One thing the Sounders have proven through a season scarred by the coronavirus pandemic is that the fortress is within themselves.
The club has played on without its usual crowd of more than 40,000 mainly clad in green and blue, and cheering wildly. And Seattle has played in a facility that changed its name last week, becoming Lumen Field.
Through the changes, the constant is the Sounders finding a fire within to collect victories on their home turf. The club has lost only once in 10 home matches this season.
The Sounders (11-5-6) aim to continue the success in the Major League Soccer playoffs. Seeded second in the Western Conference, the Rave Green meets seventh-seeded Los Angeles FC at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Lumen Field. The match will be broadcast on ESPN.
“The home-field advantage still exists without the fans,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said. “We obviously wish they could be there; we miss them a lot. But we know that in our home we need to win.”
It’s a message the Sounders hear before every game from midfielder Nico Lodeiro. He could be the most competitive player on the roster, often willing the team to victories and connecting on an MLS-leading six game-winning assists this season.
It’s the same in training. This month the team held a “soccer tennis” tournament to break up the monotony. Lodeiro played as if it were a championship.
“His cheeks were puffing red because (his group) couldn’t win a game; we were almost laughing on the sideline because he was about to blow a gasket,” said Sounders keeper Stefan Frei, who won the tournament with defenders Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Roman Torres on his team. “That’s how Nico is — a very, very competitive player. That’s helped us. That competitiveness molds really well with the ‘never die’ attitude that we’ve had at this club, where we keep going and keep going until the very end.”
The Sounders hope the playoff opener doesn’t come down to the end of the game. Three of the league’s five opening-round postseason matches last weekend were decided by penalty shootout.
But only the third-seeded Portland Timbers were upset on their home field.
Seattle has an advantage with its roster, returning most of its 2019 MLS Cup-winning team. Yet Tuesday’s likely starting center backs in Yeimar and Shane O’Neill combine for one postseason game appearance. O’Neill started for the Colorado Rapids in a 2013 playoff match.
“We’re ahead in the standings, but that doesn’t mean that they’re a bad team,” Sounders forward Raul Ruidiaz said of LAFC. “They have a great team, a great roster, a great coach. … We are prepared to give our best. We want to win this title (again). Nobody takes away the motivation and our desire to win.”
Seattle and LAFC have played each other four times this season — once as part of the MLS is Back summer tournament in Florida. The Black and Gold (9-8-5) haven’t fielded the same team in any of the matches. The lineup Tuesday won’t feature most of the players who were upset by the Sounders in the Western Conference final last year at Banc of California Stadium.
LAFC will be without four top players due to positive COVID-19 tests, including MLS Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. But Seattle didn’t plan on playing a fully loaded L.A. lineup.
MLS originally ruled that players traveling internationally had to quarantine for a minimum of nine days to rejoin their clubs. With the recent FIFA window ending last week, international players called up wouldn’t be available until MLS conference semifinals begin the week of Nov. 29.
The league and the MLS Players Association agreed to change the rule to allow players to immediately play if they returned to their U.S. clubs on a charter flight. But Rossi, countryman Brian Rodriguez (Uruguay), left back Diego Palacios (Ecuador) and midfielder Jose Cifuentes (Ecuador) tested positive for the virus while with their national teams and are self-isolating in their respective countries.
LAFC did return star forward Carlos Vela from a left-knee injury. Vela set the MLS record for goals in a season last year (34), winning the 2019 MVP award.
The Sounders were able to provide a charter flight for defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson (Sweden) after his international duty last week. Ruidiaz, who tested positive for COVID-19 in October and was asymptomatic, is eligible as a “recovered person” after honoring his call-up for his Peru national team.
“We don’t call it an underdog role,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “In this game we’ll miss certain guys, but we’ve still got to make sure that everybody’s ready to go. The focus is on the team, that’s the way we’ve worked since these guys (internationals) have been gone since the end of the regular season.”
LAFC defeated Seattle with a depleted roster in their most recent meeting in October. That match was in L.A. Things tend to be different when the Sounders are at home.
“It’s the mindset of this team,” Morris said. “Championships are what we strive for, and anything less isn’t a success. Making the playoffs is obviously great, but our whole mindset as a team going into each year is to win MLS Cup. Everyone that comes into the team understands that that’s the goal. Everyday you’re working toward that.”