LAFC heads to Seattle with odds of a playoff win always slim

Estimated read time 8 min read

Lumen Field rises near the shores of Seattle’s Elliott Bay like a concrete citadel.

In years past, the 68,000-seat stadium, home to Seattle’s professional football and soccer teams, has answered to Qwest Field, CenturyLink Field and Seahawks Stadium. Whatever its name, it has become a house of horrors for Southern California’s professional soccer teams, all of which have struggled on its plastic grass and in its rainy, bone-chilling climate come playoff time.

Only once in seven tries has an L.A. team won a postseason game there — and that win came 13 years ago. Since then, the Galaxy, LAFC and Angel City have seen at least one season buried in the mausoleum by the bay.

They aren’t the only teams that have gone winless in Seattle: The Sounders are unbeaten in their last 19 home playoff games, equaling the longest streak in MLS history, and haven’t lost in Seattle in 15 postseason matches under coach Brian Schmetzer. That’s the history LAFC will be looking to buck Sunday when it meets the Sounders in the MLS Western Conference semifinals on Lumen Field’s slick artificial turf.

“The stats sound pretty ominous,” Schmetzer said. “But I don’t know. Sports are cyclical.”

Not in Seattle, where the Sounders have lost only two of 26 playoff games all time. Only the Galaxy, who have been in MLS twice as long, have more postseason wins or a better playoff winning percentage at home (minimum three games played).

LAFC has faced the Sounders only twice in the playoffs, once at home and once on the road, losing both times. While that’s a small sample size, LAFC hasn’t done much better in Seattle in the regular season with its only victory there coming in the first game in franchise history in 2018. LAFC is 0-4-3 in Seattle since then.

Seattle’s Stefan Frei is one of the top goalkeepers in MLS and will be a problem that LAFC must solve if it wants to advance to the MLS Cup final.

(Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If history favors the Sounders, the present is a toss-up. In Sunday’s playoff game, LAFC will send its unstoppable force, MVP finalist Denis Bouanga, the league’s leading scorer with 20 goals, against Seattle’s immovable object, goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who gave up an MLS-low 28 goals and led the league with a 0.88 goals-against average and 14 shutouts.

Yet the frozen ghosts of playoffs past insist the home team has the edge at Lumen Field in November.

“That was a very hard place to play,” said former Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza, who has almost as much experience playing — and losing — playoff games in Seattle as the entire LAFC roster combined. “Teams from L.A., maybe you get a little bit spoiled with that weather and grass fields. Then you go into Seattle where, especially in the playoffs, it’s cold. You’re playing on turf as well. You put all those together, that’s going to make for a tough place to go get results.”

The weather probably will be a factor again Sunday, with temperatures forecast to hover just above freezing with a chance of rain. On average, November is the rainiest month in Seattle, where snow and sleet are not uncommon during the MLS playoffs.

“Normally in MLS playoffs you get conditions that maybe affect teams, much like the heat in Dallas or the humidity in Orlando,” said Schmetzer, a Seattle native who has spent 54 of his 61 years there. “I think our players are just used to the climate.“

Former Galaxy midfielder Juninho, who is from Brazil, never got used to it.

“This time of the year it’s freezing,” he said. “I had my gloves on. I had a long-sleeve [shirt] to try to stay warm. You have to warm up more than you usually do. There are some factors that you have to really consider. It’s definitely a tough place to play.”

LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov, who won an MLS championship ring during two seasons as an assistant in Seattle, isn’t totally buying the weather argument.

“Players love to play in rainy conditions,” he said, apparently discounting Brazilians. “The cold? We’re probably sick of the heat here so we could use a little bit of cold.”

For Razov, Lumen Field’s FieldTurf Revolution 360 playing surface, an artificial carpet composed of monofilament polyethylene-blend fibers tufted into a polypropylene backing, is a much bigger hindrance for visiting teams.

“It’s very difficult to navigate if you’re not a team that plays on that consistently,” he said. “That’s not to take away anything [from] Seattle. They’ve been very strong. But it is a little bit of an advantage.”

The Sounders’ record bears that out because even when the weather’s nice, Seattle is a tough place to play: According to MLS, of the three teams in league history that have the best regular-season home winning percentage after at least 100 games, two of them — Seattle and Atlanta — play on artificial surfaces.

“That definitely is a factor,” Juninho agreed. “Especially when they wet the field. The ball goes faster, you have to think differently than normal.”

For LAFC, seeking to become the first MLS champion to win back-to-back titles in 11 seasons, playing in poor weather on plastic grass would have been avoided if it hadn’t conceded a second-half goal in the regular-season finale in Vancouver. Without that goal, LAFC would have finished a point ahead of Seattle in the Western Conference standings and would be playing Sunday at home, where it has the conference’s best record over the last six seasons.

“We could kick ourselves all day in terms of the points we’ve lost along the way,” Razov said.

Sounders fans hold a banner before a game against LAFC earlier this season.

Sounders fans hold a banner before a game against LAFC earlier this season.

(Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

Jordan Harvey, LAFC’s assistant technical director, played in LAFC’s only previous playoff game in Seattle, a 3-1 loss on a cold, rainy weeknight in 2020 in a stadium without fans because of COVID restrictions. He discounts both the turf and the weather, saying the reason the Sounders win playoff games so often is because they’re good.

“They have a team geared towards playoffs,” he said. “You’ve seen it in the past, where they have maybe slow starts, but they always get there and they’re a team that, come playoff time, they’re really buzzing, they’re playing at their highest level. And everyone steps it up for them in the playoffs.

“I would imagine that just gives them confidence, and confidence sometimes allows you to play freer, play your best quality game.”

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo agreed. Five other MLS teams play on artificial fields, but none are as good at home as Seattle. Two teams, Colorado and Real Salt Lake, play at altitude but both had losing records at home this season. And of the 15 or so league cities where heat, humidity or cold weather can make it difficult to play during the regular season, only two still have teams in the playoffs.

So if it’s not the field, not the altitude and not the climate, it must be the players who make Seattle so tough to beat.

“The biggest reason is they’re just a good team,” Cherundolo said. “They have a lot of good players who understand the moment. They’ve played a lot of big games.”

Four Sounders — Jordan Morris, Nicholas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Frei — started in Schmetzer‘s first game as Seattle’s manager in 2016 and have played in four MLS Cup finals and won a CONCACAF Champions League title since then. Add in midfielders Albert Rusnak and Joao Paulo; defenders Yeimar and Nouhou Tolo, who started three games for Cameroon in last year’s World Cup; and forward Raúl Ruidíaz, a two-time All-Star who now comes off the bench, and it’s a deep team.

“I mean, look, we’ve got a pretty veteran squad,” said Schmetzer, whose starting lineup averages more than 28 years of age. “We’ve got players that have played in big games. And yeah, I think my team does show up in big games.”

The fact they show up big on artificial turf in wet and chilly conditions isn’t irrelevant but that alone does not explain why Lumen Field has become the place where L.A. teams’ playoff hopes often come to die. If LAFC wants to play in another MLS Cup final, it will have to break that curse because it has to go through Seattle to get there.

“In playoffs, it doesn’t matter where you play or against who you play. If you want to win the championship, you have to win these types of games,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela said. “We are ready [to] go to Seattle, do our best to get the victory and advance.”

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