It wasn't pretty, but the Seattle Sounders advanced to the Western Conference final after a 0-0 draw with FC Dallas on Monday night at CenturyLink Field, moving on by an aggregate score of 1-1 on away goals.
This was the first year that Major League Soccer used the away-goals rule in the playoffs. Away goals don't technically count double—which is often how they're described—but in order to go on, Dallas needed a minimum of one goal on Monday in order to advance.
That gave Seattle the incentive to park the proverbial bus and play for the draw.
Entering the second leg, however, Sounders center back Zach Scott denied that he and his teammates would revert to a defensive position and protect their slim lead.
"We’ve never really adjusted the way we play around a specific result we need to get," Scott said, per MLSsoccer.com's Ari Liljenwall. "We’re not going to bunker in, we’re not going to look for any specific scoreline. We’re just going to play our soccer."
While the Sounders failed to score, it wasn't for a lack of trying. Seattle enjoyed the lion's share of chances and was on the whole the better team on the night.
FC Dallas were game challengers, though.
In the 24th minute, the Sounders were lucky to at the very least not concede a penalty. Scott shoved down and tripped up Dallas midfielder Fabian Castillo in the box, but the referee waved play on.
Kurtis Larson of the Toronto Sun felt that Scott committed a clear penalty:
Richard Whittall wondered if Castillo was punished simply because he was so much faster than the Sounders defense:
The 22-year-old was a constant nuisance for the Sounders back four during the first half, using his blazing speed to get round Seattle's defenders.
In the ninth minute, he cut inside from the right to create a goal-scoring opportunity. His shot was wide of the mark, however, in what was Dallas' best chance in the first half.
Tesho Akindele had a shot on goal after cutting inside from the left in the 45th minute. His effort was high and wide.
While FC Dallas played well, the Sounders arguably were closer to breaking the deadlock.
Clint Dempsey nearly gave Seattle a 1-0 lead seven minutes in. He executed a couple of impressive step-overs to create some separation from the Dallas defense before firing a shot on goal. Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz palmed the shot over the bar and away from danger:
A little over 20 minutes later, Michel cleared a Chad Marshall header off the line to deny the Sounders center back a sure goal:
In the 40th minute, Seitz stepped up big once again. Dempsey and Obafemi Martins quickly pinged the ball back and forth, with Dempsey in position to put Seattle ahead from close range. However, Seitz was there to make the save:
On the balance of play, neither team had a discernible advantage through the first 45 minutes. The Sounders posted the stats from the opening frame:
After a scoreless yet entertaining first half, the pace of play slowed down quite a bit in the second half, which was a bit surprising considering Dallas needed a goal to advance from the tie.
FCD lacked much of an attacking threat beyond Castillo, and Seattle manager Sigi Schmid ensured that the Colombian was swarmed by multiple Sounders players at all times, limiting his ability to make an impact on the match.
Things nearly went from bad to worse in the 58th minute after Dempsey had a strong penalty shout turned down by the referee. At the very least, Baldomero Toledo was consistent, having not awarded a penalty for the foul on Castillo in the first half.
Matthew Tomaszewicz of MLS' March to the Match podcast observed that the physicality increases in the MLS playoffs, often an aesthetic detriment:
The overall beauty of the match wasn't helped by Dallas' inability to adapt to how the night was unfolding. Manager Oscar Pareja sat back for the majority of the second half without making any major changes to his lineup or tactics.
MLSsoccer.com's Matthew Doyle was particularly critical of Pareja down the final stretch:
When Pareja made his first sub, which came in the 80th minute, he raised a few eyebrows by taking off Blas Perez, arguably Dallas' best pure goal-scorer. Fox Soccer's Kyle McCarthy questioned the decision-making process behind removing a player like Perez when you needed to score:
Dallas' desperation increased as the clocked ticked toward the 90th minute, but it never offered much of a threat to Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
Pareja will be second-guessed in the days and weeks following this aggregate defeat. There's no shame in going out to the Supporters' Shield winners, but his failure to adjust stuck out in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Sounders move on to the conference final, where they'll meet the Los Angeles Galaxy in what is MLS' dream fixture. The Galaxy are the most in-form team in the playoffs right now, and they're facing off against the top seed in the Western Conference. Not to mention it's Clint Dempsey versus Landon Donovan.
The two legs will make for captivating viewing.