Clint Dempsey propels Seattle Sounders to MLS Western Conference Finals

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Seattle Sounders midfielder <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/clint-dempsey/" data-ylk="slk:Clint Dempsey">Clint Dempsey</a>, left, kicks the ball away from <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/vancouver-whitecaps/" data-ylk="slk:Vancouver Whitecaps">Vancouver Whitecaps</a> midfielder Aly Ghazal as Sounders’ Harrison Shipp (19) looks on during the first half of the second leg of an MLS soccer Western Conference semifinal, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey, left, kicks the ball away from Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Aly Ghazal as Sounders’ Harrison Shipp (19) looks on during the first half of the second leg of an MLS soccer Western Conference semifinal, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps spent over two hours waiting for something or somebody special to shatter the monotony of their conservative, dull, defensive soccer. They spent an entire first leg, and a second leg that droned on into the second half still scoreless, searching.

Finally, in the 56th minute at a rain-drenched CenturyLink Field, they found that special moment. And it arrived courtesy of a special player.

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A series of lovely touches at the edge of the penalty area placed the ball at the feet of Clint Dempsey, and the game momentarily froze. Dempsey maneuvered the ball onto his left foot, then caressed it into the top corner to break what at times appeared to be an unbreakable deadlock.

Vancouver had roughly 35 minutes to climb out of its defensive shell, but couldn’t. It managed an embarrassing one shot on goal over 180 minutes.

If there was ever any doubt about Seattle’s superiority and playoff progression, Dempsey extinguished it with two minutes remaining.

The American forward could have had his hat trick a minute later. But he and the Sounders will be satisfied with a conference finals berth. They’ll await their opponent, to be determined on Sunday. In the meantime, they’ll celebrate a victory that, for a while, didn’t look like it would materialize.

Seattle was more adventurous than it had been in the first leg, but Vancouver took much of the fun out of the game. Carl Robinson’s lineup wasn’t necessarily defensive, but his approach was. The Whitecaps sat in a 4-4-1-1 that often was a 4-5-1. With limited support from wide players, Fredy Montero tried to exploit the gap in between Seattle’s center backs via long balls over the top, and on one occasion he got behind Roman Torres. But in general, the visitors had little interest in committing numbers forward until Dempsey’s opener.

Seattle, on the other hand, had to take risks, but it struggled to find a way through Vancouver in the first half. The Sounders did engineer the half’s two big moments, though.

The first resulted in controversy. Left back Nouhou got in behind his opposite number, Vancouver’s Jakob Nerwinski. Nerwinski, with a fistful of Nouhou’s shirt, left his feet and appeared to bring Nouhou to the ground with him. Nerwinski spent more than a minute down injured while referee Baldomero Toledo stood idly, refusing to go to video review after shunning Seattle’s initial appeals.

Finally, as Nerwinski limped off, Toledo decided to have a second look at the play. Most viewers were sure he’d reverse the call upon further consideration. But he shook his head upon his first viewing of the replay, then watched it several more times, and trotted back onto the pitch to wave play on.

Lodeiro had created the Nouhou chance, and created the second big moment as well. In the second minute of first-half stoppage time, the Uruguayan playmaker sent a cross to – and slightly over – Dempsey at the far post. Dempsey’s stretching volley squeezed right in between a charging Will Bruin and the far post.

Dempsey was far from a constant threat early on. But he is still Clint Dempsey. Give him multiple chances, and chances are he’ll make you pay.

Up next for Seattle is either Portland or Houston, who also carry a stalemate into Sunday’s second leg. The Sounders will have to wait almost three weeks for their next game due to the upcoming international break.

But when Nov. 21 does roll around, the Sounders will be a tough out. With Dempsey and Lodeiro, and with a back four (plus Stefan Frei) that has now conceded 1.08 goals per game this season, including the playoffs, their title defense is right on track.

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