HOUSTON – Seattle Sounders fans are invited to welcome the team home at SeaTac Airport tonight. Whether that gathering celebrates another victory or pays tribute to a concluded season will be determined this afternoon, when the Sounders meet the Houston Dynamo in a loser-out game at Robertson Stadium.
For now, with the final chapter of this inaugural season yet to be written, coach Sigi Schmid believes his team should reach for the stars.
“If we were a European team and we were newly promoted into the top division and overall in points we finished fourth in our first year in the top division, we would say ‘Hey, it’s a great season, and we are going to continue building. We’re looking for the championship next year,’ ” Schmid said. “But we have a chance to win the championship this year. It’s great for us, because if there would have been a single table and no playoffs we wouldn’t have won the thing: We would’ve ended up being two points short. Now we’ve got a shot at it, so we hope to make full use of it.”
The Sounders ended their regular season with the league’s fourth-best record: two points behind Supporters Shield winner Columbus, and one behind Western top-seeds Los Angeles and Houston.
But the playoffs are a whole different thing, as the league was reminded Thursday when low-seed Real Salt Lake ended the season of top-seed Columbus.
If that can happen, the Sounders seem confident that they can get past a Houston team that they have beaten three times and tied once in four previous meetings.
“(The Dynamo is) a very good team,” Seattle midfielder Freddie Ljungberg said. “I like the way they play. And they try to play some good soccer for the fans and (are) enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately the last game was a bit different because the rules are different and they didn’t have to go forward and a tie was good enough. ... It will probably be more open (today), and we have played well against them before. Hopefully, we can go away from there with a win.”
Ljungberg was referring to Major League Soccer’s playoff format, which settles first-round series by the combined score of two games. Some Sounders believe that created a situation where Houston was satisfied to break even in Seattle and then take its chances with this decisive match on its home pitch.
However, the Sounders also believe they had plenty of chances in that scoreless Oct. 29 game at Qwest Field – chances they hope to take advantage of if they reappear today.
“We played a lot of set pieces and maybe we should have scored on some,” Ljungberg said. “But the one thing we need to pick up is our passing game a little bit because there was a patch in the second half (of the first leg) when they kept the ball a bit in the midfield. I think that was because our passing game was not as sharp as it should have been.”
The winner will go on to a single-elimination game against the winner of the Chivas USA-Los Angeles Galaxy game this afternoon in Carson, Calif.
Schmid sees no reason why his team shouldn’t fly home tonight to a SeaTac celebration.
“We are a good team whether we play at home or away,” he said. “Houston is a good team as well. They’re not going to relinquish this thing easily. I think it’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be a game that is end to end. It’s a game that is going to have a lot of drama attached to it. But I like our chances.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
SOUNDERS FC GAMEDAY
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (12-7-12) AT HOUSTON DYNAMO (13-8-10)
Noon, Robertson Stadium, Houston.
TV: Channel 5. Radio: 770 AM (in Spanish on 1210 AM)
Head-to-head: Seattle is 2-0-2 in previous meetings, including one in the U.S. Open Cup. In their only game in Houston, the clubs tied, 1-1.
Regular-season leaders: For Seattle – G 12, Fredy Montero; A 9, Freddie Ljungberg; S 86, Montero; GAA 0.92, Kasey Keller. For Houston – G 8, Brian Ching; A 12, Brad Davis; S 46 Davis; GAA 0.97, Pat Onstad.
Coach’s view: Coach Sigi Schmid on what needs to change from Game 1: “Finish our chances. Defensively, I think we have got to do a lot of the same things that we did against them here. We got to make sure we are still sharp on defending set pieces.”
Notes: This is the decisive game of a two-leg first-round series. If the score is tied at the end of regulation, there will be 30 minutes of extra time. If the tie remains, the winner will be determined by penalty kicks. … Keller and Onstad are the only goalkeepers with clean sheets at this stage of the playoffs. … In the regular season, Houston tied Los Angeles for first in the conference, one point ahead of third-place Seattle. … Houston is in the playoffs for the fourth straight season and won the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007. … Houston lost only one game at home during the regular season and is 4-1 all-time in home playoff games. However, the Dynamo’s 2008 season ended with a 3-0 playoff loss at home to New York. … Seattle is 5-0-1 over its last six games on grass. … For Seattle, defender Tyrone Marshall (knee) is listed as probable. For Houston, midfielder Ricardo Clark and forward Luis Angel Landin are near 100 percent fitness, while Corey Ashe has returned to full training and could play. … Montero, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso picked up yellow cards in Game 1. If any of those players are cautioned today, he would be ineligible in the next round. … Seattle is 2-0-1 in its blue kit, which it wore in its last visit to Houston. … Fans are invited to meet the Sounders at 10 p.m., when they are scheduled to return to SeaTac Airport. Fans should gather at the Arrivals Hall at the far south side of the terminal on the baggage-claim level. More information is available at soundersfc.com.
Next: The winner advances to the Western Conference final against the winner of the Chivas USA-Los Angeles Galaxy series. The season ends for the loser.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune