Brian Schmetzer leads Seattle's run to Western Conference final
Ahead of the second leg of his team's Western Conference semifinal against FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said his team was not sitting back against the Supporters' Shield winners, despite the 3-0 lead they staked themselves to in the first leg at CenturyLink Field.
As is so often the case with these things, Schmetzer didn't exactly live up to his word, at least not in the opening half in Frisco, Texas. No matter the prematch intent, it's nearly impossible to expect a team with the advantage the Sounders held to push forward with much enthusiasm when advancement is on the line. The smart move isn't to go searching for the back-breaking away goal with abandon, it's to settle into the game and manage proceedings.
Seattle's management of a 2-1 loss at Toyota Stadium was far from perfect, but it got the job done. Compact lines in the early going dealt, uneasily, with a barrage of FC Dallas crosses. Dallas manager Oscar Pareja's team chased the game, and without a match-changing creative force in the middle of the field, they resorted to using full-backs to stretch the play. Going through Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan was less enticing than doing something out of character for the West's top seed. During the regular season, FC Dallas only sporadically resorted to crossing the ball, mainly because they had the vision and passing ability of Mauro Diaz unlocking defenses and setting up goal-scoring chances.
FC Dallas came up just short of making the Sounders truly sweat. An early chance that fell to the feet of Atiba Harris only six yards from goal saw the veteran of 11 MLS seasons shoot too close to Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who made the save. Missed chances and a failure to make their dominance of the run of play count would mark the opening half for the home side. Tesho Akindele's goal in the 25th minute opened up a window of hope that a comeback was in the cards, but then the whistle sounded for halftime. FC Dallas was still in need of two more goals.
Momentum was on FC Dallas' side, and Schmetzer recognized as much.
"It was determined. It was succinct," Schmetzer said about his halftime speech. "The messaging was: 'We need to play a little better in the attacking half of the field and connect more passes' because we weren't going to be able to withstand that onslaught for another 45 minutes."
Despite having to do without forward Jordan Morris to open the second half because of his hamstring strain, the Sounders heeded their coach's words. Seattle took control of possession and threatened Dallas with chances of its own in the opening minutes of the second 45. When right-back Tyrone Mears picked the pocket of defender Walker Zimmerman deep in FCD's defensive third and played a cross to Nicolas Lodeiro for a Sounders goal, it felt deserved.
The goal came from an egregious error by a player who had been otherwise excellent for his team in 2016. Such is the crucible of the playoffs.
Even a quick response by FC Dallas through Maxi Urruti didn't change much. Seattle's away goal moved the home team's target to five to win the series, with no chance of drawing level and forcing extra time. But the Supporters' Shield winners failed to create the necessary chances over the final half hour of the game to get any chance at such a massive comeback. The Sounders lost Nelson Valdez to an injury substitution but otherwise looked comfortable seeing out the game and the series.
The post-mortem on FC Dallas' season will contain plenty of what-ifs around the loss of Diaz just a few weeks before the end of the regular-season campaign. The club built its double-trophy season on the strength of Diaz's ability to cut apart defenses with his vision and passing. When it came to the playoff challenge, Pareja didn't have the time to find a workable solution to not having the Argentine in the middle of the formation. The loss in Seattle came as a direct result of that search, setting the stage for Sunday's meaningless win.
On the other side, the stage is now set for the Sounders to add to their remarkable turnaround with a trip to the MLS Cup final. The Sounders ownership removed Schmetzer's interim tag between legs of the conference semifinal, a reward for the job he did getting Seattle into the playoffs and advancing out of the knockout round.
Whatever the club will miss out on in terms of big-name hire, it has more than gained in goodwill by hiring a longtime Sounders assistant who delivered results when thrust into the spotlight.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.