Since the MLS version of playoffs can mean a team doesn't have to score in a game to win, it's a shame the league has no category for style points. Monday night at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders were all Astaire and Rogers, Torvill and Dean, and Clooney and Roberts floating in space.
None of the smoothness counted for a goal, but that's how soccer works sometimes. At least there was no punishment for grace under fire.
The Sounders moved on to the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Galaxy after a 0-0 draw with FC Dallas. The tie matched the 1-1 draw a week ago in Dallas in the two-game, aggregated-goal series. But because MLS for the first time made a tiebreaker out of road goals, the Sounders' week-old score provided the edge and the permission for 38,912 on hand to party like it was, well, 43-8.
The objects of marvel were primarily the Sounders' world-class forward tandem of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, who repeatedly showed up on the doorstep of Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz with all manner of bipedal wizardry, only to be stoned either by Seitz or the soccer gods who were in a particularly droll mood.
"I'm happy with the result, happy to go through," said Dempsey. "I had two really good looks at a goal. I should have scored at least one of those. I'm frustrated about that."
The frustration extended to the sellout crowd, most of whom showed up assuming the best, but the fruitless dithering increased chances that one defensive mistake or random ricochet would provide the worst — a 1-0 loss and ruination of the best regular season (20-10-4) in the Sounders' six-year history, which was also the MLS's best in the nearly endless 2014 season.
The Sounders' wretched playoff history — five-for-five in getting to the playoffs, but only once to the Western finals and never to the championship MLS Cup — would have had another dour chapter after the big investment in exotic talent such as Dempsey and Martins.
Sounder Obafemi Martins controls the ball on a play with teammate Clint Dempsey. Photo: Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest
But the defense was nearly as agile as the attackers, Dallas was thwarted and now it's on to the matchup between the Sounders and Los Angeles anyone who cares about American soccer wanted to see.
"I guess that’s the way the script writers put it out,’’ said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. “I don’t know. We knew the road would eventually go through there, as they knew probably the road would go through us. It’s probably appropriate the two of us meet. We just have to be ready.”
After a two-week pause in the playoffs — prompted by the overarching hegemony of FIFA and its schedule of friendlies for national teams — the Sounders meet the Galaxy Nov. 23 in Los Angeles in the first of two games. The series wraps at the Clink at 6 p.m. Nov.30, with the winner advancing to the MLS Cup Dec. 7 against the Eastern Conference champ, either the New York Red Bulls or the New England Revolution.
The one disconcerting note for Sounders fans was a pulled hamstring muscle that forced premier midfielder Ozzie Alonso from the game early in the second half. He went down hard and stayed down for a couple of minutes before limping off.
A severe strain often takes weeks and sometimes months to heal properly, but the Sounders have only two weeks. Micheal Azira came on in the 54th minute and held form, but no one replaces Alonso, 28, the club's four time Most Valuable Player.
"Ozzie’s a pretty determined guy, a pretty hardworking guy," said Schmid, "so we’ll see how he moves forward.”
The run of play, however bashful it seemed on the scoreboard, was perhaps the Sounders' best of the season. They could have played conservatively but consistently attacked and numerous free-flowing builds kept pressure on Dallas, which rarely mounted threatening counters.
Dempsey, the U.S. Men's National Team captain, and Martins, a former World Cup star with his native Nigeria, had a full season together and seemed joined at the soccer soul.
"I thought we looked good," Demspey said. "I love playing with Oba — a great, world-class player. We have a good chemistry. I think you could see that all year. We worked well together, creating chances for each other."
Now it's on to the Galaxy, which eliminated the Sounders from the playoffs in 2010 and 2012 and has been the league's glamour team. The rivals were nearly dead even this season, the Sounders finishing a single point ahead of LA in the standings, and the three-game series was equal — each side won a match and drew in the third.
But in the other Western semifinal that wrapped up Sunday, the Galaxy eliminated Real Salt Lake in a startling 5-0 thumping that included a hat trick for their retiring superstar, Landon Donovan, considered the greatest player in U.S. history.
"Their win last night was a little bit surprising," said Schmid. "We know we have to be ready. We also know that we can play them, and even if we’re down, we can come back. With LA I know there is going to be more opportunities with Clint and Oba, just because the way (the Galaxy) play. It’s going to be a great series.”
Already winners of the Supporters' Shield for best regular-season record, as well as the annual U.S. Open Cup tourney, the Sounders with an MLS Cup would be the first in league history to take all three chunks of silver. But they can't get there with going through another Galaxy, where no Sounders team has gone before.