23 March 2012

Understanding the Seattle-Houston rivalry

Courtesy Nigel Brooks
With Seattle and Houston playing on NBC Sports tonight, there’s been a lot of talk of a Western Conference rivalry being rekindled, if only for a game. There definitely was a rivalry, and we’ll find out tonight if there still is. To appreciate it, you have to understand a few things about why it exists in the first place. Most of these origins center on the 2009 season, in which the teams met five times, four of which felt epic for very different reasons. Since then, they’ve played only four times, so more than half of their head-to-head history came that year, which is why the rivalry may dissipate somewhat with only one game per season.

1. Controversy

It started with Houston’s mid-summer visit to Seattle in 2009, the Dynamo’s first experience with the high-pressure environment of Seattle. With Houston nursing a 1-0 first-half lead, Fredy Montero got on the end of a floated pass and chipped a shot over Pat Onstad. Houston defender Mike Chabala raced back and tried to clear the ball off the goal line, only to see the linesman signal a goal. This is where it starts. The Dynamo were insistent that the linesman was out of position and made the wrong call, and reactions in Houston quarters were harsh. I literally yelled, “No way!” on the Dynamo radio broadcast, and Brian Ching – watching from afar while with the U.S. national team – tweeted “Ref in seattle just cheated the [D]ynamo. What a joke. Not even close. Ref is a cheat,” thereby becoming the first North American pro athlete fined for using Twitter. Not who you expected, huh?

In addition to that one play, there was controversy over the foul count in just about every game. Houston has made a name as one of the most physical teams in MLS, and the Dynamo tend to take offense to players who go to ground easily (think of Eddie Robinson or Geoff Cameron standing over a fallen opponent telling him, in so many words, to “Get up!”) In Fredy Montero and Freddie Ljungberg, the 2009 Sounders had talented players who were also willing to go to ground if need be, and it frustrated the Dynamo to no end (look for Montero and Fernandez to fill this role tonight). On the other side, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has not been shy about his displeasure with the Dynamo’s physicality, and Craig Waibel’s infamous, mischievous decision to bounce a soccer ball on Ljungberg’s head while waiting to take a throw-in was an interesting way to start the rivalry. Both back lines are still big and physical, so this is still very relevant.

2. Former Players
There are numerous personal connections between the teams, and several of them helped kick-start the rivalry in 2009. Former Houston player Pat Ianni was the unlikely hero in the first meeting between the teams, scoring with a close-range overhead kick, but it was another former Dynamo, Nate Jaqua, who really kicked things into high gear. Always physical himself, Jaqua twice wound up with head wounds against Houston and finished the games with a gauzy bandage around his head, but he managed to be a thorn in the Dynamo’s side anyway. First he scored in the 89th minute to force overtime in the Open Cup semifinal, a match that often goes overlooked but may have done the most to fan the flames of the rivalry (don't miss these highlights), and then he scored the tying goal in a 1-1 tie in Houston.

On the other side, Brian Ching, Craig Waibel, Cam Weaver, and Dominic Kinnear are all former Sounders (joined this year by Nathan Sturgis), but the biggest connection might be goalkeeper Tally Hall. From nearby Gig Harbor, Washington, Hall grew up idolizing Kasey Keller (check out this picture) and has had some of his most memorable outings in Seattle. His first came in 2009, when he was the Houston backup but made 10 saves to keep Houston in that epic Open Cup semifinal. He was brilliant again in a 2-0 loss in Seattle in 2010 and a 1-1 tie last year. In all, Hall has faced Seattle three times on the road, totaling 24 saves (several of them remarkable, including reach-back saves on headers from Montero in '09 and O’Brian White in '11) but allowing five goals under tremendous pressure.

3. The Playoffs
Of course, nothing forges a rivalry like a hard-fought playoff series, and the 2009 battle between these teams was as epic as they come. Houston and the LA Galaxy finished one point ahead of the Sounders in a great Western Conference race that year, with Houston seeded second and Seattle third. The teams opened the series on a Thursday night with one of the most entertaining scoreless halves you’ll ever see. Andre Hainault and Brad Davis headed wide early for Houston, then Pat Ianni almost scored against his old club again, only to see Brian Mullan rise on the goal line to head the ball out. Then Pat Onstad lost his temper on Fredy Montero, giving him a shoulder bump after the ball had been cleared, and all hell broke loose. Montero collapsed theatrically and earned a yellow card, but Onstad was fortunate to escape with only a yellow of his own (Schmid called him "a bowling ball"). Houston held on for a tie (committing 18 fouls to Seattle’s six, fueling Schmid’s fury), and the series shifted to Houston.

There, with former president George H. W. Bush on hand, the defensive juggernauts (they tied for fewest goals allowed that year) continued their stalemate. Dominic Oduro famously hit the post for Houston in regulation, but the series went scoreless to extra time, before Ching – playing on a torn meniscus – produced a moment of brilliance to break through. Seattle came back, however, with a Ljungberg back-post chip the best chance, but Onstad tipped it over. Houston eventually held on for the win, beginning Seattle’s run of frustrating playoff exits.

4. Home-field advantage
Neither team has ever won on the other’s home turf, which creates an air of resilience about the visitor. They may concede possession and chances, but keeping the score down and finding a way to get a goal can be the recipe for a road tie, which is almost as good as a win in this passionate series. Seattle seems to dominate Houston on the artificial turf of the Pacific Northwest, and the Dynamo needed Hall’s heroics just to stay in the match in a 2-0 loss in 2010 and last year’s 1-1 tie. Yet the Sounders always seem to arrive in Houston on a hot streak but leave with a bit of heat stroke after losing 2-1 in 2010 and 3-1 in 2011.

What does it mean?
At this point, memories from 2009 have definitely simmered, so it will probably take new controversy tonight (or another Open Cup and/or playoff meeting) to rekindle the full rivalry.

For Houston, Geoff Cameron has either scored or set up a goal in his last four regular-season starts against Seattle (but he was playing midfield at the time), while Ching and Hall are worth watching. On defense, right back Andre Hainault tends to toe a dangerous line of being physical and getting a yellow card, and he'll be matched up with Sounders midfielder Alvaro Fernandez.

For Seattle, despite missing Mauro Rosales, the Sounders should dominate the midfield. Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans could be more than a match for Adam Moffat and either a jet-lagged Je-Vaughn Watson or a not-yet-in-shape Luiz Camargo. Fredy Montero has always killed Houston, and the Dynamo will be challenged to stay with his runs and those of David Estrada.

These teams usually find goals at both ends of the field (only one regular-season shutout in the history of the series), but you have to imagine Seattle is the favorite entering the match.

Head-to-head series tied 3-3-3 all competitions (Seattle leads 3-0-2 at home)
July 11, 2009   at Seattle 2, Houston 1 (controversial Montero goal)
July 21, 2009   at Seattle 2, Houston 1, ET (Open Cup semifinals)
August 23, 2009   at Houston 1, Seattle 1 (Cameron header, Jaqua equalizer)
October 30, 2009   at Seattle 0, Houston 0 (playoffs first leg)
November 8, 2009   at Houston 1, Seattle 0, ET (playoffs second leg)
August 8, 2010   at Seattle 2, Houston 0 (Montero, Fernandez goals; Hall 7 saves)
October 23, 2010   at Houston 2, Seattle 1 (Cameron, Weaver goals; 2nd Seattle loss in 2nd half of season)
March 25, 2011   at Seattle 1, Houston 1 (Hall 8 saves, Zakuani GTG)
July 30, 2011   at Houston 3, Seattle 1 (Ching 2 goals, Cameron assist)

More on the matchup
Watch goals from the MLS games here (MLSsoccer.com)
SoundersFC.com preview
NBC Sports preview

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