By the margin of a single point did Seattle edge out Sporting Kansas City to grab fourth place and a home game in the Knockout Round.
Seattle’s dramatic rise from ninth to fourth is one of the season’s most compelling stories and SKC will be up against a boisterous CenturyLink Field crowd as well as a formidable opponent that has won eight and tied four of its last 14 games. And San Jose is the only team SKC has beaten (twice) in its last seven games.
Yet in that first victory over the Quakes Sept. 24 SKC prevailed, 2-1, after conceding a sloppy goal just before halftime. In the second half defender Ike Opara headed a Benny Feilhaber corner kick into the feet of Kevin Ellis, who steered the ball into the net for a winning goal.
“The good thing about it was the guys didn’t fold,” said Opara, who was traded by the Quakes to SKC after the 2012 season. “I think at times on the road we’ve kind of gotten into a rut because we let a goal turn into two or three. Tonight, the guys showed all that fight and spirit we’ve been talking about.”
Plenty of fight and spirit will be needed to defeat the Sounders, yet veteran midfielder Brad Davis believes the victory in San Jose signaled a renewed focus for a team knocked out early in the playoffs two years in a row after winning it all in 2013. Last year’s agonizing penalty-kick loss to eventual champion Portland has been haunting SKC for much of the season.
“There’s been times, I feel, that’s happened and we’ve kind of put our heads down and felt sorry for ourselves a little bit,” said Davis, who earlier this week announced his retirement. “We’ve had some good conversations about it and tonight was a good opportunity for us to put the talk away and prove it to ourselves and do it. This was the night we did it. A lot of guys had said they’ve never won here. It’s good for the confidence.”
The victory is one of only three road wins SKC has logged this season. It beat Seattle at CLink on opening day and also thumped the Sounders, 3-0, at Children’s Mercy Park in late July. After that game, SKC was fourth with 31 points and the Sounders were 11 points behind in ninth. That is when it all changed for Seattle.
Since firing head coach Sigi Schmid and unveiling playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, the Sounders have accumulated a dozen more points than SKC by winning eight and tying four of 14 games. “We realize we have a big hurdle in regards to Seattle,” said head coach Peter Vermes after a season-ending and playoff-clinching 2-0 victory on Sunday.
“They are a good team. They made a lot of changes at the midway point that have changed their team. They have guys back from injury so they are feeling good about themselves. We are going in to the lion’s den and it’s going to be a difficult game. We will do everything we can to play our best game.”
Of Lodeiro, who has revived the Sounders' attack by scoring four goals and dishing out eight assists in 13 games, Vermes says, "He's a good attacking midfielder, very good player on the ball, has a lot of qualities to play forward. His movement is good. I think he sees the game really well and can give the final pass, can score. He's a very dangerous player.”
The coach has cast SKC in a different light by using veteran central mid Roger Espinoza on the wing in the last two games in place of Jacob Peterson and Davis, who are both bothered by injuries. SKC is also riding the momentum of back-to-back shutouts for the first time this season.
Injuries and international callups have hit SKC hard, and Vermes has perplexed many observers by leaving veteran defender Matt Besler on the bench when apparently healthy. When Graham Zusi scored the clinching goal Sunday against San Jose, he ended a personal goal drought of more than three months caused partially by a nagging calf strain. Zusi finished the regular season with just those two goals.
“I don’t know if we’ve had the entire team healthy for any point of the season,” said Davis, who himself missed the season finale because of a calf injury. “It’s been a rough year missing guys to injuries or international callups. A lot of teams deal with that stuff but this year has been extremely difficult. That’s why you have a group of 20-some odd guys and whoever steps on the field has to believe that they can get the job done.”
SKC has won the last five regular-season meetings with Seattle but despite the teams’ consistent success – SKC is in the postseason for a sixth straight time, Seattle’s late-season push extended its ever-present run to eight years – they have never squared off in the playoffs.
Seattle has the home-field advantage, Lodeiro and Jordan Morris in good form, Osvaldo Alonso playing some of his best soccer, and Roman Torres jelling well with centerback Chad Marshall. SKC needs big games from Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer, who scored twice in the 3-0 victory that prompted Schmid’s departure, and some more magic from keeper Tim Melia, who amazingly has yet to concede a goal to the Sounders in four appearances against them. Dwyer finished fifth among league scorers with 16 goals and Feilhaber's 13 assists ranked tied for third.
“I don’t think you have to change anything,” said Espinoza. “We just have to keep going. It’s a new season, but it starts right away and that’s good.”