TUKWILA — Not looking ahead is a mantra Josh Atencio is familiar with this season.
The Sounders remain focused on each game at a time as they make their uphill climb to the playoffs; they essentially need to win their remaining four matches to clinch a berth.
Atencio has narrowed his attention to the task at hand since January, with injuries and COVID-19 putting his availability into question weekly.
Atencio was given full medical clearance in July and slowly brought back into the rotation. The steady progress and mentality aligned the midfielder to be ready when the Sounders needed him most.
Paired with Danny Leyva in the central midfield, Atencio started and played his most MLS minutes of the season the past two matches. Seattle won both to snap a five-game winless skid.
Atencio is tasked with a repeat performance when Seattle travels to play the Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Sounders (12-15-3) haven’t won a road match since July — a seven-game winless streak.
“It was a long time,” said Atencio of the quad injury he suffered during training camp that forced him out for eight weeks. He returned for three weeks, then suffered an adductor injury. After a monthlong rehab, Atencio contracted COVID and had to follow the league’s health and safety protocols, despite mild symptoms that only lasted two days.
“Getting to start the last couple of games and getting on the field the three games before that, I feel myself on the up again,” Atencio said. “It’s really nice because a couple of months ago, I thought I regressed from the year before.”
Leyva and Atencio played well together last season, building on the chemistry formed as Homegrown players in the Sounders Academy. That vibe was still there for a must-win game against Houston earlier this month and their different skillsets complemented each other in retaining possession so playmakers Nico Lodeiro and Albert Rusnak could move freely.
“They were more dynamic up there,” said Leyva, who was paired with Rusnak for a few matches in the midfield, but it’s not a natural position for the Slovakian international. “Me and Josh were focused on being able to help the team defensively or getting the ball to Nico and Albert and it worked really well.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer noted some hiccups, though Those were fixed last week in a 3-0 victory over Austin, which is in second place in the Western Conference.
Vancouver (10-14-7) is on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention, but the Whitecaps are a tricky team to defend because of their fluidity in changing formations within the game. The Whitecaps upset the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-0 on Wednesday.
The Whitecaps will be without forward Lucas Cavallini because of a suspension for violent conduct against Nashville last month. The Canadian international has eight goals and two assists this season.
“I don’t know if I’d say we cured any issues,” Atencio said. “We solved the problems that were presented to us in the Austin and Houston games, specifically.
“Partnership is a big part of it, working well with the other players in the midfield. If we’re not moving as a cohesive unit, then we’re easy to break down. Working on that and cues has been really helpful for not just me, but our midfield as a whole.”
If proved to be the key to the Sounders’ turnaround, Atencio will create a tough decision for Schmetzer. The team initially struggled because of injuries to 2021 MVP candidate Joao Paulo (ACL) and rising midfielder Obed Vargas (back).
U.S. international Cristian Roldan was able to fill the position until he needed to undergo groin surgery last month. He’s expected to return for the Sporting Kansas City match on Oct. 2, but with Rusnak and Jordan Morris playing well on the wings, it remains to be seen if Roldan will return to the starting lineup.
The Galaxy and Real Salt Lake losing their midweek games and Minnesota drawing with LAFC keeps Seattle four points below the playoff line. But there’s a scenario where the Sounders could snag home-field advantage.
Atencio said the focus must remain on one game at a time.
“We’ve had nerves the last 10 games,” Schmetzer said. “We’ve been up against it. So, there’s no nerves (anymore), it’s determination. … The results have gone our way. (Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy losing) is good. I’ll pump the breaks; we still have to do our job. We can’t think teams are going to roll over. We have to do our job tomorrow.”