After being mired in a funk that dated back to mid-September and saw them go from the top of the standings to a play-in game as the fourth-seed in the Western Conference, the Sounders finally faced a true must-win game Wednesday. And for the first time since Sept. 13, they did win, knocking off the Colorado Rapids in a game that was significantly more tense than the 2-0 final score would indicate.
Another loss would have ended Seattle's season in very disappointing fashion, but instead the Sounders advance to the Western Conference semifinals where they will face rival Portlands in a two-game, aggregate-goal series. The first game is at 7 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink field, then the teams will play again Thursday night in Portland.
And while the Sounders hope this victory has extra significance in that it sparks momentum and playoff run, first and foremost, they're just happy to finally have a win.
"It's a win," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "It's been a long time since we won a game. We get reminded of that all the time. So for us to win a game is just a good feeling. But it's always been our belief that when we get our people on the field, we're a team that can win games. ... It's the way we played as well. I thought we played well. It's not like we were hanging on and scrapping to get by. I thought we played well and thought we had some good offensive sequences going forward."
After Brad Evans put the Sounders ahead midway through the first half, the Sounders found themselves hanging on for dear life in the final minutes, particularly after an ill-timed blunder by goalkeeper Michael Gspurning left them playing down a man for the final minutes of the game. Gspurning, momentarily unaware his exact positioning, came out to grab a long ball that had been played through, but after it took a higher-than-expected hop, he caught the ball just outside of the penalty box, resulting in a red card for him and a dangerous free kick for Colorado.
"Well sometimes goalkeepers have to make decisions in split seconds," said Gspurning, who will now have to sit out the first game against Portland. "... It bounced a little higher than expected, and I thought, 'OK, I'm not too far from the box, so I should make quick steps back and catch it.' But yeah, I missed one step back. It is like it is."
The Sounders survived that free kick when Vincente Sanchez slammed it into the wall. They also survived a dangerous header on the ensuing corner kick. Then the 32,204 on hand at CenturyLink Field were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief when Eddie Johnson gave Seattle an insurance goal in stoppage time.
Johnson's goal, which saw him take a perfectly weighted pass from Clint Dempsey, dribble through a defender's legs, then fire a shot past goalkeeper Clint Irwin, was an impressive piece of skill. But it was Evan's first-half goal that set the tone for a night when the Sounders finally started to again look like the team that enjoyed dominant stretch over the summer that saw them win eight of nine at one point.
After a handful of promising chances came up empty early, Evans gave the Sounders the lead in the 28th minute with his first playoff goal in five seasons with Seattle. Evans' goal came after a Leo Gonzalez cross was cleared, but only as far as the corner of the box, where Evans was waiting unmarked. He controlled the ball off his chest, then fired a low shot into the corner of the net.
For a guy who doesn't score a ton of goals — he had four this season for Seattle — Evans has shown a penchant for massively important scores this year. While playing for the U.S. national team, Evans scored a stoppage-time game-winner in a June game in Jamaica. At the time, America's World Cup hopes were still very much in doubt, but that victory helped launch an impressive run of seven wins in eight games to lock up a World Cup berth for the U.S.
"I don't know, just right place and the right time," Evans said of his big goals. "In some cases, I tend to overrun things a little bit, but that time I kind of held back and put the breaks on and waited for the play to develop a little bit."
Evans ended up playing the second half at right back after Seattle's starter at that position, DeAndre Yedlin, left with an ankle sprain. Schmid said it's too early to know if Yedlin will be available for Saturday's game.
This victory ended Seattle's long winless streak, but the Sounders know they still have plenty more to do to make the season a success. And getting past Portland, the first-place finisher in the West, will be a tall task, especially considering that Seattle played Sunday, then again Wednesday, while Portland has been resting since its regular-season finale on Saturday.
"(The victory) says a lot about this team, but the true test is in three days from now," Evans said. "It's what we do on Saturday coming off of a couple difficult games. I thought we put a lot into the L.A. game and we were unlucky not to get the result that we wanted out of that one, and we put a lot of effort into tonight too in making sure we came out with a victory. So it's about how we take care of our bodies.
"But with all the doom and gloom talk, it was important for this locker room to stay together most importantly and not focus on the outside distractions, what you read, what you hear, what you see on the internet, and just focus on what we can do as a team and how we can right the ship together."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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