SEATTLE — After looking like an obvious early contender for the MLS Supporters’ Shield, the Seattle Sounders are barely clinging onto the final playoff place in the Western Conference. A 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Sunday allowed Seattle to claw back into sixth place, and though it was an ugly victory, the Sounders didn’t care how they won, only that they did.
“We can talk about a lot of things; the most important thing is that we got three points,” coach Sigi Schmid said after the game. “Sometimes, you’ve got to find your way back into rhythm and confidence through just hard work, and today was hard work.”
August kicked off ominously with a 3-0 home loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps after the difficult months of June and July, in which Seattle lost eight of 10 games. The Sounders seemed back on the path toward top form as their top players returned from various injuries and suspensions, culminating in a 4-0 win over Orlando City SC on Aug. 16.
A comeback 2-1 win over Olimpia in Champions League seemed to indicate that luck was changing and things were heading in the right direction. Then, they turned sour again with a 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake and a one-goal away loss to Olimpia before Seattle’s victory on Sunday against its biggest rival.
As such, captain Brad Evans was a little reticent to label this most recent win as anything more than a singular successful effort rather than a symbolic bellwether.
“We talked about that against Orlando—the same exact question got brought up—and you’d love to say yes, that it is the turning-point game, but reality is we’ll find out next week if that’s the case,” he said. “I think every game takes on [its] own character, and it’s the way that guys approach it, to be honest. The way that the team approached the Orlando game was not the way that everybody was approaching the Salt Lake game.”
For a while, Seattle could only lose consistently. At least now, with the help of Obafemi Martins returning from injury with goals in the last two league wins and newcomers Nelson Valdez and Román Torres integrating well, the team has begun to push back.
Marco Pappa started for the first time since his arrest and completion of MLS’s substance-abuse protocol, and Osvaldo Alonso made his return from a long-term injury against Portland. Clint Dempsey should also be back from his latest hamstring strain against Toronto FC in a week.
Despite the newfound positivity in the Sounders’ locker room, Evans emphasized that time is short for Seattle to avoid failing to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
“As your back gets pushed farther and farther back into the wall, at some point, you’ve got to make a stand,” Evans said. “That’ll be the telling story to the end of our season is, can we do it consistently to get ourselves into the playoffs and make a run at this thing?”
Seattle takes on Toronto at home on Saturday before a match-up against the San Jose Earthquakes, who sit level on points but with one less win than Seattle, on Sept. 12. Looking farther down the schedule, matches against Vancouver and the first-placed LA Galaxy stand out.
After playing in multiple competitions over the previous weeks and never having a chance to get players into a true training rhythm, Schmid said the fact that his team only has one midweek game sandwiched between weekend matches remaining will work heavily in Seattle’s favor. The team has eight games remaining, seven in league play, compared to eight in August alone.
“We are looking forward to the fact that now we play as many games in the next two months as we played in the past month,” he said. “You never have the same group together at training, and because of the amount of games that you have, you’re training in smaller numbers. … That’s been probably the most difficult thing.”
For Schmid, the winningest coach in the league, and veteran players such as Evans on a team that has consistently been one of the best in MLS, a fight just to get into the postseason is unfamiliar, or at least a foggy memory.
“If we don’t get results now, we’re not going to make playoffs, and that’s just not acceptable,” Evans said. “We haven’t been in this position before; I haven’t been in this position before. … The way that results are going, it’s definitely going to be a sprint to the finish.”