The Sounders closed 15-2-2 to save the season and position themselves well for another finals run.
It’s a risky pattern to which the Sounders have grown accustomed: Lackluster starts followed by blazing finishes. The past two years it has brought them to the league’s pinnacle, the MLS Cup final (and a title in 2016).
Now they’re doing it again, in more spectacular fashion than ever. Moribund for four months, mired at 3-9-3 and in grave danger of missing the playoffs altogether, they have rebounded to play the league’s best soccer down the stretch. The Sounders closed 15-2-2 to save the season and position themselves well for another finals run.
Just what is it about this team that allows them to peak at precisely the most opportune time – an outcome, by the way, that frustratingly eluded the Sounders early in their history? To coach Brian Schmetzer, it’s the character and will of his players. And to many of those players, it’s the culture Schmetzer has forged since he replaced the fired Sigi Schmid in July 2016.
“From the very beginning it was a clear message that this is your team, and you guys can do with it and achieve with it whatever you dream of, and whatever you’re then willing to put the work in for,’’ said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “I think that’s been an ongoing message with him.”
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On Wednesday, Frei was named as a finalist for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Chad Marshall a finalist for Defender of the Year and Osvaldo Alonso a finalist for Comeback Player of the Year. Schmetzer was conspicuously absent – again — in the final threesome for Coach of the Year. It’s an ongoing oversight that he says doesn’t concern him at all. I’ll say what Schmetzer never will: It’s past time for him to be recognized for annually holding the Sounders together through various landmines and crises, and getting them to come out the other side stronger than ever.
Schmetzer says the credit goes to veterans like Frei, Marshall, Alonso, Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and others.
“The mentality of that group is very, very strong,’’ he said. “So even in the dire circumstance or situations we’ve found ourselves in, they never quit.”
In 2016, the Sounders were 6-12-2 when Schmid was fired, stuck in ninth place in the Western Conference with a dubious path to the playoffs. They won the title. Last season, they had to fight through what Schmetzer termed “MLS Cup Hangover” early in the season, not to mention injuries to Brad Evans, Roman Torres, Marshall and Jordan Morris. The Sounders ended the year with six consecutive clean sheets to return to the Cup finals, where they lost to Toronto FC, 2-0.
This season has had its own unique set of challenges, including more key injuries (with Morris lost for the season) and World Cup disruption.
“I think there were some legitimate circumstances that prevented us from having a good start,’’ Schmetzer said. “Every year is different. Every year, there’s subtleties that make you do certain things … it’s always a challenge.”
But once again, the Sounders have survived and thrived, perhaps from the muscle memory of having done so twice before.
“They know, they believe, they’ve been in these situations before,’’ Schmetzer said. “That’s a definite advantage.”
And so is the deft touch of Schmetzer, firm when necessary but always empowering his players. He hands out plaudits to what he calls “the best staff in the league.” But the buck stops with the head coach when it comes to the delicate psychological coaxing needed to keep a team from plunging into dissension – or disinterest – when times are darkest. After Wednesday’s practice in advance of Seattle’s playoff opener Sunday, Schmetzer said the workouts and drills are the easy part of the job.
“The harder part of coaching is managing egos, expectations,’’ he said. “That’s the challenge. That’s where you’ve got to get to know the individual, you’ve got to know what makes them tick. You can poke them a little bit here, put your arm around him there. Those are the subtleties. Sometimes you’ve got to carry a big stick. That’s the other part of it. I think I get to work with a tremendously talented and motivated collective, and so our locker room is good.”
It’s hard to imagine the even-keeled Schmetzer wielding a big stick, but he said, “You have to. Sometimes you have to say no, you can’t do that. We all had to do it with our kids.”
The example Schmetzer often points to happened in 2016, when he took over for Schmid and had to tell either Andreas Ivanschitz or Nelson Valdez – two decorated, proud players – they weren’t starting.
“I had to be firm in that moment, and say, this is why I’m doing it,’’ Schmetzer said. “And I need you to be ready because it might change. It’s those situations where you have to be firm.”
The kicker is that both players bought in fully – “and Andreas and Nelson were integral parts of 2016’s championship,’’ Schmetzer said
Now the Sounders are eyeing another title, having emerged yet again from a fierce storm, stronger and hungrier.