What We Learned from Seattle’s first round win over Colorado

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Seattle eliminated Colorado on Wednesday night, advancing in the MLS playoffs with a 2-0 win at CenturyLink Field. Here’s what we learned:

  • Either Oscar Pareja got it wrong, or his team didn’t execute

Actually, both. Pareja seemed to want to get German Mera into the team without sacrificing Shane O’Neill, which means sense. Shane O’Neill is a very good player.

Moving him to right back may have been about matching up with Eddie Johnson, but given Mera’s actually slightly shorter than O’Neill, there are a couple more likely explanations. Maybe Pareja just didn’t want to go with a 20-year-old, first year starter in central defense in the playoffs. Also, the Colorado boss may have seen something in Sunday’s against the Whitecaps that compelled him to made the call. In the process, however, he shook up two positions along the back, a disruption that showed during the match’s first half-hour.

That wasn’t Colorado’s only problem. Against Seattle’s narrow formation, they neglected their width, even though they should have had a huge advantage down their left. Chris Klute, however, was a none factor, with the Rapids trying to build through the middle to Gabriel Torres. Against a three-man middle that got help in the defensive phase from Clint Dempsey, Colorado was at a loss. All the speed Pareja had injected into his starting lineup went to waste.

Once we hear from the Colorado boss, we can start to lay blame. But something clearly went wrong. Either the Rapids failed to execute the plan, or the plan was destined to fail.

[MORE: Evans blast, Johnson insurance sees Seattle past Colorado, into the Western Conference semifinals]

  • Seattle’s midfield dictated the first hour

Colorado only generated three meaningful chances in the first hour, and I’m using “chances” pretty liberally. Martin Rivero got behind the defense in the first half before electing to blast a speculative shot toward the Emerald City Supporters. Near halftime, the Argentine attacker nailed a ball from 20 yards  right at Michael Gspurning. Near the hour, Deshorn Brown tried his low percentage luck from 19 yards out.

The rest of the time, Colorado couldn’t connect with Rivero. Seattle’s three true midfielders kept the Rapids from having success through the middle, while longer play was snuffed out by Djimi Traoré.

Colorado needed to go wide, and they did so occasionally. But they almost always went right, where their natural central defender was left trying to create something going forward. Meanwhile, on the other side, the league’s best left back was forgotten.

[MORE: How it happened: More details on Seattle’s big win over Colorado]

  • Colorado’s midfield disappeared

Clint Dempsey had his best night with Seattle, a huge indictment of Hendry Thomas and Nathan Sturgis. Those two should have won their battle. Instead, Dempsey was allowed to serve as a focal point for the Sounders’ attack.

Perhaps the 24th minute yellow card Silviu Petrescu showed Thomas slowed down the rugged Honduran. Or perhaps he just had a bad night. If so, he picked a terrible time to do it. Not only were the stakes higher than he’s ever seen in MLS, but his holding partner was set to go quiet, too. Thomas and Sturgis was non-factors in their two-on-one matchup.

  • Eddie Johnson is a really, really tough matchup

When he’s staying between the center backs, Johnson’s bad enough, but when he drifts into the wide areas as often as he did tonight, he forces the opposition into a lot of decisions. Unfortunately, Colorado made few correct ones tonight.

So often we saw Johnson played the ball even with or wider than Colorado’s fullbacks. Unless you want release those fullbacks to mark and pressure him (problematic in its own right), it becomes very difficult to deny him that ball. Once he has it, though, it’s probably better to deny the ball back to the midfield and show him wide, forcing a goal-scorer away from goal, forcing him to provide service for his teammates. Encourage the nature striker to go continue to drift away from where he’s most dangerous.

With that in mind, here are Johnson’s Wednesday passes and heatmap:

source:  source:

Notice how many of them are from wide positions? Particularly along Seattle’s right, it doesn’t appear as if Colorado had much of a plan for how to deal with Johnson. While most of his passes go back to the middle, he’s still able to provide a wide outlet for his midfield, one that Colorado didn’t subsequently shut down (another issue with the Rapids’ holders).

Not every forward can be effective doing this. That’s the virtue of Eddie Johnson. In a more traditional role, he has the size, strength and speed to beat you straight up. Going wide, he has the skill and versatility to play as he did tonight. Colorado didn’t adjust.

[MORE: PST Man of the Match: Eddie Johnson edges Brad Evans]

  • The Sounders will need to generate more chances in later rounds

The Sounders were the better team. They controlled the game, dictating how it was played, and player-for-player had the better performances. This was a really encouraging performance.

They also generated four shots on target. Of their two goals, one doesn’t come if Colorado’s not desperately chasing the game. The other was a great finish, but it’s also a shot we often see put out of play. That time, however, Evans came good.

Seattle took a big step forward tonight, and within that step you can see the type of team that can compete for an MLS Cup. But even though they controlled Colorado, they still have to play better. They still need to improve.

Bonus what we learned: We’ve probably seen the last of Michael Gspurning for 2013.

PST Man of the Match: Eddie Johnson edges Brad Evans

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There was no shortage of standouts for Seattle tonight. Moving forward from the back: Djmii Traoré made some strong reads in central defense; DeAndre Yedlin got the best of Deshorn Brown down the right; Osvaldo Alonso gave his typically outstanding performance at the base of midfield; and Clint Dempsey had his best game as a Sounder.

But when thinking about Seattle’s Man of the Match in Wednesday’s win over Colorado, two players stand out: Brad Evans, who scored a wonderful opening goal, his right-footed blast in the 28th minute proving the game-winner; and Eddie Johnson, whose ability to go wide and open up Colorado’s defense was vital, even before he scored the game-icing goal.

A Man of the Match post can only have one winner, so Eddie Johnson is our guy, but in any other space this should be a toss up. Both U.S. internationals played integral parts in Seattle’s first round success.

source: AP
Brad Evans (left) and Eddie Johnson (middle) both gave Man of the Match caliber performances on Wednesday night. (Photo: AP Photo.)

So why EJ over B-Rad? That 93rd minute goal helps, though that score was neither as important nor as difficult as Evans’. But between that, his part in the first goal, and the crucial role he played going into  wide areas to provide the width Seattle needed to stretch the Colorado back line, he may have done enough to transcend Evans’ well-hit opener.

That’s not to say the goal was the Seattle midfielder’s only contribution. He was one of the main factors in Seattle’s early success through the middle of the park, an aspect that allowed the Sounders to control the game while cutting off the connection between the Rapids’ holders and playmaker Martín Rivero. In the 18th minute, a beautifully lofted ball over left-center back German Mera would have created a chance if Johnson didn’t lose possession while trapping the pass. Evans was so much more than the goal.

But pressed into service at right back, Evans had some trouble with Deshorn Brown, who DeAndre Yedlin neutralized (and exploited) in the first half. Evans deserves huge credit for being able to drop back into defense, but when Brown got a step on him to launch a 56th minute shot toward goal, it looked like Evans would become a liability. (He did not. Brown was eventually subbed off.)

Johnson, on the other hand, was a force all night. He played a part in the third minute chance that saw Adam Moffat test Clint Irwin early. His holdup play helped Seattle transition the few times they couldn’t work through Clint Dempsey. And perhaps most importantly, his ability to go wide and threatened helped create seems in a Colorado defense that seemed intent on staying narrow. Like Evans, Johnson’s versatility was a virtue, forcing the Rapids out of their comfort zone.

In the 28th minute, that wide play helped Seattle get on the board. It was Johnson that was toward the left edge of the area (just outside the box) when Dempsey played out of midfield at the edge of the final third. Johnson played the ball wide for Leo González before trying to contribute to the chaos in the middle that drew attention away from Evans, who converted his chance.

In stoppage time, after Seattle had gone down a man, Johnson got his name on the scoresheet, icing the game in the process. While it originally looked like ball sent behind the right of Colorado’s defense would give him a chance to waste valuable time, Johnson turned toward goal and killed the game off another way. One-on-one with Clint Irwin, Johnson finished inside the right post to make it 2-0.

Go ahead and take your pick between Evans and Johnson, but when you look at all of the Seattle striker’s contributions, there’s a case to be made that he did enough to pass Evans’ all-important opener. Whether that’s true or not, it’s still a case we’re buying …

Though as you can see, Evans is getting plenty of love elsewhere under the NBC umbrella:

[MORE: Evans blast, Johnson insurance sees Seattle past Colorado, into the Western Conference semifinals]

[MORE: How it happened: More details on Seattle’s big win over Colorado]

How it happened: More details on Seattle’s big win over Colorado

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Seattle didn’t just survive on Wednesday. That uncertain side we saw close out the season? The one whose rebound from their precipitous fall sill left them skittish against Portland, Dallas, and Los Angeles? The Sounders left them in Tukwila, instead giving their best performance since defeating Real Salt Lake in September. In beating Colorado 2-0, the Sounders took a huge step toward realizing their immense potential.

Seattle was the better team from the opening kickoff, generating a chance within three minutes when a reorganized Rapids defense got too narrow, leaving room in the left of the area for Adam Moffat to fire off an uncontested shot.  Shane O’Neill, normally a central defender, had been given the surprise assignment at right back, but as Seattle moved inside-out, the 20-year-old was caught inside. Clint Irwin’s punch on Moffat’s shot kept the match scoreless.

The Sounders had another huge chance in the 13th minute when Moffat popped up in the right side of the box and beat Irwin from a sharp angle. Drew Moor, however, had dropped back to the line to block the shot, the ensuing rebound barely eluding Lamar Neagle before being cleared.

Controlling the midfield, Seattle was preventing Colorado’s holding pair (Hendry Thomas, Nathan Sturgis) from connecting with attacking midfielder Martín Rivero. With the game staying in the middle of the park, the Rapids couldn’t use their speed out wide. At the same time, Clint Dempsey was taking advantage of a slow start from Colorado’s holders, managing the game with his distribution high in midfield. With Eddie Johnson’s movement into wide areas opening up the defense (as Lamar Neagle probed), the first half-hour was all Seattle.

In the 28th minute, the hosts’ play paid off. Again moving from right-to-left through the midfield, Dempsey found Johnson outside the penalty area before the ball went wide to an oncoming Leo González. The Sounders left back hit a cross into penalty area chaos, but when the clearance went to an abandoned Brad Evans in the right of the area, the U.S. international chest-trapped and shot into the far side of goal, putting Seattle up 1-0.

source: AP
Clint Dempsey has his most influential game as a Sounder, his distribution at the top of midfield playing a part in the team’s opening goal. (Photo: AP Photo.)

When the game resumed Seattle was without right back DeAndre Yedlin, the rookie having turned his ankle just before halftime. They were also without the same level of control they exerted over the first 30 minutes, Colorado’s intensity having picked up with the second half whistle. Going forward, however, the Rapids were still having trouble connecting, with the half’s best early chance coming when a Seattle substitute Marc Burch’s direct kick nailed Irwin’s crossbar.

Once Colorado brought Vicente Sanchez on for Rivero, the Rapids started generating chances, most notably down their left, opposite Evans at right back. Chris Klute was starting to come into the game from left back, and Deshorn Brown was getting opportunities to use his speed against the slower Evans. In the 56th minute, Brown went close (but over) with a shot from just outside the box.

But Colorado’s ascendency proved benign and short-lived, and after a few minutes on the back foot, Seattle adjusted. When they weren’t outright stopping Colorado’s approaches they were still poised for counter attacks. Osvaldo Alonso, strong all night at the base of midfield, was bursting out of his deep-sitting role to try and help Johnson, Neagle, and Dempsey find a match-sealing goal.

That dynamic persisted until near the end of regulation, when Seattle lost their starting goalkeeper. Michael Gspurning, under no pressure on a ball kicked long toward his area, came two yards out of his box to catch the bouncer. After a collision with the late arriving Edson Buddle, Gspurning was shown a straight red card, having intentionally handled a ball outside his area.

It wasn’t long, however, until the 10-man Sounders put the match away. In the 93rd minute, Eddie Johnson got behind the Rapids defense and went in alone on Clint Irwin. As the Colorado keeper came off his line, Johnson put his right-footed shot inside the right post, giving Seattle some needed insurance.

Despite the late drama, Seattle gave their most impressive performance since September, and while a particularly aimless Colorado played a part in their dominance, the Sounders deserve their share of credit, too. With strong performances from Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey supported by a stalwart midfield. the Sounders were never truly challenged. Convincing in their control, Seattle have earned their place in the West’s final four.

[MORE: Evans blast, Johnson insurance sees Seattle past Colorado, into the Western Conference semifinals]

[MORE: PST Man of the Match: Eddie Johnson edges Brad Evans]

Evans blast, Johnson insurance see Seattle past Colorado, into the Western Conference semifinals


The seven-match winless streak’s no more, and while the game may have had only one goal between the sides for most of the match, the Sounders finally looked like a team that could do damage commensurate with their talent. Discarding the form that saw the one-time Supporters’ Shield contenders plummet into the West’s first round game, Seattle posted a convincing 2-0 win at CenturyLink Field, eliminating the Colorado Rapids from the 2013 Major League Soccer playoffs.

The game’s opening goal — a 17-yard, 28th minute Brad Evans blast from the right of the penalty area — prove the game-winner for Seattle, who came into the match winless in seven games. That streak included a 5-1 loss on October 5 in Colorado, the Rapids having kicked off the Sounders’ slide from first in the West to the conference’s fourth seed. On Wednesday, Colorado failed to summon any of their form from Commerce, rarely challenging Seattle.

In the 85th minute, however, Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning gave Colorado a potential opening, inexplicably leaving his area to catch a long ball sent to the edge of his penalty area. Silviu Petrescu’s red card was obligatory, leaving the Sounders to play out the match’s final minutes with 10 men. Marcus Hahnemann, unthreatened on the ensuing restart, saw out the remainder of Seattle’s clean sheet.

Three minutes into stoppage time, with the Rapids pushing for an equalizer, Eddie Johnson broke in on Clint Irwin and finished inside the Colorado keeper’s left post from eight yards out, eliminating any doubt Gspurning’s mistake would come back to haunt Seattle.

[MORE: How it happened: More details on Seattle’s big win over Colorado]

[MORE: PST Man of the Match: Eddie Johnson edges Brad Evans]

The win puts Seattle back in the West’s semifinals, where they’ll be matched up against the conference’s top finishers: the Portland Timbers. The two-legged Cascadia derby starts on Saturday at CenturyLink – the rivals’ first ever meeting in the postseason.

Until then, the Sounders can enjoy the levity of shedding crisis’s weight from their shoulders. On Wednesday, Seattle not only moved beyond their seven-game slide. They may have provided a glimpse of a team that will challenge deeper into this tournament.


Seattle: 28′ Evans, 93′ Johnson


SEATTLE: Michael Gspurning; DeAndre Yedlin (45′ Marc Burch), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traoré, Leo González; Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso, Adam Moffat; Clint Dempsey; Lamar Neagle (88′ Marcus Hanhemann), Eddie Johnson

Subs: Zach Scott, Shalrie Joseph, Andy Rose, Mauro Rosales, David Estrada

COLORADO: Clint Irwin; Shane O’Neill, Drew Moor, German Mera, Chris Klute; Nathan Sturgis (85′ Marvell Wynne), Hendry Thomas; Atiba Harris, Martín Rivero (61′ Vicente Sanchez), Deshorn Brown (73′ Edson Buddle); Gabriel Torres

Subs: Matt Pickens, Anthony Wallace, Nick Labrocca, Dillon Serna

MLS Playoff Preview: Colorado Rapids at Seattle Sounders

  • Seattle winless in seven ahead of Wednesday’s match.
  • Colorado won last meeting, 5-1 on October 5.
  • Winner meets Portland in Western Conference semifinals.

Speculation Seattle had won MLS Cup with the purchase of Clint Dempsey was rash, but with the Sounders closing their campaign winless in seven, those prognostications look downright foolhardy. History (particularly MLS’s) is littered with examples of teams overcoming financial disadvantages. Seattle’s purchases of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have shown: There’s no guarantee talent alone can deliver an MLS title.

Colorado’s in a position to prove that point on Wednesday, when the meet at CenturyLink Field in the Western Conference’s winner-take-all opening round (10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN). While not the most hamstrung team in the league, the Rapids just signed their first Designated Player this season (Panamanian international Gaby Torres). Compare that to Seattle, who have had nine (NINE!) Designated Players in their four-year history.1 Not all Designated Players are created equal, but in the case of Seattle and Colorado, the contrast helps illustrate the divide between an MLS have and an one of the league’s have nots.

To counter that, Colorado’s built with youth. They added Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown in this year’s draft. Chris Klute was purchased from NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks last year. Clint Irwin’s emerged after an injury to Matt Pickens, and Shane O’Neill has held down a place next to Drew Moor in central defense. All five, completing their first seasons as MLS regulars, helped the Rapids transcend their predicted also-ran status. Unexpectedly, the team kept a regular place in the West’s top five.

In that sense, Colorado may have already accomplished what they set out to do, but matched up against a Seattle squad they routed at the beginning of the month, the Rapids have a chance to do much more. Win at CenturyLink on Wednesday, and Colorado not only secures a 36th and 37th game of the season, they also make Malcolm Gladwell’s precepts come to life, becoming the MLS David that toppled the well-funded Goliath.

Given the problems they gave Seattle on Oct. 5 (the 5-1 shellacking at Dick’s Sporting Goods part), there’s not reason this David might be Wednesday’s Goliath. All of the Sounder problems that were exposed in Commerce may still exist. Seattle’s defense is still a collection of average (at best) defenders that rely on a strong midfield and good goalkeeping. If Michael Gspurning isn’t his 2012 self and the opposition finds a way around Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders’ backs are sitting ducks. The Rapids proved it on the fifth, and three days later (before the midfield and goalkeeping improved), Vancouver reiterated the point.

It highlights the obvious. Seattle just needs to play better. They did so in Portland (losing 1-0). They did so on Sunday against LA. But when a home draw is all you can get from your month’s best performance, your team’s in big trouble.

If Seattle somehow finds their former selves before Wednesday’s kickoff, everything we learned on October 5 becomes irrelevant. The seven-match unbeaten run becomes extraneous, and the turmoil and speculation that’s accompanied this unexpected collapse is rendered moot. The focus shifts to Portland.

But given we have no idea what this team’s “former self” is, what’s Seattle trying to return to? An abstract idea we’ve inferred from their individual talents – something that’s never been allowed to come together on the field. Ahead of Wednesday’s winner-take-all, injuries, call ups, and suspensions have left us no proof Seattle can become that juggernaut, let alone reverse the momentum the Rapids carry from Colorado.

Either Seattle paints a new picture for themselves or starts their offseason a month earlier than expected. Who would have thought do-or-die would come this soon?

1- Those nine Designated Players: Dempsey, Martins, Mauro Rosales, Shalrie Joseph, Christian Tiffert, Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez, Blaise Nkufo, Freddie Ljundberg.