Seattle leaves Vancouver happy after tense first leg
The Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps opened their Western Conference semifinal series with a tepid 0-0 draw at BC Place on Sunday.
The match was predictably cagey as first legs go, and neither team was able to find a breakthrough. Seattle nearly forced an own goal from Caps defender Kendall Waston in the first half when his attempted clearance rattled the crossbar, but that was as close as either team came to finding the back of the net.
Here are three thoughts on the first leg:
1. Dour draw suits Seattle just fine
The two-leg format of the conference semifinals can have a chilling effect on attacking play. For the visitors, there's an understandable reluctance to take risks, the better to keep things close for the return leg at home. But that kind of thinking can creep into the home side's transom as well, with a heavy don't-concede mentality often prevalent thanks to the away goals rule.
The circumstances in this match for the Sounders dictated even more caution. Despite having the luxury of sitting out the knockout round, Seattle arrived at BC Place with a decidedly under-strength side. Victor Rodriguez and Jordan Morris were out injured, not even making the match day roster. Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson were available as subs, and Clint Dempsey was suspended.
As such, the Sounders took a highly calculated approach. Brian Schmetzer set out his side to defend first and dare Vancouver to break the Sounders down, which is far from the home side's strong suit. In attack, the Sounders kept possession smartly, and then recovered like mad when the ball turned over.
It meant opportunities were at a minimum, but it was the Sounders that created the best chance of the first half. In the 36th minute when a clever sequence involving Harry Shipp and Nicolas Lodeiro ended with Joevin Jones' low cross nearly forcing an own goal from Caps defender Waston.
Seattle began to probe more effectively in transition during the second half, especially after the introduction of Svensson. But no breakthrough was forthcoming, and now the Sounders will take a favorable scoreline back to Seattle.
2. Vancouver struggles without attacking linchpins
Of course, Vancouver was missing some key attacking pieces of its own.
The Caps have lived and at times died with their offensive emphasis on counter-attacks and set pieces, but on this night, the Caps approach was severely limited.
Both Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera, arguably Vancouver's best attacking players, were carrying minor knocks, thus forcing both to the bench for the start of the game. And with inconsistency rampant among Carl Robinson's remaining attacking options, he was forced to turn to Nosa Igiebor in Reyna's normal attacking midfield spot and Brek Shea out wide.
By and large they didn't deliver, though some of this was down to Seattle's tactical approach. The result was a role reversal of sorts. Vancouver had 48.4 percent possession in the first half, roughly seven percentage points higher than its average over the course of the season. Shea had a point-blank chance from a tight angle in the 30th minute, but overall lacked sharpness with his touches. Igiebor showed he's no Reyna.
It was no surprise then to see Reyna enter in the 62nd minute, and there was a noticeable uptick in Vancouver's offensive tempo. But Seattle was in its defensive rhythm by then, and with the Sounders intent on not letting the Caps run, Vancouver was effectively stymied.
3. Injuries loom large ahead of second leg
A 0-0 draw isn't the worst scoreline for the team hosting the first leg. Yes, Vancouver couldn't find the back of the net, but it didn't concede either. That said, it's tough to look at this as anything other than a missed opportunity for the Whitecaps. With the opportunity to go up against a shorthanded Seattle side, Vancouver simply couldn't make any headway.
The Sounders appeared set to only get healthier as the series moves to Seattle. The Sounders looked more dangerous with Svensson on the field, and Alonso got some minutes as well. Dempsey is a near certainty to take part on Thursday.
But the sight of defender Chad Marshall hobbling off with what looked like a hamstring injury will be something to keep an eye on ahead of the second leg. Marshall and Roman Torres form one of the better center-back pairings in all of MLS. Fortunately for Seattle, Svensson has filled in capably in the center of defense over the course of the season, so the drop-off isn't steep but margins are always thin in the postseason, and any injury will have an impact.
All is not lost for the Caps, either. The minutes logged by Reyna and Techera will leave Robinson with the hope that they'll be fully fit for the second leg, and having them on from the beginning may allow Vancouver's vaunted counter-attack to get going. The psychology of the match, with Seattle expected to push forward a bit more, could have an impact as well.
Yet it is Seattle that will be feeling better about its chances heading into the second leg.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.