What stands between the Seattle Sounders reaching their first MLS Cup is the best defensive team in the league — the Colorado Rapids.
The two teams tangle in the two-leg Western Conference finals starting Tuesday night at CenturyLink Field.
The Rapids gave up the fewest goals in MLS this season — 32 in 34 regular-season matches. At one point this summer, they were on track to break Real Salt Lake’s single-season goals scored against record (20), set in 2010.
But heading into this playoff series, the Sounders might have a brief opening to dent what seems like an bulletproof unit.
Tim Howard, who was brought in by the Rapids in July from Everton and is arguably the top goalkeeper in U.S. history, is out with a torn adductor muscle, suffered in the FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Mexico.
In comes backup Zac MacMath, who has been sitting the past 80 days for the Rapids.
Since it was announced Nov. 12 that Howard would miss the remainder of the MLS playoffs, MacMath has been taking first-team repetitions in Rapids’ training.
But MacMath also admitted “getting myself settled in the first 20 minutes (Tuesday) will be helpful, getting used to the pace again.”
Can the Sounders take advantage of that 20-minute window and get an all-important early goal?
“I know Zac will be ready, but we have to test him early,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We have to shoot from outside the box, realizing he has not played.”
Of course, people in soccer circles know one thing: This isn’t an everyday replacement scrub Colorado has coming off the bench.
Drafted fifth overall in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Maryland, MacMath started in 104 matches for Philadelphia in a four-year span.
Last season, MacMath spent much of the season on loan from the Union to Colorado as a backup goalkeeper to Clint Irwin.
The Rapids decided to go with MacMath as their starter this season, trading their second-round pick of the 2017 draft to Philadelphia to retain him.
MacMath was great, allowing one goal or fewer in 15 of his first 16 matches. His 0.69 goals against average was the lowest in the league during that span.
And the 24-year-old beat the Sounders in both regular-season matches — 3-1 at home on April 23, and 1-0 at CenturyLink Field on May 21.
“He has proven over the course of seven months — until July — that he is a first-rate goalkeeper in this league,” Colorado coach Pablo Mastroeni said.
So why the switch to Howard?
Simply put, Mastroeni said the organization swapped out MacMath, a goalkeeper “in great form for an American legend at the highest level.”
Few would disagree with that.
Nevertheless, the move still bothered MacMath.
A month after the change, MacMath publicly admitted to local media that he wanted out of Colorado, saying he would pursue a move elsewhere in the offseason to become a starting goalkeeper again.
Other than that episode, MacMath has been a steadfast teammate, his coach said.
“It takes a man to be able to take that kind of information, given his performance, and not sulk and throw his toys and run out of the room and slam doors,” Mastroeni said.
“It is unbelievable the situation (acquiring Howard) happened, and what is more unbelievable to me is Zac stepping in … with confidence and belief.”
Flip it to the other side, and the Sounders counter with a man who started all 33 regular-season matches, and the three playoff showdowns against Sporting KC and FC Dallas — Stefan Frei.
Since Howard arrived in Colorado, Frei has spent 1,800 more minutes in goal than MacMath.
“(Defense) ... is not just a one-man show,” Frei said. “But (MacMath) has had a fantastic year, and with all of his experience, I don’t expect him to struggle too much.
“Hopefully we can make him uncomfortable as soon as possible, as soon as the game starts and not really let him have too much time to find his way in the game. But he is a heck of a goalkeeper.”
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: NO. 4 SEATTLE SOUNDERS (14-14-6, 48 POINTS) VS. NO. 2 COLORADO RAPIDS (15-6-13, 58 POINTS)
Leg 1: 7 p.m., Tuesday, CenturyLink Field
TV: Fox Sports 1. Radio: 97.3-FM, 1360-AM.
Head to head: Colorado won both of the regular season games against Seattle, prevailing 3-1 in Colorado on April 23 and 1-0 in Seattle on May 21. In the first game, goals by Jermaine Jones, Luis Solignac and Kevin Doyle offset Jordan Morris’ score. In the second game, a header by Axel Sjoberg was the difference. The Sounders lead the all-time series, 13-3-2. They also won the only playoff meeting, downing the Rapids 2-0 in a knockout round game in 2013.
Notes: Is this the year the Sounders finally make the MLS Cup? To do so, they’ll have to solve the stingy defense of the Colorado Rapids, the conference’s No. 2 seed and owner of the fewest goals allowed this season with 32. And, Seattle might have to do it without its leading scorer, Jordan Morris. Morris injured his left hamstring in the first half of the second leg against FC Dallas, an injury that also kept him out of national team duty. He’s had two weeks to heal, but on Monday, coach Brian Schmetzer was tight-lipped about Morris and the other injured Sounders: Ramon Torres (hamstring), Andres Ivanschitz (knee) and Alvaro Fernandez (hamstring). The Rapids have their own injury concerns. Tim Howard’s torn adductor in the national team’s recent loss to Mexico puts Zac MacMath back in goal for Colorado, although MacMath was the keeper who shut out the Sounders back in May and started the first 17 games before Howard’s transfer from the Premier League. Also, forward Shkelzen Gashi, who led the team with 10 goals, is questionable because of an ankle injury. The Rapids depend heavily on 35-year-old Jermaine Jones in the midfield, and may ask him to assume more offensive responsibilities if Gashi can’t play. Plus, Jones toiled in both of the recent national team games and was dealing with knee issues before joining the USMNT. The Rapids have three former Sounders on their roster who play prominent roles: Sebastien LeToux, Marc Burch and Michael Azira.
Next: Leg 2 is at 1 p.m. Sunday in Commerce City, Colorado.
Darrin Beene, staff writer
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