Seattle found a way when they were 10 points out of the playoffs, and they’ll have to find a way in the playoffs if they hope to win that first MLS Cup.
There was no wild Champagne celebration, no blaring music, no bling and no brash proclamations in the locker room to commemorate the Sounders’ remarkable playoff run.
After their 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake on Sunday kept Seattle’s season alive, interim (at least for now) coach Brian Schmetzer gave retiring defender Zach Scott an autographed photo to honor his years of service. And then Schmetzer told his gathered players, “We’re going to work tomorrow.”
There’s an interesting swirl of sometimes conflicting emotions surrounding these Sounders. Given up for dead when Sigi Schmid was fired on July 26, they rallied for an 8-2-4 record under Schmetzer to erase a seemingly insurmountable 10-point deficit and clinch the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference — and a home playoff game with Sporting Kansas City on Thursday.
Certainly, there is a strong sense of pride in defying the doomsayers, which was finalized by Sunday’s result, coupled with a Portland loss in Vancouver.
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“It’s incredible to come back,’’ said Cristian Roldan, who scored the go-ahead goal in the 30th minute. “Not a lot of teams thought we had it in us, and counted us out. At this point, I think people are a little bit worried about us.”
Mostly, though, there is a sense of incompletion amongst the Sounders, which helps explain the low-key aftermath of the playoff clincher. Though the mood has been dramatically transformed and uplifted over the past 2½ months, the Sounders have attained such a state of belief that they believe it can, and should, continue.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,’’ said veteran Brad Evans, who came off the bench on Sunday. “I think this is a workmanlike performance, and how we got here was very workmanlike, so we continue that mentality.
“Are we happy? Of course, but we also know in 3½ days we have another battle. If we happen to win that one, we go another 2½ days to have another battle at home. So in saying that, of course we’re going to enjoy this, but there’s no need for a celebration in here like that.”
Schmetzer said he might allow himself 15 minutes for a sigh of relief before beginning to work on a game plan for Thursday’s match with Sporting Kansas City. And then Schmetzer addressed the ultimate goal of this franchise, which is unwavering despite the coaching change, despite the loss of superstar Clint Dempsey, and despite the uneven road they’ve traveled to get to this point.
“The expectations for this club are to make the playoffs, to win games, to win championships,’’ Schmetzer said. “Those are the expectations, and we live with those. That’s the message those guys have heard from Day One, from 2002 (Schmetzer’s first season with the minor-league Sounders) with me, and ’09 with Sig (Schmid), and that’s the message they hear now. Not for undue pressure; not for undue press. Because we are a proud franchise.”
Schmetzer’s coaching future may depend on how close they get to that goal, though Evans became the latest in an expanding group to endorse him “100 percent” as the full-time replacement for Schmid.
There is a cohesion and resilience that has been building within the team, the latter exemplified when Alvaro Fernandez’s goal just three minutes into the match electrified the CenturyLink crowd, only to be deflated mere seconds later when Luke Mulholland answered with a tying goal.
The Sounders stiffened, came through with Roldan’s go-ahead goal, then held on for dear life in a game that had both playoff intensity and playoff physicality. As Schmetzer said, holding down the other team after you score is “Soccer 101” and something they’ll re-emphasize. But their ability to hold tough in such a rough-and-tumble match bodes well for the postseason.
“For large chunks of that game, Seattle was extremely frustrated … but they found a way,’’ Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar said.
Finding a way has become the Sounders’ way under Schmetzer, who said they wanted to win on Sunday for Scott and for the fans, but mostly because they hadn’t won their previous two matches, and needed to go into the playoffs off a victory. Never mind that Portland’s impending defeat, ensuring at least a playoff spot for the Sounders, was apparent long before their match was over.
“We needed to get into the playoffs on our own, so we didn’t have to rely on anyone else, because we take responsibilities for our actions,’’ Schmetzer said.
Another one of those swirling emotions seemed to be satisfaction — as in the satisfaction that comes from proving critics, and doubters, wrong.
“It feels good to overcome certain odds, of course,’’ Evans said. “It feels good to silence those who left what they would have called a sinking ship midway through the season.
“We’ll happily have them at the stadium (Thursday night) to root us on, but every season has a different story. You can’t just jump off the ship when things aren’t going your way. First and foremost, it’s a family, and we don’t leave our family behind.”
Asked to elaborate, Evans said he was referring to the negativity he read and heard about the Sounders during their darkest stretches — “stuff I read online that this team is crap.”
Through it all, and the resulting turmoil, the team stayed together, and rallied under Schmetzer. And now they are poised to start the playoffs, hoping for a run that finally gives them the Champagne bath this franchise has long yearned for.