SEATTLE – When Loons coach Adrian Heath saw the assistant referee raise his board to announce three minutes of stoppage time, he thought his Loons had just enough in the tank to get it over the line.
Despite having an early lead through Ethan Finlay’s 21st-minute goal, once the Sounders answered, United fought doggedly just to preserve a draw. As a last-place team playing at the defending champion, even earning so much as a point is an achievement.
The visitors dug in their heels, headed away crosses and threw bodies in front of shots.
“Here we go,” Heath thought, looking up at the red number three with trepidation.
He knew the hosts were likely to get one last chance. And when it came, it rendered more than hour of determined defending ultimately for naught.
Sounders forward Clint Dempsey won a last-minute penalty kick via a shot that deflected off Jermaine Taylor’s outstretched arm and converted it himself, giving Seattle a dramatic 2-1 victory over United in front of a crowd of 40,312 on Sunday night at CenturyLink Field.
“I’m disappointed for the players,” Heath said. “I think they put in an incredible shift tonight. ... For all the hard work, to get nothing from the game is a bit of a killer for the boys. I can’t fault their effort.”
A draw would have at the very least lifted Minnesota (6-14-4) out of 11th place in the Western Conference. As it is, the Loons will reside in the basement for at least another week.
On paper, Sunday’s match was an easy call. Seattle came in as one of the hottest teams in MLS, unbeaten in eight and riding a club-record shutout streak. Minnesota, meanwhile, had won just twice since May.
In this league, though, mismatches are never as lopsided as they might seem. With the Sounders (11-7-7) hosting Portland in a nationally televised rivalry showdown next weekend, this had trap game written all over it. Say this for the visitors: They at least made the defending champions sweat.
Finlay’s early goal was a genuine feel-good moment for the Loons, the Duluth native commemorating his first game with his home-state club with a goal. Those moments have been few and far between during United’s inaugural season. Even if — perhaps especially if — you’re a last-place team, those are the ones you want to savor.
He took it well, too, sprinting onto an incisive pass from teammate Ibson, shimmying around Sounders defender Joevin Jones and firing into the net.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the goal celebration could only last so long; 79 minutes plus stoppage time were still to be played, and the lead lasted just 10 of them. United was done in by a pair of familiar flaws: set-piece defending and a lack of reliable finishing from anybody other than injured forward Christian Ramirez.
Seattle’s tying goal was way too easy, 6-foot-4 center back Chad Marshall rising unchallenged to nod in Nicolas Lodeiro’s close-range free kick in the 31st minute.
It might not have matter if Abu Danladi had converted a wide-open look just minutes after Finlay fired the visitors in front, and Danladi also wasted a golden opportunity to restore Minnesota’s lead early in the second half.
From there, United dropped back deeper and deeper, bunkering down to stave off the goal that finally came mere moments before the referee called time.
“It’s a cruel game that we play, and it rips our heart out,” Finlay said. “But I was proud of how the guys played. I thought we had solid performances all over the field. This is a tough place to play, probably one of the toughest. To weather the storm the way we did — the in-the-box defending that we did was brilliant for most of the evening.
“But we’ve still got to put it together. We did 92 minutes tonight, and we needed 93.”