The CenturyLink scoreboard showed the Seattle Sounders with a 2-0 second-half lead in their Western Conference championship game Sunday night against the Los Angeles Galaxy, but the Sounders knew better.
So did their opponents.
Thanks to a new MLS playoff format that uses road goals as aggregate-score tiebreakers, the Sounders — beaten 1-0 the previous Sunday in Los Angeles — owned what amounted to only a half-goal advantage.
And when Galaxy midfielder Juninho blasted a 54th-minute shot off his right foot shot that goalkeeper Stefan Frei reached out and touched — only to see slither past him — it turned what had been a 2-0 Seattle lead into a sudden deficit.
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Some 40 minutes remained for the Sounders to regain the two-score advantage they needed to advance to the MLS Cup next Sunday against New England. But the Galaxy, which has won four MLS Cups since 2001, proved to be as adept at nursing a lead disguised as a deficit as it is nursing a conventional one.
After the 2-1 victory that counted as a defeat, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid entered an interview room at the Clink and noted the peculiarity of simultaneously winning and losing.
“A difficult game for us, in terms of the result,” began Schmid. “We came out and won the game, and lost because of the disadvantage in away goals. We got knocked out by the away goal.”
The floor was Schmid’s, and he could have used it to blast a playoff system that holds a game’s location as the paramount tiebreaker. But he chose not to go there, surely sensing his post-facto criticism was going to sound like sour grapes.
Schmid instead emphasized how different the conclusion of the 2014 season was for him compared to a year ago, when the Sounders were eliminated from the playoffs by losing twice to the Portland Timbers.
“We acquitted ourselves well in this series,” Schmid said, “and we acquitted ourselves well in this game.”
It sustained a nine-month long trend for the Sounders, who ended up setting six franchise franchise records: points, victories, goals, assists, shots and shots on goal.
They won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in mid-September, and five weeks ago clinched their first Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the MLS team with the best regular-season record.
In some other soccer leagues around the world, success during the regular season trumps anything accomplished after it ends. But in the MLS, as it is with every other American sport, the regular season is merely a prelude to the playoffs.
All those records are impressive, and winning the Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield put the Sounders’ trophy collection at five — remarkable for a 6-year old franchise.
But they’ve yet to qualify for the game that determines the most meaningful of trophies in American pro soccer: The MLS Cup.
“It’s a mountain,” Schmidt said, “we haven’t climbed yet.”
For 54 minutes Sunday night, the mountain top appeared attainable for the Sounders. They were on their way to winning a game, only to go home because they didn’t win it by enough.