Six weeks ago, the Sounders were focused on winning enough games just to climb their way back into the playoff hunt.
Today, five consecutive victories and eight matches without a defeat later, they have a shot at a first-round playoff bye. Winning the Western Conference outright might be asking a tad much, but there’s no question the team is positioned to leapfrog several potential playoff opponents in the standings in coming weeks.
“We have a big chance now,’’ said Sounders midfielder Victor Rodriguez, finally healthy again and ready to contribute down the stretch. “We’ve put in a lot of work to be in this position to be in the playoffs now. I think it’s been very good work for the whole team.’’
The addition of left back Brad Smith is something Rodriguez feels can make him a better offensive player as he and Harry Shipp battle for time along the left wing. Rodriguez missed several months with a knee injury and then injured his hamstring last month and has yet to really impact the Sounders as hoped.
But now, with Rodriguez back healthy along with Smith and new striker Raul Ruidiaz, there’s no telling where things might stop for a team 6-0-2 its last eight games, several against premier opponents. That run of form has coincided with a simultaneous stumble by Western Conference contenders to suddenly leave that first-round bye up for grabs.
Take the fourth-place Los Angeles Galaxy that visits CenturyLink Field on Saturday. It has won just once in its last four matches – securing a lone point against beatable Colorado and Minnesota squads – and now sits just four points ahead of the eighth-place Sounders.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles FC, tied with the Galaxy, has dropped three of four and sits winless in five. Real Salt Lake, holder of the sixth and final playoff spot, has just one victory its last five matches and is clinging to a three-point lead over the Sounders.
Sporting Kansas City had gone 0-4-1 in a recent five-match stretch before winning its last two games to move into the conference’s No. 2 position – just seven points ahead of the Sounders in that final first-round bye position. Even FC Dallas, topping the conference with a 10-point lead on the Sounders, just dropped two in a row and has a lone victory its last four matches – prompting concerns about another in a series of annual late-season fades.
So, to recap, in just the last five matches alone, the Sounders have gained 13 points on LAFC, nine points on RSL, eight on Dallas and KC and seven points on Portland and the Galaxy. Portland looked at one point like it might take over the conference, reeling off a 15-game unbeaten streak before suffering a 2-1 loss to floundering Vancouver over the weekend.
The Timbers lead the Sounders by just five points, and the clubs play each other in Portland a week from Sunday.
Such is Major League Soccer, a tale of long, long regular seasons in which teams can stumble, recover, stumble and then recover again to win it all. Or blow it all, depending on how the final month goes.
“It’s a byproduct of trying to get into the playoffs,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of his team’s unfolding opportunity for a first-round bye. “It is a byproduct of having games inter-conference. So, we will have to wait and see, based on our results, whether we can accomplish any of those goals.
“But certainly, those are goals that we have talked about as a coaching staff.’’
The Sounders were 3-9-3 when this unbeaten streak began, averaging 0.8 points per match. Now, they are 9-9-5 and averaging 1.39 points per contest.
Maintaining that season-long pace alone would be good for 47 points and a borderline playoff berth. Now, the Sounders will reach 47 points by winning just five of their remaining 11 matches – leaving room for a whole lot more.
The Sounders face the Galaxy twice more and Portland and KC once.
Moreover, they have remaining games against the conference’s two worst teams – Colorado and San Jose – and two others against a Houston Dynamo squad that’s lost four straight and gone winless in six. Houston was set to put the Sounders in its rear-view mirror for good a month ago, but now, six matches later, has seen a 14-point swing with the Rave Green.
Schmetzer knows his players are watching those standings closely.
“They’re all keen on where we are in the standings,’’ Schmetzer said. “Do I want them to focus on that? No. I want them to focus on Saturday, 1 o’clock and then, the outcome of that game – if it’s in our favor – will answer that question.
“But yes, they’re looking at it and so are we.’’
And so is every other Western Conference team in front of the Sounders watching that green blur roar up behind them.