Experienced Seattle meets confident Houston in Western Conference final
Two teams each riding a wave of momentum lock horns in the West for a spot in MLS Cup. Here is how the Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo shape up heading into their Western Conference final.
Been there, done that. This Seattle team knows all the trappings that come with a conference final, so experience is most definitely on the side of coach Brian Schmetzer's men. The Sounders also boast an impressive attacking force that can strike in various forms. If you let Nicolas Lodeiro dance around and create, he'll slice you open. Jordan Morris, if he can return healthy, has the pace that can fare well against Houston's older and slower defense. There is, of course, Clint Dempsey, whose goal-scoring prowess is beyond reproach, while former Dynamo man Will Bruin is a classic poacher. It's a lot for any opposing defense to take into account.
Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso is back from injury and stands to get a whale of a test from Houston's attack. Any rust or slow step from the 32-year-old could turn out to be a big problem. Also, the health of Victor Rodriguez will be something to watch. The newly acquired Spaniard and Lodeiro almost look like midfield soulmates, their connection has been so immediate. But if Rodriguez is off, that could spell problems for Lodeiro and the Seattle attack. Discipline at the left-back spot from Joevin Jones and Nouhou will also be crucial. Both players are aggressive and could leave the Sounders vulnerable to Houston's vaunted counter-attack.
Why they will win:
This team has come together so nicely to end the season, and the balance is there for everyone to see. The center-back duo of Roman Torres and Chad Marshall is as good as anyone's in the league, Alonso and Cristian Roldan know how to roll up the sleeves and do the dirty work in midfield, while up front the players are there to make a difference. Seattle were MLS Cup winners in 2016, but this team is better with a healthy Clint Dempsey in the fold, a class right back in Kelvin Leerdam and another creative body in attack with Rodriguez.
Upstairs, the Dynamo have never been stronger this season. They are brimming with confidence and are riding a huge wave of momentum into this series. The poise they showed in the second leg in Portland by coming back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 will have surely gotten Seattle's attention. That was no easy feat. Dylan Remick's equalizer was a perfect example of that resilience and belief, while Mauro Manotas' punch to the gut late on in the second half reflected what this team does best: absorb pressure and hit you on the break. There is no reason to change things now.
The Dynamo got a very stiff test going against the Portland attack in the previous round, but Seattle have more depth up front, so once again a pieced-together back four of Remick, Philippe Senderos, Adolfo Machado and Jalil Anibaba will have to come up big, as will defensive midfielders Eric Alexander and Juan Cabezas.
The recently completed international break could also throw a wrench into coach Wilmer Cabrera's plans. Romell Quioto played all but 15 of Honduras' 180 minutes against Australia, while Alberth Elis went the distance in the second leg on Wednesday. In addition to the unused Boniek Garcia, there might be some jet lag that the three Catrachos are still battling.
Why they will win:
There's a lot of the 2016 Seattle Sounders in this year's Dynamo team. Houston arrived in the postseason with little fanfare, yet it continues to impress while getting results and is now in MLS' final four. It is down Seattle's flank, which is where the speedy and strong Elis will likely reside, that the Dynamo can do the most damage. Also worth considering is the playmaking of Tomas Martinez and Vicente Sanchez in midfield. On top of everything else, the Dynamo are equipped with players who have played in hostile atmospheres all throughout the Americas. Seattle's raucous crowd won't be a problem for Houston.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .