Sigi Schmid and his Seattle Sounders like reruns just as long as a happy ending is produced.
Last week in Columbus it was the Blaise Nkufo show as the Swiss National Team star and celebrated prolific Dutch League striker scored a hat trick with his three goals leading the Sounders to a stunning 4-0 victory over the first place leading Crew. The accomplishment resulted in Nkufo being named MLS Player of the Week.
As Saturday’s match with the Chicago Fire wound to its close it appeared as if the home team, while not achieving the three points it desperately needed to stay in the playoff hunt, would at least garner a scoreless draw and a single digit for its effort. At this stage Nkufo made his presence felt as the Sounders went home happy and the Fire felt snake bitten as its losing woes continued.
Nkufo in the 88th minute dribbled toward the scoring area after taking a pass from Steve Zakuani. As he approached the end line he delivered a shot that, as the saying goes, appeared to have eyes. It deflected off a Fire defender and slipped past goalkeeper Sean Johnson at the far post for the match’s only and ultimately winning score.
To knowledgeable fans among the Sounders faithful, Nkufo is a pleasure to view. Whereas Zakuani, Fredy Montero and Sana Nyassi rely more on speed to reach opposing goal areas, Nkufo’s effort is deliberate and assured, replete with consummate smoothness.
Saturday night just as one week ago in Columbus, his goal efforts, rather than being the bullet-like thrusts associated with speedy strikers of the Montero school, seem to have eyes. His shots contain just enough swerve to work their way around positioned defenders and find their way into the net.
The impatient of Sounders nation are now seeing the score master of Dutch football whose efforts became so legendary that a statue was erected in his honor. Prior to his current two game, four goal effort Nkufo impressed with his ability to impose discipline through raw physicality and distribute the ball proficiently to teammates.
There was a dominance in his efforts. Now the goals are beginning to fall and opponents for the rest of the campaign are well aware of his ability to win matches through is scoring efforts along with his steady ball distribution and “hold the fort” defensive efforts.
Prior to the Nkufo score the 17,477 onlookers at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois along with television viewers were treated to a rapidly paced defensive battle in which the goalkeepers on both sides performed brilliantly, stopping scoring efforts. It was an interesting contrast since Seattle Captain Kasey Keller will turn 41 later this year while Chicago’s talented goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, recently turned 21.
At the end of the evening Keller had five saves and Johnson four.
Seattle had several other scoring opportunities, including a header by Osvaldo Alonso from a Nathan Sturgis corner in the ninth minute that flashed just wide of the post. In the 56th minute as Johnson moved out to collect a loose ball, Zakuani gained possession and fired wide left from 25 yards out on an open net.
Montero came close to tallying in the 63rd minute. James Riley found him in the box and his shot from 8 yards out arrived in the arms of Johnson.
The Fire had several first half scoring opportunities. Marco Pappa was involved in both of Chicago's threats. After breaking into the right side of the box, Pappa forced Keller to a diving stop at the right post in the fourth minute. In the first minute of first-half stoppage time his drive from 10 yards was repulsed by the Seattle keeper.
Seattle’s former star midfielder Freddie Ljungberg had two solid scoring opportunities in the second half that resulted in a near miss and save by Keller. The veteran goalkeeper stopped a curling free kick in the 52nd minute, then knocked away another shot from Ljungberg in the 76th minute, pushing it wide of the right post.
For Keller with his five save evening, he earned his 11th shutout on the season, which is one more than last year’s total.
Seattle has lost just once in its last 11 MLS matches, standing at 7-1-3. It is one win short of surpassing its 2009 total with four games remaining. Seattle improves to 5-5-3 on the road and has beaten the Fire twice this year on late goals, including Montero's stoppage time header on August 28 in Seattle for a heart-wrenching 2-1 triumph.
The Sounders are 11-9-6 overall with 39 points. Sigi Schmid has said that he regards 45 points as the benchmark that will provide Seattle with a playoff opportunity. Sounders FC stands currently in fourth place in the Western Conference.
The loss was a bitter pill for a frustrated Fire team to swallow. Chicago stands at 6-10-8 with 26 points and is winless in its last five games with an 0-3-2 mark.
Sounders FC returns home to host three successive matches. The first is Marathón in a CONCACAF Champions League match on September 29 at 7 p.m. PT. Seattle then faces Toronto FC in a league match October 2 at 12:30 p.m. PT. It then hosts the Columbus Crew in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open cup final October 5 at 7 p.m. PT.
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