SEATTLE – They have taken different paths over the past four years, with a variety of story lines and talking points, disparate hurdles to clear and slumps to overcome.
But the Sounders hope they are again on one of those runs, the patented late-season flurries, that have marked the Brian Schmetzer era.
This was a season that at times looked limitless, and at times looked hopeless. After a particularly galling loss in the midst of a series of them, Schmetzer called his team “dysfunctional.” And in August, when the success of this season was still hanging in the balance, he was moved to exhort them with a reminder to all – players and supporters alike – of the tradition that existed. And needed to be upheld.
“We’re the Seattle … Sounders,” he said at the time. “And we’ll continue to play the way we always do. We don’t quit. We don’t give up. … We are going to fight every game.”
And here they are in late October, still fighting. The Sounders defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0 on Wednesday at CenturyLink Field to advance to the Western Conference championship for the fifth time in the past eight years. Two of those came in the previous three seasons since Schmetzer replaced Sigi Schmid midyear and led them to back-to-back MLS Cup finals, winning it all in 2016.
It is Schmetzer’s particular skill, it seems, to work through the rough patches and downturns to have the Sounders jelling when it matters most. Now they are one victory, against Los Angeles FC, from going back again, with a slight chance for the Cup finals to be held in Seattle.
They did it with a robust performance in which RSL dominated possession for much of the game, yet the Sounders still dominated the scoring chances. But storied goalkeeper Nick Rimando, the 40-year-old marvel trying valiantly to stave off his pending retirement, kept stopping shot after shot.
That is, until Gustav Svensson, of all people, took a corner kick from Nico Lodeiro and headed in the breakthrough goal past Rimando in the 64th minute, a deft, twisting flick of a shot that turned the game on its heels.
“Gustav’s goal was the thing that really broke the game open,” Schmetzer said. “That was what we needed. We would have kept attacking – that would have been fine – but when we finally did have that breakthrough, it allowed us to dictate tempo, allowed us to do the things we wanted to do, the things we didn’t do maybe against Dallas, and we were able to close the game out.”
A subsequent beauty of a goal by Lodeiro in the 81st minute ended the suspense – and gave Schmetzer an opportunity after the match to have a satisfying rejoinder to critics.
“It feels pretty darned good,” he said. “It makes me think that all the people that think we have an old, tired team – I think we have an experienced team. I think we have a really good team and a team that can do some really special, good things.”
The Sounders, who lost four straight at one point in May and June, and who went just 9-9-3 after a sizzling 7-1-5 start, are starting to do just that in the postseason, when it matters most, when one breakdown could end their season under the new single-elimination format. Again, it led to intense, frenzied play on Wednesday, a match that got chippy almost from the start and at times seemed on the verge of being more than that.
Here’s what Schmetzer said when asked to explain the Sounders’ propensity for shedding whatever midseason woes existed.
“It’s a great group of guys, and I have an outstanding coaching staff,” he began. “I think from Day One this organization was built on winning and persevering in times of trouble. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves if things don’t go our way. We pick ourselves up, we go back to work. We do all of the little things that make us a hard team to beat.
“There are things I take from different coaches. Coach (Pete) Carroll is always positive, he talks about commitment and all these things. I listen to other coaches to kind of get what I say to the group. Alan Hinton, Jimmy Gabriel, a lot of guys I kind of listen to and formulate, and think about how can I say it in my own version. And those guys respond.”
Svensson feels it, too.
“We’ve struggled a lot this season,” he said. “We struggled last game as well in some parts of the game, but I’m very proud of how we come through and keep winning games even though we struggle sometimes.”
It has become a Sounders trademark under Schmetzer.
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