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Originally published November 2, 2013 at 9:38 PM | Page modified November 2, 2013 at 11:15 PM

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Sounders head to Portland dealing with a deficit

A late goal give Seattle a fighting chance, but the Sounders’ struggles in the opener of playoff series continued.

Seattle Times columnist

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First of all the tifu was great! And thanks to all of the fans who came out and did... MORE
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Sounders fans at CenturyLink Field unfurled their tifo just as Saturday’s playoff match with Portland was about to begin, the giant banner declaring, “Welcome To Your Nightmare.”

The message was obviously directed at the visiting Timbers, who when last seen facing Seattle in a big-time postseason match earned a victory in Portland that caused their fans to storm the field like it was a college basketball upset. That was 38 years ago.

Unless the Sounders can raise their game on Thursday when this series concludes in Portland, the nightmare will be theirs.

Under the two-match cumulative score format, the team that opens at home is like a quarter-miler starting ahead of the field in a staggered start. Even victories can be deceptive, and if you don’t take advantage of the stagger — in this case, the initial home-field advantage — it doesn’t bode well.

The Sounders dropped this one, 2-1 to the Timbers, much to the delirious delight of the Timbers Army tucked into the northeast corner of the stadium. Only a late goal by Osvaldo Alonso in the 90th minute saved the Sounders from a near-hopeless situation with the action moving to Portland.

Now they have a fighting chance, but Seattle’s struggles in the opener of playoff series continued, whether at home or on the road. It’s much more damaging, however, when the first leg is at home.

To coach Sigi Schmid, there was solace in the fact that the Sounders had numerous scoring opportunities, even if all but one was not completed.

“At times we were right around the box and the last pass was not there,’’ Schmid said. “We have to execute that and be a little more deadly on that. In terms of dominating the game territorially, being at the right part of the field, putting pressure on them, I thought we did a good job.”

The last time these two teams met in Seattle was Clint Dempsey’s Sounders’ home debut, and the joint crackled with electricity as 67,385 packed into the stadium — the largest soccer crowd ever in Seattle, and the second-largest in MLS history for a stand-alone game.

This one — possibly the final Seattle home game of the season — drew a more modest throng of 38,507. They provided the usual cacophony of chanting and cheering, but the Sounders didn’t provide them the opportunity to really break loose until Alonso’s goal, just when the crowd’s restlessness was peaking.

That late score markedly changed the Sounders’ outlook. Several of them pointed out that any sort of victory in Portland, even by a lone goal, would at minimum put them into overtime.

“Out of two games, you’d think you have to win one if you want to go through,’’ Dempsey said. “We have to make sure we get the job done, and I think we have the quality. With a few days’ rest — we’ve been kind of running and gunning of late — maybe this will help us do that.”

Schmid believes that Dempsey’s fitness, an ongoing issue in light of the fact he missed preseason, will cease to be factor.

“I think this was a hard week, and when you play three games you’ve certainly built a lot of fitness,’’ he said. “We have to give him a chance to recover, and I think you’ll see a fully fit guy on Thursday.”

Dempsey tried to ignite the Sounders early with a well-placed free kick in the first half, but Portland goalie Donavan Ricketts knocked it away for a deft save. Dempsey had another huge opportunity at the 75th minute from about 10 yards out, but his half-volley was just wide. An aggressive header by Dempsey in the 86th minute barely bounced over the bar.

“I had my chances,’’ Dempsey said. “I was happy with the looks I got and getting touches on the ball. It just seemed like one of those nights it wasn’t going to go in for me. It’s important we got the goal we did get.”

Portland, meanwhile, got a goal in the 15th minute on a header from Ryan Johnson, and another in the 67th minute from Darlington Nagbe. These occurred on a pitch with the Seahawks football markings still in place, the aesthetic equivalent of running an NFL play across a major-league dirt infield.

When Dempsey debuted here in late August, it was hoped — indeed, anticipated — that the superstar’s arrival would lift the Sounders to their greatest heights. The gigantic tifo that night read, “Build a Bonfire.” And, indeed, their 1-0 victory over the Timbers began a blazing five-game win streak that lifted Seattle to the best record in the league.

But then, just as suddenly, came the seven-game winless streak (four losses, three draws) that transformed the narrative of the Sounders’ season from one of celebration to incrimination. The angst eased this past Wednesday with a survival 2-0 playoff win over Colorado.

Now, however, the Sounders are scrambling again for their playoff lives. On Thursday, they’ll try not to have their season end in Portland at the hands of the Timbers — which for Seattle is the very definition of a nightmare.

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