Photo by Jane Gershovich/JaneG.Photography
By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE, Wash. – Eddie Johnson came close time and again. In the season-opener against the Montreal Impact. In the first leg of this CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Tigres UANL last week. Even in the first half at CenturyLink Field Tuesday night. He had missed the frame high, wide left, wide right, even hit the crossbar.
But when it mattered most he finally converted, deftly slipping a shot between Tigres goalkeeper Jorge Diaz de Leon and the left post in the 75th minute, putting his Seattle Sounders up 3-1 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, and into the tournament’s semifinals for the first time.
Seattle also became the first MLS team to bounce a Mexican side from the tournament’s knockout rounds.
The Sounders will face either the Houston Dynamo or Santos Laguna in the semifinals. Houston leads Santos 1-0 with the second leg scheduled for Wednesday night in Mexico.
Santos knocked Seattle out of the tournament a year ago with a 6-1 thrashing in the second leg, a fact the Sounders seem not to have forgotten.
While saying he doesn’t care who Seattle plays in the next round, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid nonetheless added, “We’ve got a score to settle with Santos if Santos is the representative.”
Johnson only had the chance to make history thanks to memorable second-half strikes from newcomers DeAndre Yedlin and Djimi Traore against a reserve-laden Tigres team playing the final 45 minutes down a man.
With his team trailing 1-0 in the 53rd minute, the 19-year-old Yedlin strode into a cleared corner and fired a skipping one-touch volley from 25 yards out that grazed a defender, evened the score, and electrified a stadium.
“I saw the ball floating up and I just tried to get the right timing on it,” said Yedlin, “Luckily I got a good hit and it took a deflection and went in.”
A beautiful strike to be sure, but nothing compared to what came seven minutes later.
In the 60th minute, defender Djimi Traore stepped up to what seemed to be a harmlessly cleared ball, took a touch to bring the ball down, and unleashed a thunderous volley from 30 yards out that scraped the crossbar before finding the back of the net.
“It topped mine, so I wasn’t too happy about that,” quipped Yedlin.
The Sounders still needed a goal, but at that point Johnson’s eventual score seemed all but inevitable.
It was all a far cry from a first half that looked dire and left the Sounders fans among the 20,520 in attendance more than a little antsy. Despite trailing 1-0 on aggregate coming into the night, Seattle looked flat for most of the first half, plagued by suspect defense, wasted chances, and questionable energy.
Tigres punished Seattle for those shortcomings in the 23rd minute, when Jonathan Bornstein initiated a counter that ended with Elias Hernandez finding the end of an Alberto Acosta far-post cross to easily beat goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.
While the goal seemed to nudge the Sounders awake, the game-changing moment perhaps came in the 45th minute, when Salvadoran referee Elmer Bonilla handed Tigres midfielder Manuel Viniegra his second yellow, leaving the Mexican side that much more vulnerable to Seattle’s second-half onslaught.
Although perhaps something else inspired the Sounders as well.
Asked what he said to his team at halftime, Schmid replied, “A lot of words that I can’t repeat here. I wasn’t too happy with how we played in the first half. I wasn’t too happy in terms of some individual efforts, which we sort of identified at halftime very directly.”
Seattle stepped onto the pitch Tuesday night knowing a win by two goals or more pushed them through to their first tournament semifinals. A 1-0 win forced overtime and a suspension, at least, of the dreaded away-goals tiebreaker.
Anything less bounced them from the quarterfinals for the second straight year. The last thing they wanted to do was come out flat and give up an early goal.
They did the last thing they wanted to do, and still they made history.
“It’s amazing,” said Yedlin, “It’s the kind of story you can pass on to your kids and grandkids and it makes the city proud. It’s good for us.”