Matt Pentz: Sounders at Crossroads, is history repeating itself?

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 – Seeking Justice for the Seriously Injured –


Brad Evans did not know when he faced Kaka how season turning the match with Orlando would be

Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo

By Matt Pentz

Asked to date the precise moment their 2016 season turned around, most of the Sounders chose Aug. 7. That evening inside Orlando’s swampy Camping World Stadium, Clint Dempsey’s hat trick morphed what had been an early deficit into a rousing 3-1 win – the first, it would turn out, of three straight victories.

Seattle’s campaign was precariously perched. For weeks after Brian Schmetzer took over from deposed coach Sigi Schmid, it felt as though the team could splinter either way.

The result in Orlando was significant for more than just three points gained: Two weekends earlier, in the loss that cost Schmid his job, the Sounders had withered in similar conditions in Kansas City. That they were now able to play through adversity – not only the heat, but the early OCSC goal – set the theme for the MLS Cup championship run that followed.

When all is said and done, the players might look back on the recent road games at Portland and Colorado in a similar vein.
When the Timbers struck twice in the wake of Brad Evans’ red card near halftime on June 25, the Sounders again stepped toward the edge of the abyss. There’s slight melodrama in writing off any MLS team before the calendar hits August – see: Seattle, 2016 – but it was also evident that the Rave Green was in a bad place.

Earlier in the week of the rivalry match, in a bit of serendipity, it allowed Orlando to equalize on the last kick of the match to earn a 1-1 draw at CenturyLink Field. Seattle sat a multiple places below the playoff cutoff line and was losing ground fast.
What happened during the second half at Providence Park could very well define this season. Playing a man down for more than 45 minutes, the Sounders stood toe-to-toe with their rivals, and deep inside stoppage time, Dempsey headed in the game-tying goal in front of a stunned Timbers Army.

The side could have collapsed having conceded two quick goals before half time in Portland
Photo: Mark Murray

Schmetzer’s description of his halftime pep talk – or lack thereof – that night was insightful:

“This team will not quit, it’s too proud of a franchise to do that and they did that again on their own. I barely had to say words in there, because those guys in there were the determined ones that make sure they can get something out of the game. I don’t really need to coach them up in situations like this.”

A week ago in Commerce City, Colo., his team again showed its mental toughness.

Playing at altitude is trying in the best of times, and the challenge was exacerbated by injuries suffered by veteran mainstays Osvaldo Alonso and Chad Marshall. Though updates have been positive and medical tests negative, at the time, it looked as though Seattle might be without two of its biggest difference-makers for the foreseeable future.

Despite all of that, the Sounders responded with a relatively comfortable 3-1 victory in the rematch of last year’s Western Conference final:

“I think more than the three points,” Schmetzer said. “It’s the emotion, the attitude in there.”

Added forward Will Bruin: “This is huge. We knew it was a huge game for us. We don’t have another league game for a while so we always want to have a good taste in our mouths going into a little break. … We want to build on it.”

Seattle is now tied for sixth place in the West, outside of the playoff picture by virtue of only Vancouver’s superior wins total. Though they’re not out of the woods yet – they’ve played two more games than the ‘Caps, and Los Angeles looms two points back with a match in hand – the situation is much rosier than it was two-and-half weeks ago. The Sounders play nine of their last 15 at CenturyLink, leaving ample opportunity for another late surge.

Will Bruin celebrates his goal in Colorado as Tim Howard looks downwards despairingly
Photo: Corbin Elliott

It isn’t just about the black-and-white of the recent results, but the way those games played out. Dempsey scored twice in Colorado, too, and there are signs that he and Nicolas Lodeiro are finally finding a bit of attacking chemistry. Get Jordan Morris going, factor in another likely summer reinforcement, combine that with the preexisting resilience and things could come together quickly.

Prior to the Timbers match, the Sounders were at a crossroads. The ongoing break for the Gold Cup could’ve left ample time to stew over all that had gone wrong so far this season. Four road points later, the outlook for Seattle’s title defense is as bright as it has been in 2017.

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