"What a day."
There's no perfect lede to describe what happened at CenturyLink Field and across Major League Soccer on Sunday afternoon. (But thanks to everyone who helped try!) Prior to the simultaneous kickoffs around the league at 1:45 p.m. PST, the Seattle Sounders could finish anywhere between the #2 and #5 seeds in the Western Conference. The stage was set for an exciting Decision Day.
For most of the game(s), the #3 or #4 seed seemed likely for Seattle, as Portland fell behind 2-0 in Vancouver. For 15 minutes, after an own goal by Chad Marshall, the #5 seemed dangerously possible. Then, in the final moments, the #2 became clear and concrete.
From the cellar of the Western Conference in late June, the Seattle Sounders rattled off the greatest second half of any team in MLS history (14-2-1) and finished the season 18-11-5, good for 59 points and second place in the conference, only trailing Sporting Kansas City with 62.
Going into Decision Day, Seattle knew what they needed: a win plus a Dallas loss or tie in Colorado. Under off-and-on rainy skies at CenturyLink, the Sounders couldn't buy a goal, coming close numerous times throughout the opening 45 minutes. FC Dallas, meanwhile, took an early 1-0 lead against the Rapids. Back in Seattle, Marshall's own goal in the 64th minute only darkened the skies further.
Then, a proverbial switch flipped.
Handwalla Bwana entered the match in the 75th minute, adding another attacking body to the Sounders' formation. The move quickly paid off for Brian Schmetzer as Raul Ruidiaz scored his ninth goal of the year four minutes later, equalizing the match at one. Suddenly, with Kansas City leading Los Angeles FC, Seattle held the third seed.
As the clock ticked on, nerves grew. A win for Seattle meant nothing if Colorado couldn't score against Dallas. Shockingly, in the 80th minute, as Seattle and San Jose neared stoppage time, the Rapids broke through. 1-1 in Seattle, 1-1 in Colorado.
The Sounders then needed another goal. Forward Will Bruin entered the match for Gustav Svensson in the 88th minute and the tide turned dramatically. It only took four minutes before a series of short passes including Victor Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro reached the foot of Ruidiaz, who sent CenturyLink into bedlam with a clinical finish past Earthquakes keeper James Marcinkowski.
Seconds later, news struck computers and phones throughout the press box and crowd that Colorado had scored a go-ahead goal against Dallas. 2-1, Seattle. 2-1, Colorado. Two comebacks in two cities, completed.
The final whistles blew in Seattle and Kansas City. A whistle blew in Los Angeles, where the Galaxy lost a 2-0 lead and with it, a playoff spot to Real Salt Lake. Minutes later, the whistle in Colorado. And somehow, someway, whether by magic or luck, the Sounders captured second place in the wild West.
"We were aware of what was happening, but how do you get that information to the players? It was Ozzie at one point, saying, ‘Okay let’s get forward,’ and then at another point saying, ‘Okay, let’s stay back. Let’s not take a goal.’ There was so much going on," Schmetzer said. "That’s one of the dramas. Whoever thought of this Decision Day, it’s great...It gives us a little bit of a faster heartbeat."
Schmetzer showed intense emotion as he discussed the long, "tough" season for the Sounders in opening comments after the game, something he doesn't do regularly. The team fought out just four wins in the first half of the season, fans called for the departure of General Manager Garth Lagerwey, and many questioned if this would be the first year in club history the Sounders would miss the MLS Playoffs.
But Lagerwey knew at the time what stood on the horizon: a goal-scorer named Raul Ruidiaz.
With two goals on Sunday, Ruidiaz captured the 2018 team lead for goals (10), doing so in just 14 starts. The Peruvian striker also led MLS in goals during the month of September (5) and already has some folks comparing his connection with Lodeiro to Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey in 2014.
“When I came, the team was in a bad moment, but we all knew that it was all up to us, that we had to change the situation that we were in," Ruidiaz said on Sunday through a translator. "We have an excellent team, really a family, so we knew that it was all up to us. So, we were able to achieve that and I am super happy about that.”
Instead of preparing for a mid-week Halloween Knockout Round match at CenturyLink, the Sounders can now rest for two days before returning to team training on Wednesday, when they will also learn who they will face in the Western Conference Semi-finals.
Los Angeles FC (3) will host Real Salt Lake (6) and the Portland Timbers (5) will travel to Dallas (4). The highest remaining seed from those two games will host Seattle in the first leg of the West Semis, likely, on November 4. The second leg will then take place on November 8 at CenturyLink, where the Sounders will look to advance to a third consecutive Western Conference Finals.
Check out highlights from the 2-1 win over San Jose above then listen to the Sounders FC Postgame Show on Sports Radio 950 KJR below.