There is no panic in Seattle. Doubts, if there are any, haven’t been shared. The Sounders are ready. They're a team that, as general manager Garth Lagerwey put it, “is built to win big games.”
It’s just that no one expected to be playing such a big one this weekend.
The 2014 Supporters Shield and U.S. Open Cup champion had been knocking on the MLS Cup door for years and this season, with the LA Galaxy reloading and Real Salt Lake regressing, the Sounders were the popular pick to survive the Western Conference gauntlet and play for the league title.
That still may happen, but Seattle has to make the playoffs first. What once was considered a given now is uncertain. Despite a seven-game MLS unbeaten streak, the Sounders (14-13-6) must defeat visiting RSL on Sunday evening, or get some help, in order to extend their season. The league's “Decision Day”, on which all 20 teams will conclude their regular seasons across four hours, could be Seattle's doomsday. Already ensured of their worst regular season campaign since joining MLS in 2009, the Sounders now have 90 minutes to save it.
“We’re at a point now where we haven’t been in this situation before,” captain Brad Evans told SI.com. “We were thinking about the last game last year, the one-off game at home [against LA] to win the Supporters Shield. The contrast in seasons and how they kind of went, it’s obviously left a little bit to be desired here. I think we’ve dealt with injuries, and not only injuries but obviously when your biggest players are out for an extended period of time, with any team in this league, you’re going to struggle.”
Those struggles, ironically, leave the Sounders confident heading into Sunday. They’re in this difficult position largely due to a brutal stretch from late June through late August, during which they went 2-9-0. The common denominator in those defeats was the absence of designated player forwards Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. Not only have they accounted for 52% of Seattle’s MLS goals over the past two seasons, their presence dictates the way the team plays.
Coach Sigi Schmid’s squad is organized behind the ball. It has the stingiest defense in the league. The Sounders pick their spots going forward—knock the ball around in midfield or in back, then find Deuce and Oba and let them go to work. Seattle doesn’t put much premium on possession in the attacking third. No team this year took fewer shots or earned fewer corner kicks. Instead, it’s about quick and ruthless efficiency and focusing on what its best players do best. In Dempsey and Martins’s absence—they made a combined three appearances during that 11-game stretch thanks to national team duty, injury and suspension—the Sounders were unable to cope, evolve or compensate for the missing threat and precision.
“To be honest, it was a bit unlucky. We weren’t getting blown out. We were losing by one goal. We were on the road in Chicago and they scored in the 90th minute. It was similar in Colorado [and Montreal]. If any of those results go the other way, we find ourselves in a different situation,” Evans said.
“Is our team set up differently than other teams? Absolutely,” he continued. “Do we rely on Clint and Oba for most of our production? That’s the way this team is built. That’s the way the front office decided to go. That’s the way other teams play against us, to make sure they try to bottle them up … We have to figure out ways to get around that. And for the past couple of games, we’ve done that. It’s about figuring out within our team, within our locker room, what we can do better to take the focus off those two guys. When we do that, we’re a very good team.”
Dempsey has just one goal in seven MLS games since returning from the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but he’s fit and creating chances. Martins, meanwhile, is back in form following his summer adductor injury. The Nigerian has goals in six of his past seven outings.
The rest of the team is healthy too, or as healthy as it has been in some time—apart from Panamanian defender Román Torres, who played four times before tearing his ACL. Midfielders Ozzie Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda are back and have started the past four matches together. Schmid told reporters on Friday that just about everyone but Torres is available for selection. The team built to win big games is back intact.
“I think we have a pretty good core group at this point. Your ideal starting 11, have they played a lot of minutes together? I can’t say that,” Lagerwey told SI.com. “I think there’s a solid argument that we’re built for the playoffs. We’re built to play games you’ve got to win. Maybe we got worn down over a long season. You suffer through some rough patches. But we have everybody back with the exception of Torres, and [Marco] Pappa’s not 100%. We have the tools and the weapons, and everything’s in place to win on Sunday. If you don’t do that, nothing else matters.”
Failure to be one of the 12 playoff teams in a season that kicked off with such high expectations would be catastrophic. There will be those who call for Schmid’s job if that occurs, and others who will question the very foundation for the Sounders’ philosophy (Lagerwey’s appointment last winter is a sign there were questions anyway). But that pressure isn’t crushing the Seattle locker room. Evans said there was even some “excitement” ahead of Sunday’s game. The trends are tilting the Sounders' way. They haven’t lost in two months. RSL, the last team to beat Seattle, already has been eliminated and will be playing without suspended captain Kyle Beckerman. The Sounders, meanwhile, will be playing before more than 53,000 fans at CenturyLink Field and even have some margin for error. With a loss, Seattle still would qualify if either Sporting Kansas City or the San Jose Earthquakes lose on Sunday.
The intention, of course, is not to leave their fate in the hands of others. Seattle hasn’t had much good fortune this year. Some of it has been bad luck and some has been self-inflicted. There was Sigi Schmid’s September health scare, Pappa’s July DUI, Dempsey’s Open Cup meltdown and his exhausting Gold Cup, a five-game losing streak, Torres’s injury and more.
“Everything that could happen has happened,” Lagerwey said.
At the end of it all, the Sounders could win on Sunday and still finish second in the West (that’s unlikely, they’d need a lot of help). If they have to play in next week's knockout round, they may as well be hitting the playoffs on a league-best eight-game unbeaten run.
“If we win this thing, it would mean that this group endured a lot,” Evans said. “When you talk about veteran teams and experienced teams, I think we’ve all faced certain things in the past. If we make a solid run at it … putting our heads down and working and still sticking together will be the theme at the end of it.”
Said Lagerwey, “It doesn’t matter how we got there, but we’re there. If we win the game on Sunday, we get the chance to go to the playoffs. We have a team that has some pretty special. attacking players and the No. 1 defense in the league. And if you look a that, those are two pretty good components for winning the title. I think our season will be judged when it’s over and hopefully we can push that back a few weeks.”