The Sounders have at least one more game to their season, a November 8th match against the Houston Dynamos, Sunday noon in Texas. They will play it at Robertson Stadium, a WPA project from the 1940s, renovated completely in 1998. It has perfect grass surface, there are 32,000 seats, and Houston — who have been the MLS champions for two of the last four years and who have the best home record in the league for those four years and who are 4-1 all-time in playoff home games — will be favored. The temperature will be in the 60s, the stands full with Texans. This may even be good news for the Sounders.
The MLS playoff format has the first round as a home/home aggregate — the higher-seeded team gets the second game on its field, last ups. On Thursday night at Sounder Field, Seattle found a hole in the lousy weather and even some extra loge seats and jammed 35,000 fans into the place. They hoped to jump out on the Houston team, get themselves a cushion or two for the trip to Texas. But it was Texas that jumped out and damn near scored in the third and fourth minute. Maybe Seattle is too young, too new for these home matches? Whatever the case, they have not been a great soccer team at home and this first playoff match, though brave and bloody and ferocious, was no exception.
Off to Houston, then, where they will have only a pale green wedge of supporters, where they will have to rely on themselves, where no one will wish them well — and where, perhaps, they may play their best soccer. And if they do, if they realize there is no more room, that the season ends for the loser, ends, done, finished, if they tap on the thick skull of Houston's fear that Seattle is the comer, then it just may be that playing in Houston is good news.
The Thursday night game, the only playoff for any Seattle team in 2009, laid out all the terms. It ended in a 0-0 tie and a lot of grumbling, but everything was brought up, every resentment, arrogance and grudge and debt. Houston has the stuff, the titles, the fans, the spit, the experience. They play soccer with a nod to football, which in Texas is probably a smart thing to do. They are big, physical, and relentless. Even their goalie Onstad is 6-4 and 220 pounds. They are best of the league.
The Sounders are another matter. Save for Nate Jaqua (who last played for Houston ), they are not big. And without Tyrone Marshall, their defender who could not play in this first match, they are a modest defensive front. Houston does not fear them, but it fears it will lose to them. It fears that Seattle is the better soccer team and in the end, for this playoff, that will be the factor. Houston does not want the Sounders to realize how good they are. The Houston tactic is to pound on the Sounders like an older brother and let them discover how good they are on someone else's dime.
For much of the game, the tactic worked. The Sounders could not string passes together; they were looking too late and arriving too early. But there were wonderful moments: Zakuani leaving his defender so heavy-legged as to appear from the wrong sport or Freddie Ljungberg insisting that soccer is a game of control. The Sounders seemed more afraid of their own disorder than they were of Houston and so would pass carelessly in the seeming confidence they could and would take back the ball.
There was an ugly moment at the 17th minute. Jaqua had headed a shot wide and out of bounds. Onstad, coming upfield out of his net, chest-butted Fredy Montero, knocking him onto his back. It should have been the second, and perhaps all time leading enticement award for Fredy. He had similarly lured the Chicago keeper into a red card for irresistibly stomping on Montero's chest. Montero has this power — he can flop, he can writhe, he can act the victim, he can act the child — and it all is too fey for the macho teams like Chicago and Houston, who want to kill him. He can also, of course, score from anywhere on the pitch. He can make a defender look like a post and a keeper look like a fill-in.
It should have been a red card for Onstad, who later said it was just a nudge (and even later said, I hit the wrong guy) but never mentioned his own histrionics of writhing seconds later with an eye injury until no one noticed. The referee Salazar knows both teams too well. It was Salazar who gave Beckham the red ejection on this field in August, who showed at that time his disfavor with Montero antics. This time Salazar gave yellow cards to both players.
A red card for Onstad would have skewed the game and the series. But the Montero yellow, for play acting an injury, that was Montero's own debt, and from the Galaxy game, he should have well known better. He writhes too much, he writhes again, and it is costing him and the Sounders. If they can duct tape the Montero theatrics, the Sounders will get more favor and Fredy more credit and Onstad would have been out of the game.
Someone will win on November 8th, if they have to play 120 minutes, penalty kicks and throw shoes at each other. They are out on the ledge and one team is going over. Houston has a detail they are trying to forget: Last year, they also had home field advantage for this round and came back to Texas tied 1-1 with New York. They lost at home 3-0. If the Sounders can prick even a piece of that recollection, much of the Houston swagger will go where swagger ends up.