Seattle Sounders' MLS playoffs hopes on the line vs. Houston Dynamo
Considering how far the Seattle Sounders have come, the team has to be relieved that it could seal its trip to the postseason with a win over the Houston Dynamo on Sunday afternoon (5 p.m. ET ESPN/WatchESPN).
It's been a long season for Seattle, which faced obstacle after obstacle, ranging from injuries to suspensions, and that took a toll at times. While seeding is still very much in play regardless of the outcome, Sigi Schmid's team does not need to rely on anyone else to ensure they will be part of the 2015 MLS postseason tournament. Making the playoffs is the initial goal of every MLS team when camps open in January, and while getting in always seems attainable when a new season kicks off, doing so can't be taken for granted.
Reaching that objective, at least on paper, is just a matter of beating a weaker team, though Houston could be seen as a desperate side scrapping for their own playoff lives. For the Dynamo, the scales are tipped the other way. Lose, and any slim chance of getting into the postseason field is gone. As it is, Portland's defeat of Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night means Houston is six points behind the final playoff spot with only two games left. That all but guarantees that Owen Coyle's first year as Dynamo manager won't include a playoff game.
Seattle enters the match on a six-game unbeaten run. Three wins and three draws, a total of 12 points, have lifted the side back into a somewhat comfortable place among the top six teams in the Western Conference and on the precipice of qualification.
At the start of the year, the idea holding onto to fifth in the West, with very little chance of sliding into one of the top two semifinal bye positions with two games left would have smacked of disappointment. As it is, the Sounders are thankful they hold their fate in their hands at all. During a brutal summer that saw many of their key players out of the lineup due to international duty, injury or suspension, Seattle lost nine of 12 games and looked nothing like an MLS Cup contender.
In addition to those challenges from the summer, the team had to deal with an training injury to top defender Chad Marshall in September, as well as the (albeit brief) hospitalization of their head coach in the same month. It's a credit to the team's talent and focus that it remains in the playoff chase at all.
Seattle has relied on role players to help even out the rough patches during the six-game unbeaten run. In its last match, it earned a draw against the Galaxy that felt very much like a win when Chad Barrett came off the bench to score an equalizer. After a week off, the team will need to carry that momentum into the hot conditions of Texas. A forecast of 85 degrees for Sunday makes for a very different environment than Seattle has played in recently, though low humidity means the visitors won't have to deal with the cloying sticky air that is usually part of the challenge at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Houston and Seattle have already played once in 2015, a 1-0 win for the Sounders way back in the first week of April. Despite losing, the Dynamo dominated that game in most ways, controlling possession and outshooting their opponents 16 to five. The Sounders' lone goal came from a fantastic effort by Obafemi Martins, one of the many times since his arrival in MLS that the Nigerian forward has proved to be the difference for his team.
Marshall could be back in team after returning from a neck sprain suffered in training. The 2014 MLS Defender of the Year missed the Galaxy game with the injury, but returned to practice this week. The Sounders certainly need Marshall in the back line to bolster a defensive setup that has been up and down all season.
Last time out against LA, Seattle lined up Zach Scott and Brad Evans at center back. Scott is a solid backup, but can't be relied upon on for a long stretch of matches and Evans is a heady player, but is by no means a natural center back as he normally plays in defensive midfield or right back. He was transitioned into the role at the start of the season. For the Sounders to go deep into the playoffs, they're going to need Marshall's experience and quality to balance out Evans.
With the Dynamo's chances of reaching the postseason being very slim, the squad is playing for pride and jobs in 2016. Coyle could use the game against the Sounders to test out some younger talent, or could go the simple route and start his preferred XI in a bid to play spoiler. If the team wins, the Sounders would need to wait another week to lock up a spot.
It may be disappointing for the Dynamo to play their final home match without securing another trip to the postseason, but the team is a proud organization with a group of veteran players who won't put in a half-effort. They won't want to see their opponents celebrating in their home stadium.
Still, Seattle is healthy and in good form, two factors that should give it the edge this weekend.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.