Nobody needs to remind Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer his team couldn’t have drawn a more fearsome opponent in its quest to return to the MLS Cup final.
Schmetzer, of course, has been there before, losing the title two years ago to a Toronto FC club that set a Major League Soccer record for most points in a season. Those teams may meet yet again in this year’s championship, but the Sounders first must get by a Los Angeles FC squad that recently shattered not only Toronto’s points record from 2017, but the new one set just last season by New York Red Bulls.
“We’re not afraid of them,’’ Schmetzer said Friday, perhaps reassuring himself as well as gathered media members. “We’ll just have to make sure we’re playing at a high level to make sure we give ourselves the best chance of winning.’’
But that’s easier said than done when given recent league and Sounders history.
Watching clips of a high-octane LAFC attack led by Most Valuable Player front-runner Carlos Vela is akin to video of boxer Mike Tyson obliterating opponents in his prime. LAFC overpowered their crosstown rival L.A. Galaxy 5-3 on Thursday night to advance to Tuesday’s Western Conference final.
They finished the regular season 21-4-9, with a staggering +48 goal differential — scoring 22 more times than anybody else — and were 16 points better than the Sounders with a record 72. At home, LAFC was 13-1-3, including a 4-1 pasting of the Sounders at Banc of California Stadium last April.
The Sounders did rally from the defeat to draw 1-1 against coach Bob Bradley’s crew a week later at CenturyLink Field. But in many ways, that epic first loss split the Rave Green’s season in two.
Prior to it, they’d started 5-0-1. But they went just 11-10-7 after visiting LAFC – including 3-8-3 on the road – and would lose veteran defender Chad Marshall to retirement, Roman Torres to a PED suspension and be racked by losses of star players to injuries and international duty alike.
Schmetzer’s group ended with a +3 goal differential – it’s was minus-6 from the first LAFC match onward – and would need to win a championship to match that early season six-game unbeaten mark.
So, what is it about this year’s edition Schmetzer hopes will see it step up in a sudden death road match unlike anything accomplished all season?
“As far as our team is concerned now, I think we’ve gone through a pretty challenging year,’’ Schmetzer said. “And I think there are a lot of things to be said about having those moments of adversity to make your team a little tougher, a little stronger, a little mentally ready to go down to a place that is going to be a challenge.’’
Indeed, the MLS format and generous playoff allotment has long rewarded teams that finish strong, rather than necessarily playing consistently well over a full season. And if adversity fuels this squad, their tanks should be bursting by the time they take the field in one of the league’s most hostile stadiums.
Historically, the greatest Sounders achievements in MLS have mostly come at home – the glaring exception being the 2016 championship win at Toronto. Interestingly, though, the last time they were this close to possibly hosting an MLS Cup home game, the Sounders lost to the Galaxy at CenturyLink Field in the 2014 conference final.
So, perhaps this is the year for a stunning reversal in fortune. Schmetzer talked of approaching it as a “one off’’ affair and not the typical MLS road game where visiting teams start cautiously.
He warned against allowing LAFC’s crowd to get even more revved up than it already will be by letting the home side dictate tempo. And that his “never quit’’ Sounders need to do “what we do well’’ and play more with something to prove like in that April home draw against LAFC.
Something else to keep in mind: “All coaches will tell you it’s easier to be the underdog,’’ Schmetzer said.
Nothing is ever certain in one-off pro sports contests. But one sure thing remains: The Sounders needing to throw everything they’ve ever mustered this season and more at their gargantuan opponent to stand a chance.