BY Stanley Holmes 04:48PM 04/16/2011

Seattle ekes out vital point in Philadelphia

Sounders fight back to secure a last-minute draw 1-1 against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park.

Nate Jaqua of the Sounders heads the ball for a shot on goal over the top of Carlos Valdes (5) of the Union on Saturday / Getty Images

It wasn’t looking good for the Seattle Sounders until substitute Alvaro Fernandez punched home a header in stoppage time to secure a 1-1 draw against the Union.

It certainly looked like Seattle was headed for its third loss late in the match. A rain-drenched, lackluster win appeared to be in the Union’s clutches. Union’s Carlos Ruiz had scored the only goal, a bending free kick that deflected over Sounders’ goalie Kasey Keller, in the first half.

That is, until coach Sigi Schmid sent Fernandez — his final substitute — onto the pitch in the last 10 minutes. By that time, substitute Fredy Montero had been leading Seattle’s attack. For the first time all afternoon, Seattle’s attack looked dangerous. Still, Seattle could only create modestly threatening chances and its finishing lacked some bite — it certainly could use some laser-guided delivery systems.

Fernandez, who has been benched since the third match, altered the outcome — however improbably and however inelegantly. It doesn’t matter. The Sounders scrapped and fought their way back to equalize and grab one vital point.

“Super tough conditions to play in tonight here in Philly,” Steve Zakuani tweeted. “Made for an ugly game but it’s a great point on the road!”

If anything, this pedestrian match could be viewed as a moral victory, a potential turning point when all seemed lost and there really seemed no way Seattle could win. Yet the much-maligned Uruguayan popped up in the most unlikeliest spot for success — in a congested 18-yard-box between two big defenders.

Clear to his conservative style, Union coach Peter Nowak declined to really attack in the first half, preferring to keep just about everyone behind the ball and some of its most potent strikers on the bench.  Combine this cautious approach with the torrential downpour the players faced on the field, it’s not a stretch to say the first half ended in a ho-hum manner.

There were two exceptions. The first was the early energy of the Sounders’ Mauro Rosales, playing in Schmid’s withdrawn forward position. He was active, moving the ball quickly and finding seams of space. Rosales seemed to have freedom to roam and to create. And he did just that in the first 15 minutes. Then it seemed the Union started to take control of the match, ever-s0 slowly but steadily.

But Ruiz struck in the 32nd minute. Osvaldo Alonso had committed a foul (and received a yellow card) at the top of Seattle’s box. Ruiz lifted a bending ball over the wall but took a deflection that popped over Keller. Ruiz, 31, a scoring machine for the LA Galaxy in the past before he went to Europe, connected well on the ball.

Seattle was forced to chase the game in Philadelphia and play under terrible conditions as the second half began. Once again, neither team really wanted to dazzle. Much of the action concentrated in the middle of the pitch and neither really threatened.

But after the 60th minute, Schmid gambled. He replaced the ineffectual O’Brian White and defender Leo Gonzalez with Montero and Nate Jaqua respectively. What’s more, he switched his formation from a flexible 4-4-2 to a straight out, balls-to-the-way 3-4-3. He wanted instant firepower. This formation, which theoretically can flood five attackers into box, began to deliver on its promise.

With Montero now pulling the strings, Seattle pushed the Union defense hard the final 20 minutes. The combination of Montero and Rosales started to heat up as the two South Americans started to find each other and combine to move the ball up the field.

In the 88th minute, Rosales received a pass out wide following good build up by Seattle and pushed down to the right corner. Under pressure, he delivered a curving cross that Montero just flicked wide of the far post.

In stoppage time, Seattle continued to press. Rosales lofted a corner kick from the right in the 91st minute. Zakuani settled the ball at the far post. He passed to Montero at the top of the box, who then chipped it to Fernandez.

The Uruguayan got a head on it in heavy traffic and the ball crossed the line. Seattle came from behind to find the all-crucial equalizing goal. Season on for the Sounders.


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