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Seattle v. Houston: It's Gonna Be Brutal

By SoundersNerd November 7, 2009

The skies had cleared Friday morning for the Sounders practice.  The Tukwila field was framed by autumn leaves and surrounded by dramatic tempest storms clouds, yet it was dry and almost warm on the ground.  The team, like the weather, was calm, relaxed, and collected.  You wouldn't guess that they were heading into the biggest game they've played yet: leg two of a winner-takes-all aggregate playoff against Houston.

Round one—a 0-0 tie in Seattle on October 29—can be summarized with a few words: Brutal, puzzling, inspiring, bloody, and infuriating.

Brutal:  In the 16th minute, Houston keeper Pat Onstad clobbered—for lack of a better word—Fredy Montero.  It set the tone and Houston's strategy, the nuclear option of soccer: when out-played on hostile territory, forget skill, just hack your hosts to bits.  It went downhill from there.

Puzzling:  The punch ignited a melee. Houston's box filled with players.  The ref got it under control, separated everyone, and consulted his linesmen.  The crowd chanted, "Red! Red! Red!"  Sixteen minutes into the Sounders' first-ever playoff game, and we were already seeing an ejection. Then, to everyone's dismay, the ref pulled Onstad and Montero aside and gave them both yellows.  (Later in the postgame press conference, Coach Sigi Schmid said, "There were a lot of calls I'm confused about... It's like a bowling ball and a bowling pin.  You give the ball a yellow for hitting the pin, and the pin a yellow for being hit.")

Inspiring: Furious at Onstad and perplexed as to why he wasn't ejected, the crowd came together.  For the rest of the half, they stumbled through the appropriate chant.  For the second half, though, they finally got it right: every time Onstad touched the ball, 35,807 people chanted in unison, "You! Suck! Asshole!"

Bloody:  Sounders forward Nate Jaqua went in to head the ball and was met with Dynamo Ricardo Clarke's foot.  He fell down, got up, then went down again.  It was more serious than he thought, and the medic ran out for some on-field treatment.  In the second half, that treatment would fail Nate, who played the rest of the game with his head wrapped in what is known as "that soccer injury head wrap thing."

Infuriating: Houston's strategy wore down the Sounders, especially the second half.  Ljungberg almost popped a blood vessel in his temple. I could see the blood vessel throbbing a few feet away, and the speckle that flew from his mouth when he cursed the ref for not calling the tackle.  He was so pissed, he looked like he'd rip the head of a goat and throw it at the ref.  (Which is ironic because later in the locker room, he said, "I thought some of the calls were off, but I can't say too much 'cause I don't want to get suspended" with a sort of boyish charm, blushing and flirting with the half dozen reporters huddled around him.)

It's a very different feel at practice.  The atmosphere was light, no signs of the previous battle eight days earlier or the game looming ahead. I drove down with Steve Clare of prostamerika.com, who's been covering the Sounders for three years.

Coach Sigi Schmid addressed the pack of reporters.  I ask, "Do you expect Sunday to be as brutal as the first game?" He looks up at me from sunken brows, as if to say, "That's a really stupid question, but I'll answer it anyway."

"Um, yes," he says.

Steve pulls aside Roger Levesque, who, with his long disheveled hair and lazy shaving habits, is the grungiest Sounder. He would've fit in fine with Screaming Trees in the '90s, I reckon.  He doesn't look as crazy in person, but maybe that's because he's wearing a hat.

I get the camera rolling in time to follow Nate Jaqua off the field.  I coincidentally met him at a bar the night after the last game, friends of friends of a friend's girlfriend.  He's a really nice guy, unassuming and laid-back.  Nothing about his demeanor says "professional athlete" or that he spent the night before as the focus of 36 thousand rabid fans. The only sign of his profession are the stitches on his left brow.

I ask if he considers himself a celebrity, and he says, "a little bit".  This is evident as he's leaving practice, when groups of families and kids stop him repeatedly for his autograph.  He complies without hesitation, then awkwardly stoops two feet for photos.  When they're done, he hurries away, answering questions about facing his former club in the playoffs, Houston's fan base, and the weather. "I checked this morning and it was 84 degrees down there." Then he excuses himself politely, as the team is about to leave for the airport.

Game starts at noon on Sunday.
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