Seattle's window of opportunity closing while FC Dallas' just opening
Both the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas find themselves staring through a championship window of opportunity. While there are still a few playoff rounds to be navigated, the MLS Cup can be espied from a distance. With Seattle leading the aggregate goals series 2-1 heading into the second leg in Frisco, Texas, the question remains which team will force its way through and move one step closer toward the ultimate goal?
The answer is complicated by the reality that the size of each team's respective opening is moving in opposite directions. The aperture Seattle is trying to climb through is shrinking, while Dallas' is expanding. The Sounders are a veteran-laden team, with an average age of 27.38 years, second highest in the league behind New York City FC. Sunday's likely starting XI for the Sounders will have an average age of 30. Manager Sigi Schmid insists that hasn't been by design, but it's a fact that doesn't bother him either.
"We've had a core of players here that are getting older," Schmid said via telephone. "I think that makes us more of a veteran team when you look at guys like Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Zach Scott and Leo Gonzalez, people that have been here basically since 2009. That adds a little bit of age to the whole thing.
"But age is a state of mind. You can't look at age the same way it was looked at 10 years ago. Players play a lot longer, they take better care of their bodies, there are better training methods, there's more appropriate recovery and all that. So we never shied away from getting a good player because of age."
The obvious benefit is experience. And the recent additions of Nelson Valdez and Andreas Ivanschitz have paid dividends in the postseason, with each netting a critical goal and adding some heft to an attack that earlier this season was highly dependent on Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. The sight of Dempsey at times sliding back into a wide midfield spot in postseason wins over the LA Galaxy and Dallas shows just how much deeper the Sounders' attack is now. There's plenty of guile, too.
"Guys like Ivanschitz and Valdez have been in big games," said Schmid. "They've been in big games for their national team, they've played in World Cup games. They know what winning time is all about. They know what it takes to bring it at the key moments, as does Dempsey, as does Martins, as does a Chad Marshall, who has won an MLS Cup as well. It's always good to have players who know what that feels like."
The downside is a susceptibility to injuries, and there have been plenty that have hit Seattle in recent weeks, starting with Alonso injuring his groin in the regular-season finale against Real Salt Lake and continuing through the L.A. game, with both Evans and Gonzalez forced to leave that game early. There are still a few days left to heal up before Sunday's second leg, but time is running out.
"Guys will play with a little bit more of a niggle or an ache than they would in the regular season," said Schmid. "They know that Sunday's game could be the last game. If they're ready to go, they're ready to go."
But it leaves one to wonder if Seattle expended so much energy in dethroning L.A. that it is now in danger of being overtaken by an upstart in Dallas.
Oscar Pareja's side is young -- it's likely starting XI averages 24.5 years -- and talented. The defensive protection up the spine of the team is impressive as well with Victor Ulloa and Ezequiel Cirigliano shielding the solid central-defensive duo of Zach Loyd and Matt Hedges. Mauro Diaz has overcome a rash of early-season injuries to cement his place as one of the league's brightest creative forces alongside the breathtaking speed of Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios. This is a team that appears to be maturing at warp speed.
"I do think [Diaz] has been growing this season, and now we have him in a very good spot," said Pareja. "We have had his body stronger and healthier. The rest of the youngsters, they have proven that they can compete against anyone in the league. That shows a lot of progress. They need to continue that way."
Whether the team is developing quickly enough, especially in terms of mentality, is the big question. The first leg raised some doubts, revealing the team's strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Diaz was a threat every time he got on the ball, Castillo was terrifying on the break and netted a precious away goal, but FCD couldn't close the deal. Not surprisingly, Pareja's confidence in his charges is unwavering.
"I think the performance that we had in Seattle says it all," he said in a phone interview. "We went there against a good team in a tough atmosphere on a difficult field to play on. We showed that we have the personality and we have the talent and the group to beat Seattle. I think everyone saw it last game. We need to have a good performance at home, we have done it the whole year, so there are a lot of factors that tell us we can do it in spite of our youth."
It feels like Dallas is at the proverbial crossroads. A victory could propel FCD into an extended stay among the league's elite. A defeat will cast doubt as to whether Pareja's vision only applies to the regular season and crumbles under the harsh glare of the playoffs.
The opportunity is there for both teams. Sunday will reveal which side will take it.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.