The Seattle Sounders have the serious upper hand in Major League Soccer's Western Conference finals after beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium on Tuesday.
Here are three takeaways from the match:
1. Sounders looking set for MLS Cup return
Only a major collapse will keep Seattle from reaching a second straight MLS Cup, as the Sounders turned the tables on the 10-men Dynamo, using set pieces and counter-attacking to all but drive a stake through the Dynamo's playoff heart.
Frankly, Seattle should have won by a wider margin, but Nicolas Lodeiro was unable to convert a first-half penalty against Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis before a slew of chances were missed in the second stanza. But even before Jalil Anibaba's red-card-inducing takedown of Joevin Jones in the box in the 28th minute that led to the Lodeiro penalty miss, the Sounders had to have been feeling good about their performance.
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Head coach Brian Schmetzer had his men set up to choke down Houston's vaunted counter-attack, thanks to the hard work of Nouhou and Kelvin Leerdam down the flanks and the swooping Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson in the middle.
The Dynamo had their best moments in the first half when it was still 11 vs. 11, but the likes of DaMarcus Beasley, Eric Alexander, Alex and Tomas Martinez were left frustrated, their palms open asking for movement. Even when the game-breaking Mauro Manotas got past a Seattle defender, center-backs Chad Marshall and Roman Torres were there to snuff anything out.
Once the Anibaba red card happened, Seattle's scoring chance feast started. The Sounders were more than happy to circulate the ball around and pick out their chances when Houston sat back. When the Dynamo tried to counter, Lodeiro sought to make the most of the space, which led to Bruin's header against his former team that all but iced the tie.
The Sounders also deserve a lot of credit for overcoming the absences of starting goalkeeper Stefan Frei and veteran defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. Stand-in stopper Tyler Miller was a steady hand, while Svensson paired nicely with Roldan and contributed by scoring the massive first goal.
Schmetzer could not have asked for a better evening.
2. Dynamo come undone
This was a brutal outing for the Dynamo. All the things they did right in the regular season's final weeks and first two rounds of the playoffs — solid defending, opportunistic scoring and smart, patient play — went down the drain in the first half.
Most frustrating for coach Wilmer Cabrera will be the Dynamo's decision-making in the final third. There were several early looks that were spoiled either due to hesitancy, slips or heavy touches. To their credit, the Dynamo carved out chances in the second half down a man, notably Manotas' wide-open look at the start of the second 45 minutes, but Miller was never really troubled in the Seattle goal.
The defensive performance will also leave Cabrera scratching his head. Alexander was badly beaten on the Svensson goal, while Bruin easily drifted off of Leonardo to head in the second. These were miscues that the Dynamo were not committing in October and in early November.
All told, Houston's lack of experience showed. Whether it was rust from the long layoff between rounds or the over-excitement of playing in front of a sold-out crowd, a rarity at BBVA Compass Stadium in recent seasons, the Dynamo were in a deep hole by halftime and now need a miracle in the second leg.
3. Sounders in control going into second leg
Tuesday's result is beneficial to the Sounders in so many ways as they turn their attention to next Thursday's second leg. There is, of course, the fact that they have a foot in the door of MLS Cup with the 2-0 road victory, but what will really help Schmetzer is that there is no reason to risk Alonso, Frei and recovering forward Jordan Morris in the second leg.
Many around MLS talk about the depth that Toronto FC enjoy, but Seattle are stocked with plenty of talent as well, and Tuesday night was a good example of that. It would be perfectly logical for Schmetzer to keep the aforementioned trio out of action in order to fully recuperate for a probable MLS Cup date on Dec. 9.
As for Houston, they certainly won't throw in the towel, and either an early goal or a Seattle red card next week could really make things very interesting. The Dynamo showed a ton of character in beating Portland 2-1 in their conference semifinal second leg. They'll need double the effort next week in Seattle.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .