Home field or home court is a known advantage but when it is a brightly sunned Sunday afternoon in late June, in your damn near new Sounder Stadium, and the warm up act is the Confederation Cup Finals from South Africa broadcast on the Wide Screen for the pre-noon arrivals and the US team goes up 2-0 on fabled Brazil, when you have 30,000 fans show up for every single seat, and more would come if they could find tickets — then it is a true advantage.
And, though no one will prop right up and say it, you should win — everyone is for you, no one is against you, you know the food and the pillow and the parking and the towels and the cop who waves your car through, security says good luck, and for the most part, they pronounce your name correctly. Of course, the should-win is its own curse and baggage but only if you let the game get away. And for this Sunday, against their closest rivals, the Colorado Rapids, a team they had already played twice before, the Sounders did not let the game get away, and won 3-0.
The score gives a narrow cast to the actual game. It was more a collision than an elegant affair, filled with enough contention, especially in the crucial first half, that at one point it seemed the very arguments would drag the script well into the afternoon. The Rapids wanted desperately to win. They had not lost in eight games, they sat a single point behind the Sounders in the Western Standings. They are a proud, aggressive, confident team, 12 years older than the Sounders, veterans of MLS, veterans of what can and cannot be, both in terms of their team and their individual play. The 30,000 Sounder fans were only more grist to the Rapids, who clearly intended to blast away at the upstart Sounders.
It was quietly the biggest game in Sounder history. If they had flinched, or sought pause, or even failed, then the verdict was in — they were just an expansion team, a good one, but not more than that. But these Sounders have big broad-chested dreams that go all over the place and all over the world of soccer, dreams that lever the very style of soccer in this country, dreams that push MLS into world play. They are not in the slightest sense eager to be brought back to earth. They knew Colorado would come gunning for them; by winning, they now know they can take that punch.
Seattle draws more fouls than any other team in the league and Freddie Ljungberg draws more fouls than any other player in the league and this game was but nine minutes old when Ljungberg was first tripped. The tactic, now league legend, is to trip and pound Ljungberg and Fredy Montero, and thereby freeze up the Sounder offense. By season's end, the accumulation may work but at the moment, tripping the Swede seems more like tripping the alarm. He is quite the gentleman until you trip him, but dropped on his face, Ljungberg does indeed ignite, and he proceeds to unleash manic forces onto the course of the game.
Just this side of hell hath no fury, Ljungberg was taken down yet again, returned the favor seconds later, and then was bashed again. Colorado was given a yellow card but that was little in contrast to the fury that was now Ljungberg. He took over the entire game, its attention, its focus, its direction, yelling furiously at every referee, demanding the ball, in effect driving the entire Sounder team safely well beyond intimidation. Moments later, in the almost fair outcome, he is crossing a pass to center that is headed by Jaqua to Montero to GOAL and it is 1-0.
Colorado knew damn well that Ljungberg had seized the game. Ljungberg had become victim and avenger. Colorado now looked more like thugs than scholars. They tried every manner to get a new script, and the referee seemed to be giving them a cold glance. Pleading every call, beseeching, falling, writhing, tumbling, it might have worked; referees are humans after all. But Ljungberg is no one's fool and with every stoppage and meeting, with every argument to the referees, there was the Swede, making his case and demanding justice still. It was politics, gritty, on-the-field politics that was being played, and it takes a veteran to play it well.
Without Ljungberg, Colorado, with its veteran midfielder Mastroeni, might well have wagered all its cunning and craft and recovered this game. Indeed, at the 39th minute, Colorado nearly was saved. From a free kick, the ball blasted and hit the crossed arm of a Sounder defender. That invoked the best, last, and longest screaming match of the game, with six Sounders pleading the referee. The depositions were each presented, the case seemed just but the referee knew it was a crucial time to, whatever the details, remain firm — penalty kick, Colorado, to tie this game and give them life, at the worst time, eight minutes before half-time. Omar Cummings, the wonderful very rapid Rapid, took the PK and it would have gone in, and who knows what fates unleashed, but somehow it hits the post. Even the referee was quietly saved.
Colorado could not believe it. Those penalty kicks, at such a moment, on someone else's field, those kicks you put in, in like spear, through to the back. But the Rapids are hardly faint sensitives. They resumed their physical attack on the Sounder defense, dominating both the ball and the momentum, driving to get the goal they should have secured. Then they made a foolish mistake. They hammered Ljungberg again, again for a yellow card, as if they had decided simply to abandon pretense. It should have been 1-1 but instead, Colorado had busied itself trying to kill Ljungberg, and Seattle, still intact, was ready to win. Colorado had outshot the Sounders 10-3. Ljungberg walked into the tunnel at half time, talking to no one.
Two minutes into the second half, Seattle scored its second goal. Coach Sigi Schmid loves halftime, not the oranges but the tinkering, and directed the Sounders to move the attack into the middle. Jaqua squared himself in front of goal and in a combination of you give/I give/you give, rolled in the second goal.
But Colorado would not stop. They had been the better attacking team for much of the afternoon and Seattle could easily remember letting DC United back into the game two weeks before — a recollection they need to deal with, and they did. Ljungberg sent a long crossing pass to Sebastien LeToux, who had only that moment even entered the game. Le Toux drove up the middle, as designed, a short pass to Montero, who is beginning to like the options of success. Montero pretended to be the brash scorer but in fact let the ball through to a wide open Jaqua and he drives it up into the left, GOAL, enough goals to finally kill the game.
Seattle now takes a break from MLS play, not returning until July 11th, when they host perhaps the very best team in the league, the Houston Dynamos, a team three points ahead of them. For the next ten days, the Sounders will play in Open Cup matches, the first on Wednesday against the Portland Timbers. The Open Cup is the oldest soccer tournament in America, it is almost certainly older than any of you, having started in 1914 and it is perhaps the paradigmatic difference between MLS and other US pro sports. It is democratic, usually fair, played for great fun, and often has moments of remarkable effort and courage.
It is as if, in the middle of their season, both the Seahawks and the Mariners were to add a branch league, that did not count in their own division, and that could include any team, any semi-pro sand lot crew, any after-work collection of former college players that were still competitive: show your credentials, grab your gear and let us play. By the quarterfinals, of course, many of the Mud Hens have been winnowed out but often not all. For MLS clubs, it can be an opportunity to play and watch the play of some reserves but on another level, it is pure soccer and pure passion for soccer and democratic to boot.