, Dempsey added the insurance tally from close range.
He wheeled away in triumph, kicked the ball toward the heavens and broke into a wide grin, a snapshot that will live long in these parts.
2. Carl Robinson's negative tactics backfire
The Whitecaps played for a scoreless draw last Sunday at BC Place, turning that first leg into a 90-minute slog in front of their own underwhelmed fans. The team mostly packed numbers behind the ball on Thursday, too, only pushing men forward once they went behind.
In some ways, that's just how Vancouver plays. It defends with discipline and burns you on the break. Especially in the first leg, with Seattle depleted due to injury, it could have stood to be a bit more ambitious.
Robinson put all his chips on the idea that Vancouver could steal an away goal, and with it, the series. Had it worked out, he would've had some justification in gesturing toward the scoreboard. The ends justify the means, all's fair in love and soccer, etc. In defeat, he and his charges were left with little to fall back upon.
They turned what would have been a thrilling series between local rivals into a war of attrition, and now they'll have a long offseason to consider what might have been if they'd only been a bit more aggressive.
3. Portland-Seattle conference final beckons
Get ready for the real possibility of multiple weeks of Seattle-Portland hype.
The Timbers have to hold up their end of the bargain, of course, on Sunday against the Houston Dynamo at Providence Park. But if Portland does advance, and with the international break looming on the other side of the weekend, prepare for the MLS hype machine to shift into overdrive.
The league's most passionate local rivalry would decide the Western Conference, with the two most recent MLS Cup champions going toe-to-toe to produce another finalist.
Houston still might have something to say about that, but soccer fans will be excused if the prospect of a Portland-Seattle conference final topped their playoff wish list.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.