The exit to Santos Laguna carried a heartening scene shortly before the final whistle: a desperate MLS side trying to secure the one goal required to book a place in the final.
Reviewing the previous excursions to Torreón makes for painful reading. Seattle allowed six goals on its last visit in the quarterfinals of last year's competition. Toronto FC conceded six times at this stage. Houston somehow improved upon matters when it shipped three goals there last month.
No such indignities unfolded on this night. Sigi Schmid's players stood toe-to-toe with their combatants and struck their own blows from time to time. Equality reigned on the scoreboard and, for the most part, on the field.
This determined performance represented yet another stage in the development of this Sounders FC squad. In the long and winding road of a MLS season, the early stumbles could prove a mere footnote to a successful campaign. More performances like this one – with a bit of additional quality and precision in the final third to round them off – will likely ensure it.
Seattle posed more problems in the first 10 minutes on Wednesday than it did in the entire first leg. Schmid trusted his players to chase the game at points and press the opposition wisely. They responded with another dogged display to reveal both their strengths and their limitations.
Santos' opening goal fell into the latter category. Sounders FC center back Zach Scott found himself pulled out of position by a simple ball over the top and tempted to give away a foul on the edge of his own penalty area to rectify the concern. Carlos Darwin Quintero exacerbated the problem by thrashing the resulting free kick off the underside of the bar for the game's first goal. First leg hero Hérculez Gómez even tucked away the rebound to ensure the assistant referee did not take his cues from Borussia Dortmund-Málaga earlier in the day.
Quintero's free kick punished Seattle for failing to convert its own chances earlier in the match, but it did not prompt the anticipated romp. One goal tends to lead to two or three more when MLS sides travel to Mexico. It didn't on this occasion. Seattle kept its composure, sidestepped catastrophe when Oribe Peralta somehow blazed over an empty net shortly before halftime and snatched a goal in the waning stages to set up a grandstand finish.
Second-half substitute Lamar Neagle did most of the heavy lifting. He jostled for position in the air and played a square pass for Zakuani in a promising position. Zakuani forced a save from Oswaldo Sánchez, but Neagle polished off the rebound after 73 minutes to spark the game to life and stir Seattle's hopes of a famous win.
The necessary second goal never arrived, though. Djimi Traoré headed into Sánchez's grateful arms eight minutes from time, but that attempt marked the closest Seattle would come to a place in the final and a transformational result.
The slender margin between triumph and heartache provides hope for the future, particularly in the wake of a stalemate on the night. One peculiar bounce or one taken chance in the first half could have sent Seattle through instead of Santos. Or one simple finish from Peralta could have inspired a more comprehensive display from a home side that perhaps felt more comfortable than it should have in the circumstances. The tenuous balance reflects well upon the visitors.
Credit, however, does not necessarily translate into achievement. At some point, it just isn't enough to run Mexican clubs close and scoop up the plaudits for valiant failures.
And every near miss increases the expectations that some noble display in the future – maybe tonight when Los Angeles travels to Monterrey, maybe in a few years' time when the budgetary gap dwindles to a manageable margin – will ultimately yield victory instead.
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