The Sounders beat New York City FC 3-1 Sunday, giving them their first win of the season over a team with a winning record.
Cristian Roldan delivered the most frightening message of the day to future opponents just moments after his Sounders had taken down the league’s No. 2 team.
To hear the midfielder tell it, the Sounders are actually playing rather poorly. That would be the same group that notched a 3-1 win Sunday over New York City FC to remain unbeaten in its last six matches as they dig themselves out of a first-half hole.
Roldan had one of three goals, the others going to Gustav Svensson and Harry Shipp, on a day that won’t be remembered for defensive prowess by either side but in which the Sounders looked the deepest and most balanced they’ve been all year.
“The incredible thing about this one is, we’re not playing well,’’ Roldan said of this latest in a series of annual second-half runs by his team to overcome poor starts. “We’re grinding out games where we’re winning these games because we’re playing good defense, and we’re scoring that one, or two, goals.
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“That’s the scary part,’’ he added. “You think about six unbeaten. And then you think about, if we’re playing like we’re supposed to, how we can go on a really long run.’’
Roldan isn’t totally off the mark. Of the four wins during this unbeaten stretch, two were against cellar dwellers and a third was versus an undermanned Vancouver squad that looked awful when playing here eight days prior.
But as lackadaisical defensively as both teams played on Sunday in front of 39,528 fans at CenturyLink Field, this was the first Sounders victory all season over a squad currently above .500. NYCFC entered the weekend just a point behind Atlanta for the Supporters Shield race.
So, even though the Sounders had a NYCFC free kick hit the crossbar early, got out-possessed 59 percent to 41 percent and lapsed defensively on the only opposing goal by Jesus Medina, this was a bona fide contender they beat.
The victory gave them nine points in eight days and put them just five behind Real Salt Lake — with a game in-hand — in the race for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
While NYCFC was missing top star David Villa for a sixth straight match with a knee injury, the Sounders were again without midfielder Victor Rodriguez due to a hamstring problem. That’s where the aforementioned depth paid off: Coach Brian Schmetzer bumping Roldan up to right wing, putting Shipp on the other flank and Nicolas Lodeiro in the middle behind newcomer Raul Ruidiaz.
It took a while to get in sync. But Roldan approached Schmetzer during a 31st-minute mandatory water break in the 80-plus-degree heat and suggested he play more in the middle and Lodeiro on the right.
The plan worked five minutes later. Right back Kelvin Leerdam, playing more offensively than he has all year, had an attempted pass deflect off a defender and right to Roldan in the box.
Roldan took a step right and fired a blast off goalkeeper Sean Johnson and into the net. The goal came with Roldan’s parents, Cesar and Ana, visiting from Pico Rivera, Calif., and watching in the stands.
It also changed the tone of the match; the Sounders pouring it on late in the half and nearly upping their margin when Ruidiaz just missed slotting home another Leerdam pass.
The momentum carried into the second half, with nifty passing by Shipp and Lodeiro leading to a 23-yard rocket by Svensson in the 51st minute for a 2-0 lead. Lodeiro had spotted Svensson all alone just outside the box and fed him a soft pass that allowed the defensive midfielder a running start and full force behind his right-legged shot.
Things looked secure until Medina slipped behind several defenders in the 68thminute and converted a long pass from Jo Inge Berget at the goalmouth. It was the first goal against the Sounders in 290 minutes.
But Shipp erased doubts in the 86th minute when, with NYCFC defenders running around in circles, he took a Will Bruin pass and rifled a shot home from point-blank range. The re-emergence of Shipp, a non-factor much of the season’s first half, is indicative of the team’s improved depth.
“I was always someone that was willing to do whatever it took to be on the team, to be out on the field,’’ Shipp said. “I took a step back when I wasn’t playing and I thought about, one, ‘What do I need to do to get back out on the field?’ And two, ‘What do I need to do to help this team win?’ ’’
The answer, he said, was to stop trying to touch the ball “100 times per game’’ and do more with it the fewer times he gets a chance.
Schmetzer will take such contributions. Though the Sounders remain far from perfect, it says plenty that Clint Dempsey didn’t get on the field while Bruin only made it out the final 20 minutes.
A couple of months ago, they were this team’s only offensive hope. Now, with greater depth, the early-season prayers of scoring even a single goal per game have been replaced by hope of pulling yet another playoff appearance out of nowhere.
“I constantly say that this is a team game and a team sport,’’ Schmetzer said. “When the team starts playing well, players like Harry (Shipp), players like Nico (Lodeiro), players like Cristian (Roldan), players like Kelvin (Leerdam) on down the list. They all that little confidence, that little bit of swagger. And you can feel it within the group.’’