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Sounders frustrated in first playoff test
by Ridge Mahoney, October 30th, 2009 6:45AM

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[MLS] The first MLS playoff game at Qwest Field produced everything it had to, except a goal. Houston, playing its fourth game in 12 days amid a raucous atmosphere generated by nearly 36,000 fans, matched the hometown Sounders in grit and spirit to emerge with a 0-0 tie Thursday night in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal. The teams will have a long rest period before playing the second leg at Robertson Stadium Nov. 8.

A fierce, sometimes frantic game never lacked for energy, and at times Houston's poise and experience got the better of Seattle. Both teams were betrayed in the final third by a lack of precision, but there were also dangerous moments snuffed out by a strong tackle, timely interception, or lung-busting defensive run.

Seattle coach Sigi Schmid had to scratch defender Tyrone Marshall shortly before kickoff because of a knee injury suffered during the warmup. Former Dynamo defender Pat Ianni took his spot, and in addition to playing a solid game defensively he narrowly missed scoring on two occasions on set plays.

It was a Dynamo defender, though, who nearly scored in the opening minutes. Adrian Hainault, who got his first MLS goal Sunday in a 3-2 defeat of Chivas USA in the regular-season finale, jumped to meet a Stuart Holden corner kick in the third minute and headed the ball just past the base of the goalpost. A minute later, Ianni got his first opportunity and his header off a corner kick went over the bar.

For all the energy and pressure applied by the teams in an ebb-and-flow match, set plays produced many of the chances. Seattle's defenders clamped down on Brian Ching but Dominic Oduro occasionally broke free to threaten, and a powerful run by Oduro in the 27th minute yielded a cross that Ching headed on goal and keeper Kasey Keller saved.

Seattle forward Fredy Montero looked more comfortable floating out to the right wing serving balls than he did in the goalmouth evading defenders to get in a shot. The best chances for Seattle fell not to him, or Freddie Ljungberg or Nate Jaqua, but to Ianni. He headed a corner kick off the crossbar in the first half, and powered another header on goal in the second half that Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad reacted sharply to turn over the crossbar.

Onstad and Montero clashed in the 16th minute. The 6-foot-4 Canadian keeper bowled over the 5-foot-9 Colombian in the aftermath of a goalmouth skirmish and referee Ricardo Salazar cautioned both players. He would hand out two more yellow cards to each team and needed to step in a few other times to quell tempers as Houston committed 17 fouls to just six for Seattle.

Jaqua finished the match with his head wrapped in a bandage. A flying kick from Ricardo Clark, who first touch had popped the ball in the air, caught Jaqua above the left eye and opened a cut that forced him off the field for a few minutes. Clark was not cautioned.

On Montero's only real chance, he turned past defender Geoff Cameron to reach a ball prodded to him by Jaqua and, off-balance, he struck a roller that missed the far post by a yard. The tactic of pushing Montero out wide, with Jaqua tucking inside to serve as a forward partner for Ljungberg, opened up space that yielded opportunities for passes and crosses but seldom produced good shots. Houston players flooded back when possession was lost, and sequences that looked promising when wingers Steve Zakuani and Ljungberg broke down the flanks in pursuit of the ball were snuffed when their crosses or square balls pinged off one of six or seven men in orange clogging the goalmouth.

Ljungberg's slick, clever play during the run of play and accurate set pieces exposed Houston several times without reward. Roger Levesque replaced Montero in the 64th minute, and late in the match Schmid summoned Sebastian LeToux to replace Zakuani, whose poor decisions and failures of confidence betrayed the opportunities his speed brought him behind the Houston back line.

Keller came up big on his sternest test, a skipping shot by Brad Davis that the keeper lunged left to deflect past the post during a spirited push from Houston at the start of the second half. Midfielder Brian Mullan's storming runs up the right flank were hard for Seattle to contain, and Sounder Brad Evans took a yellow card when he pushed Mullan off the ball as he arrowed through the middle towards goal.

A great one-v-one tackle by Oswaldo Alonso foiled Oduro late in the match, and though both of Coach Dominic Kinnear's subs replaced forwards - Oduro and Ching - with forwards - Luis Angel Landin and Cam Weaver - the game remained goalless.

Oct. 29 in Seattle
Seattle 0, Houston 0
Seattle -
Keller; Riley, Hurtado, Ianni, Gonzalez, Alonso, Evans, Jaqua, Zakuani (LeToux, 82), Ljungberg, Montero (Levesque, 64).
Houston - Onstad; Hainault, Cameron, Boswell, Chabala, Mullan, Clark, Holden, Davis, Oduro (Landin, 79), Ching (Weaver, 89).
Referee: Ricardo Salazar.
Att.: 35,807.



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