The Seattle Sounders have been here before, heading into a MLS Cup playoff series as the favorite. Twice in the first six two-legged series they've played in their franchise history, they've been the higher seed. You probably know what happened each time.
In 2011, the Sounders lost 3-0 to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals. A year later, they fell 3-0 in the first leg of the conference finals at the LA Galaxy. This year, they hope to prove those struggles are behind them.
The first step has already been taken. The Sounders managed to claim four points in their two-game season finale agains the Galaxy and all signs suggest that this year's club is simply wired differently. As the stakes go up, the Sounders have played better. The Sounders went 5-2-2 this year in nine matches against the last three teams to eliminate them for the playoffs -- the Galaxy, Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake -- and seemed to have turned a corner when it comes to playing in big games.
The Sounders will also be propelled along by their chase of history, as they attempt to become the first MLS team to ever win the treble -- they've already won the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield. If they are to prove those struggles are behind them, though, it needs to start now.
For the underdog to pull an upset, they usually need a few breaks to go their way. FC Dallas is already behind the 8-ball in that sense. On Friday, they found out that playmaker Mauro Diaz would be suspended for the first leg against the Sounders. Diaz left the bench to enter the field during a skirmish in the 84th minute against the Whitecaps. Diaz was unlikely to have started anyway, but Oscar Pareja surely would have preferred to have a weapon like that on the bench.
FC Dallas (4-4-2): Raul Fernandez; Je-Vaughn Watson, Jordan Zimmerman, Matt Hedges, Zach Loyd; Andres Escobar, Victor Ulloa, Michel, Fabian Castillo; Blas Perez, David Texeira.
Seattle Sounders (4-4-2): Stefan Frei; DeAndre Yedlin, Zach Scott, Chad Marshall, Leo Gonzalez; Lamar Neagle, Osvaldo Alonso, Gonzalo Pineda, Marco Pappa; Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins.
1.How do the Sounders stop David Texeira? OK, this is half in jest, but of Texeira's four career goals three of them have come against the Sounders and two of those came in their most recent meeting. As fluky as that stat may be, it does highlight an issue the Sounders must shore up: Don't allow cheap goals. In recent weeks, the Sounders defense has improved greatly but the playoffs are a different beast and if they are to avoid slip-ups like previously years they need to make Dallas earn everything.
2. How much will Dallas miss Mauro Diaz? At first glance, this would not seem to be a huge issue. Diaz has, after all, only played 11 matches over the past six months and has mostly come off the bench. But as he showed in the win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Knockout Round, he's very much a difference maker. Without him, Dallas probably moves into more of a basic 4-4-2, which is the same formation they used while beating the Sounders 3-1 in their last meeting but also one that theoretically plays into Seattle's strengths a bit more.
3. Does the Dempsey-Martins show work in the playoffs? There have been other teams that managed to win the Supporters' Shield with a defense allowing a similar number of goals as the Sounders did this year. But none of those teams have gone on to win MLS Cup. If the Sounders have one reason to think they might be different, well, it's actually two: Martins and Dempsey. Having those two players gives the Sounders a chance no matter what else is happening, but it remains to be seen if they can continue to have such an outsized effect on games when the postseason comes. We'll get an idea on Sunday.
The Sounders are the better team. They've been better on the road. They've already won in Dallas this season. All signs point to this year being different. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. They'd be thrilled to go home even and with a goal or two in their pocket. This is lining up as a 1-1 tie.