SEATTLE — Clint Dempsey didn’t get to play a part in Seattle Sounders FC’s fairytale run to the MLS Cup championship last year. But when finally given his chance to take the field during the playoffs, he ensured Seattle’s quest for a repeat will continue at least one more round.
Seattle’s star forward scored both goals as the Sounders defeated Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2-0 Thursday night at CenturyLink Field in the second leg of their MLS Western Conference semifinal. Seattle won the home-and-home set 2-0 on aggregate after the teams played to a scoreless tie in the first leg last Sunday in Vancouver.
The Sounders, the conference’s No. 2 seed, advanced to the conference finals, where they will face either the top-seeded Portland Timbers or fourth-seeded Houston Dynamo. Portland and Houston play the second leg of their semifinal this Sunday after they tied 0-0 in their first leg. The conference finals are scheduled to begin on Nov. 21.
Dempsey, Seattle’s leading goal scorer, was forced to miss last year’s playoffs after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Then his introduction to this year’s playoffs was delayed as he was suspended for the first leg against third-seeded Vancouver because of a red card picked up in Seattle’s regular season finale against Colorado.
But after struggling to get involved in Thursday’s rain-drenched game that was largely controlled by Seattle, Dempsey provided the decisive moments in the second half.
First, in the 56th minute, Dempsey finished off a Seattle move that finally broke Vancouver’s stubborn resistance. Some quick passing along the left gave Cristan Roldan the chance to drive toward the penalty box. His centering pass was cleverly flicked by Will Bruin to Dempsey at the top of the penalty box. Dempsey took a touch against the grain to open up a shooting lane, then fired a left-footed shot into the right corner to give the Sounders a 1-0 lead.
Vancouver would still have gone through on away goals had the Whitecaps scored to tie it at 1-1, but it was always Seattle that seemed more likely to find the net again, and Dempsey accommodated in the 88th minute. On a corner kick taken short on the left, Victor Rodriguez whipped a cross to the far post, where a crashing Dempsey volleyed it into the back of the net to clinch the victory.
Dempsey even had chances to complete his hat trick in the game’s dying minutes, but had one attempt trickle wide and another saved by Vancouver goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic.
“He’s been ready for a month, he’s been ready for a long time,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said about Dempsey’s motivation to get into a playoff game.
“Big-time players make big plays,” Schmetzer added. “Tonight you saw Dempsey making some big plays. The first goal was a really good effort from distance, and the second goal was just his instincts inside the box.”
The Sounders dominated possession in the first half, with Nicolas Lodeiro pulling all the strings in midfield, while fullbacks Kelvin Leerdam and Nouhou created pressure pushing up on the wings. However Seattle, which outshot Vancouver 9-2 in the first half, was unable to turn any of that possession into goals as it remained scoreless at halftime.
The game’s first flashpoint occurred in the 32nd minute when Nouhou appealed for a penalty kick after going down in the Vancouver penalty box under pressure from Jake Nerwinski. However, after consultation with the video assistant referee, it was judged that no penalty was warranted.
Then in first-half added time the Sounders came inches away from opening the scoring. Lodeiro lifted a ball into the box and Dempsey, at the far post, reached out a foot on the volley and guided the ball past Marinovic, but also just past the left post.
The Sounders didn’t get midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso back as hoped. Alonso, coming back from a quadriceps injury, appeared as a substitute in the first leg and was aiming to bet back into the starting lineup Thursday. However, Alonso not only didn’t start, he wasn’t included on the bench. … Rodriguez came on as a substitute after he missed the previous two games because of a quadriceps injury of his own. … Vancouver welcomed midfielders Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera back to the starting lineup. Both Reyna and Techera, who combined for 12 goals and 13 assists during the regular season, were limited to substitute appearances in the first leg as they were nursing injuries.