The Seattle Sounders FC fulfilled their early season promise by making the playoffs. Game one is tonight in Seattle against the Houston Dynamo. Game two will be in Houston on November 8.
Houston finished at the top of the Western Conference, tied with Los Angeles, with 48 points. Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, in his fifth season with Houston, has stayed true to the same strategy throughout his coaching career. His lineups get shuffled but starting against the Sounders, he should have goalkeeper Pat Onstad, Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell, Mike Chabala, and Andrew Hainault on the defensive line, Brad Davis, Stuart Holden, Brian Mullen, and Ricardo Clark in the midfield with Luis Angel Landin and Brian Ching forward.
Offensively, the Dynamos scored 39 goals in 30 games, tying them for sixth overall in the league. They were shut out only eight times but five of those came in the last twelve matches. Defensively, the Dynamos allowed only 29 goals over 30 games, sharing the top with Seattle. They managed ten clean sheets although seven of those came during a nine game stretch in April through June.
Houston enters the playoffs on a four game unbeaten streak but they have only won four of their thirteen wins in the second half of the season. At home they lost only one match, to New England, and won eight, the second best record in the MLS behind Real Salt Lake. They were fifth best overall on the road, getting five wins and three draws.
Seattle became the first expansion team in over ten years to make the playoffs, finishing in third place of the Western Conference with 47 points in 30 matches. Sounders head coach, Sigi Schmid brought over his winning ways from the 2008 MLS Champion Columbus Crew and stayed with the style that won the cup there. His defense has been set for most of the season with Kasey Keller in goal, James Riley, Tyronne Marshall, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado joined by mid season acquisition Leo Gonzalez in the back line while Osvaldo Alonso plays a center back role behind Brad Evans, Nate Jaqua and rookie Steve Zakuani in the midfield. Up front, Fredy Montero is the main striker while Freddie Ljungberg plays a hybrid midfield striker role. The strength for Seattle is that each man on the field can play, and is expected to play, any position.
On offense, the Sounders finished the season with 38 goals in 30 games for 8th best overall. They were shut out nine times, six of those in a nine match period from late July to mid September. On defense, Seattle was tied with Houston for the best, conceding 29 goals in 30 games. The Sounders had ten clean sheets, including a record 350 scoreless minutes to start the season.
Seattle comes into the playoffs on a high note with a three game winning streak, the hottest team in the playoffs. At home, the Sounders lost only twice, getting 27 out of a possible 45 points. The biggest reason was the home field advantage the Sounders enjoyed. Seattle averaged 30,897 fans per game, setting a MLS single season record. The Sounders also were at the top of the league in merchandising, showing that Seattle is a hotbed of soccer. Seattle allowed ten goals in 15 home games, tying the Colorado Rapids for the top of the league. On the road, the Sounders played average, getting five wins, five draws and five losses while scoring 17 goals and allowing 19.
Houston and Seattle met twice during the season. Seattle won the first match 2-1 and the teams drew 1-1 in the second.
The first game was in Seattle on July 11th. Houston scored early, in the 12th minute, on a cross from the right by Dominic Oduro that reached Brian Mullen in the box. Mullan was able to hold off the Sounder defender before passing the ball back to Brad Davis. Davis crushed the ball with his left foot into the net. Seattle leveled the score in the 31st minute when Nate Jaqua crossed the ball into Fredy Montero. Montero chested the ball down before looping it over Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad. The goal was controversial, Houston defender Mike Chabala appeared to have cleared the ball before it crossed the line but the linesman confirmed to referee Mark Geiger that the ball had crossed the line so the goal was given. Seconds into the second half, Freddie Ljungberg drove in a corner kick that Jhon Kennedy Hurtado headed down. Patrick Ianni did the only thing he could with a bicycle kick that drove the ball just inside the far post for his second career goal and arguably the goal of the year for Seattle.
The second game, on August 23, was in Houston. Again the Dynamo scored first, this time on a free kick from Brad Davis that Geoff Cameron redirected just past Sounder goalkeeper Kasey Keller in the 36th minute. Seattle had chances to level; the best coming in the 67th minute by Steve Zakuani missed an open goal from three yards out. Zakuani made up for it in the 70th minute when he headed a cross from James Riley back across the goal that Nate Jaqua put into the net.
Seattle and Houston will play two matches, one in each stadium, with the winner determined by the overall score. Seattle will be depending on a strong defense, particularly Kasey Keller, and quick strike offense directed by Freddie Ljungberg. Houston will depend on Stuart Holden as the point guard of their attack and Pat Onstad in goal. Both keepers are top in the league although Keller rates out slightly higher. These matches will come down to the midfield control from the Scot Stuart Holden and the Swede Freddie Ljungberg battling to spring their forwards. Ljungberg may have the advantage with experience but Holden is not a rookie. It will be a chess match in the center. Neither team can afford to waste chances here.
The match promises to be an exciting one. Fans bought up tickets as fast as they were printed so anyone going tonight to Qwest Field is extremely lucky and should be in for a hell of a match. So many tickets have been sold that the team is reportedly opening the lower portions of the upper level. I am very envious and will be wishing I was there the whole time I am watching on TV. Rain or shine, more likely rain; expect Seattle’s first taste of the MLS playoffs to be a good one.