Many MLS observers went into the first leg of the Houston Dynamo-Seattle Sounders Western Conference final already shooing Seattle through to the final. It’s not hard to see that the Sounders are the better team on paper, but it was clear from the Dynamo’s previous two wins (over Sporting KC in the knockout round and Portland in the conference semifinals) that the Orange are capable of sticking with the conference’s best.
A disastrous first half for Houston at a sold-out BBVA Compass Stadium in leg one pushed them further to the brink, though, and had pretty much every non-Dynamo fan on Twitter saying the same thing: this series is done and dusted. As a neutral who picked Houston, it’s understandable to count the Dynamo out.
That first half featured a series of events that fully tilted the series to the side of the defending champs. First, Sounders d-mid Gustav Svensson of all people got a head on a corner-kick in the 11th-minute to put Seattle ahead. Already an away goal down, the Dynamo then made the worst possible soccer play: right back Jalil Anibaba tugged down Joevin Jones in the box to concede a clear penalty and pick up a deserved DOGSO red.
The fact that Anibaba was the third-choice right back forced into action by injury is beside the point. Nicolas Lodeiro now stood facing a clear shot 12 yards from the goal with a golden opportunity to make the score 2-0 for Seattle against a 10-man Dynamo. Joe Willis, famed master of the headshot and historic playoff PK-saver, naturally stoned Lodeiro.
But Will Bruin scored in the 42nd-minute, so the 2-0 score became official. That’s how it stayed.
Houston face an uphill battle to climb back into this series. They need a two-goal win or better in leg two to make up the aggregate at a raucous Century Link Stadium in the Pacific Northwest, now with their fourth-choice right back starting, whoever that may be. This is no easy task, and 538’s projections say the same thing: they give the Dynamo a 3% chance of advancing.
Can they do it? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’ll give you two reasons to be optimistic.
1. Roman Torres suspended
Seattle center back Roman Torres will be out on yellow card accumulation, forcing Brian Schmetzer to shuffle the spine of his lineup. It’s possible Svensson, the do-it-all Swede who is not far removed from helping eliminate Italy from the World Cup, is moved from d-mid (where he has been replacing an injured Ozzie Alonso) to center back. If not, an inexperienced player like Tony Alfaro could start next to Chad Marshall.
The Marshall-Torres pairing had led five shutouts in a row, going back to the regular season. Breaking them up makes it much easier for the Dynamo to create opportunities from balls into the box.
Alberth Elis, Houston’s best attacker, is also suspended, which could offset Torres’s ban. But the impact of potentially going to a third-string defensive midfielder (if Alonso is out again) could be noticeable.
2. Options in attack
Wilmer Cabrera will eventually have to throw the kitchen sink at Seattle. Presumably, he will work as much attacking talent into the lineup as he reasonably can. Here’s a guess at what he could do:
I’m not huge on Manotas as winger, but they’re going to need as many guys who score on the field as possible. Put Vicente Sanchez on by the 60th-minute, no matter what.
The key for this group is to be able to break down a deep-sitting defense, and create quality shots on goal from possession. That’s a difficult task, but this is a talented lineup, one featuring players who have proven they can score at this level.