Coming off their 5-0 thumping of the San Jose Earthquakes in the knockout round of the MLS Cup, the Vancouver Whitecaps begin a home-and-away series against the rival Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference semi-final.
Where: BC Place, Vancouver, BC
When: Sunday, October 29th at 5:30 pm PST
How: TSN1, TSN4 (TV); TSN 1040 (Radio); MLS Live (Internet)
The 2017 season saw the Whitecaps and Sounders meet three times with the home teams each winning once, 2-1 for Vancouver and 3-0 for Seattle, as well as a 1-1 draw in Vancouver. All-time, the Whitecaps hold a 7-8-5 record against the Sounders, going 3-4-4 when playing at home.
As great as it was to hang five goals on a club, particularly after their dry run out the season that resulted in a third-place finish, the Whitecaps are now looking at a completely different playoff format against an entirely different club.
One of the biggest takeaways of having a home-and-away series is the importance played on away goals and the value they hold when the series’ goal aggregate is level. No longer will the immediacy of a winner-take-all knockout be as prevalent, at least for the first match in the series, anyway.
So, instead of opening up and inflating the scoreline in a do-or-die match against a playoff team with an incredibly poor goal differential, the Whitecaps now face off against a Sounders side, with the third-fewest goals allowed in the league, in a multi-legged series where the intrinsic value of a goal goes beyond its actual number. Scoring will be at a premium Sunday evening.
It’s well established at this point that the Whitecaps will be without David Edgar and Matias Laba. No significant change here, but by comparison, Seattle has accumulated a lengthy list of regulars unavailable on Sunday.
Brad Evans (back) and Jordan Morris (hamstring) have been away since mid August and September, respectively, while Victor Rodriguez (quad) and Gustav Svensson (hamstring) were both held out of Seattle’s last regular season match against Colorado. Though it’s possible one of these players may make an appearance in the return match in Seattle, none of these four have been a part of Sounders training, and will most likely be unavailable.
However, the potential return of Ozzie Alonso (quad) may prove to be a significant spark for the Sounders. He’s been unavailable since the 3-0 defeat of the Whitecaps in late September, but when considering his recent return to training I’m confident he’ll at least make the bench on Sunday.
For what it’s worth, Cristian Roldan (broken arm) and Roman Torres (knee) have also been playing through injuries, which speaks to the resilience in how the Sounders finished off their season.
And though these injuries were all known and documented, the biggest absence may be the most recent and unexpected: Clint Dempsey’s suspension, from this VAR red card in last week’s season finale against Colorado:
Coupled with the fine he picked up for not promptly leaving the pitch, Decision Day was not a day of quality decision-making for Dempsey. Nevertheless, he would have been a great asset in the pressure Seattle will put on Vancouver’s back six, but Dempsey will now have to wait until the return leg on Thursday to contribute.
Who’s Worth Watching?
With all the absences in their lineup, now more than ever will the creative flow of the Seattle Sounders fall upon Nicolas Lodeiro. Stats-wise, he’s first in assists, third in goals scores, and second in shots taken, so no matter where he starts on the pitch, he’s going to have a go at the opposing net. Remember: Lodeiro was the difference maker that turned a 6-12-2 club into an MLS Cup winner last season. Success for the Whitecaps in this first leg comes down to how well players like Aly Ghazal and Tony Tchani close down on Lodeiro. Here’s to hoping there’s no dial tone on the shoe phone.
With all the success the Whitecaps have generated from their set pieces, I’m looking at someone who will finish the ball rather than deliver it, and in this case it’s Kendall Waston. His performance against San Jose on Wednesday generated not an unreasonable amount of boasting from the club home page, but it’s not without merit. He commands his backline well, and he’s proven for both club and country that he can score in a big match. But Seattle’s Chad Marshall and Roman Torres (who scored his own World Cup qualifying goal, no less) are a far better defensive pairing than what the Whitecaps faced mid-week. He can hold his own on the backline, but will Waston once again be able to make a difference on both ends of the pitch?
Who’s Going to Win?
As intoxicating as the 5-0 triumph over San Jose may have been, I would not expect Sunday’s match to open up as quickly as it had last Wednesday. There’s no immediate death knell for the team that concedes first, though it’s certainly imperative that the Whitecaps maintain a clean sheet to keep the club from having to get a significant result during the return leg in Seattle.
Having said that, travel will never be easy in the MLS, even if it’s a three hour drive into another country. Home-field advantage is commonplace in this league, and the Whitecaps have the opportunity to set the tone for the second leg by commandeering the first. Per ESPNFC.com, a lower-ranked seed has advanced half the time out of the conference semi-finals since the inception of the home-and-away format in 2011, where the lower seeded team hosts the opening match. And since 2014, only 2 of 6 higher seeds have won their conference finals.
But those are just numbers. What about actual performance? Well, the Sounders most recently thumped the Whitecaps, albeit in a mid-week, away game (see the pattern here?) for Vancouver. It was a poor performance regardless, one that the club cannot allow to happen again. Given the current circumstances, I doubt it will.
To me, Sunday’s match comes down to how well the depleted Sounders lineup can force the Whitecaps into making bad decisions and prevent the counterattack from even starting. If Seattle had even one or two of their regulars, I could see them netting a result; instead, I have the Whitecaps opening this series with a 1-0 victory.
Vancouver - Marinovic; Nerwinski, Waston, Parker, de Jong; Ghazal, Tchani; Techera, Reyna, Bolanos; Montero.
Seattle - Frei; Leerdam, Torres, Marshall, Tolo; Delem, Roldan; Shipp, Lodeiro, Jones; Bruin.
Referee: Kevin Stott; AR1: Jeffrey Hosking; AR2: Kermit Quisenberry; 4th: Ricardo Salazar; VAR: Mark Geiger.