The Sounders close out the final five matches of 2018 with a great chance to pad their playoff positioning against the three worst Western Conference teams and the worst squad in the Eastern Conference. But overconfidence will be a key thing to avoid, starting Saturday at home against Colorado.
Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei knows he and teammates are best off not looking at the Major League Soccer standings these next few weeks.
That’s quite a change from the past few months, when the Sounders zealously eyed the positioning table as they climbed out of a formidable hole. But now, with a slew of upcoming games against teams with inferior records, the messaging all week from coaches has been to avoid letting it go to their head.
“Some of the ones that you may look past this year and say ‘It’s a done deal’ — those are very dangerous opponents,’’ Frei said Friday as the team wrapped up training before Saturday’s clash with the Colorado Rapids at CenturyLink Field. “They can afford to lose. And they could care less whether they lose 2-0, or 3-0, or 4-0, or 1-0. They’ll cheat (upfield). They have players that are capable … they have numerous guys that are very, very skillful and aggressive and attacking minded.
“And when those guys aren’t expending too much energy defensively, it’s dangerous for us.’’
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The Rapids, losers of five straight and winless in six, are 6-17-6 and sit second last in the Western Conference and in all of MLS. Their goal differential of minus-23 is also second worst in the league and the Sounders already beat them 2-1 on the road on July 4.
For the Sounders, who have dropped two in a row after their nine-game winning streak ended, these final five games of the calendar represent a golden chance to improve on their No. 6 positioning and at least play host to a home playoff match. Besides the Rapids, they also face a San Jose squad with the league’s worst record, an Orlando City team at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and twice play a fading Houston side that is 10th of 12 in the West.
Win out from here, and they would have a shot at a first-round bye.
Still, it wasn’t long ago that San Jose twice shocked Western-leading FC Dallas 3-1 and 4-3 and nearly took down Supporters Shield front-runner Atlanta United FC before blowing a 3-1 lead and falling 4-3 late. And though Houston has plummeted throughout the season’s second half, the Dynamo recently handed Portland a 4-1 beatdown.
As for the Rapids, led by midfielder Shkelzen Gashi, the recently acquired Kellyn Acosta and veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard, they haven’t really upset anybody all year and have been outscored 15-1 their last five matches. So, Frei and company aren’t eager to start any new trends for Colorado by forgetting to show up Saturday.
“We’re aware of it,’’ Frei said of the potential for overconfidence. “We are definitely not underestimating our opponent. It’s the parity of this league. We always know that the hottest team at any given time can lose against the worst team.’’
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said he counts on veterans like Frei, Osvaldo Alonso and Chad Marshall to already know that without being told. But Schmetzer nonetheless had his assistants keep reinforcing throughout the week that players can’t afford to be adding three points toward their playoff positioning before even taking the field.
“Each game in MLS presents challenges,’’ Schmetzer said. “Some on paper, based on the standings, that sort of stuff — they read those things. So, yes, as coaches we’ve tried to make sure that they are physically ready and … mentally ready. Hopefully they are.’’
The Sounders aren’t exactly firing on all fronts heading in. They are coming off a 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy and haven’t scored in more than 2½ matches since the first half at Vancouver two weeks ago.
They have also lost left back Brad Smith and midfielder Harry Shipp for the next few weeks to hamstring injuries. Both played key roles in helping the Sounders win nine straight and there’s no guarantee left back Nouhou and oft-injured midfielder Victor Rodriguez can consistently fill the void.
Schmetzer went with two forwards up high against L.A. in Will Bruin and Raul Ruidiaz and the team looked more exposed defensively than in some time. And while Schmetzer wouldn’t tip his hand formation-wise Friday, he expects the team’s overall focus level to be much improved.
“We’ve challenged them,’’ he said. “I mean, they’ve lost two in a row. It’s not the streak that we want to continue. And we also understand that this is MLS — full of parity — and on any given day, another team can beat another team.
“That’s what we’ve told them. It’s up to them to bring the energy.’’