Early goals by Victor Rodriguez and Handwalla Bwana gave the Sounders just enough cushion to hang on for a 2-1 road win at Orlando City on Wednesday, clinching a 10th consecutive playoff appearance for the Rave Green.
An exhausted-looking, subdued postgame celebration that unfolded moments after Wednesday’s final whistle had little to do with the lowly opponent the Sounders had just vanquished.
Instead, it was some deserved self-applause in the Florida heat for 3 1/2 months worth of triumphs, a streak like none that the decade-old Sounders franchise had previously experienced in qualifying for a Major League Soccer record-tying 10th consecutive postseason appearance. Their 2-1 win on the road over Orlando City SC, clinching that playoff berth, had seemed over before it ever really got going after a pair of goals popped by Victor Rodriguez and rookie Handwalla Bwana in the opening 13 minutes.
“I feel a little spoiled just being part of this organization and playing in the playoffs each year,” fourth-year Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said afterwards, in quotes supplied by an MLS official. “It’s a difficult thing to do. This is a quality organization. We’re very proud of what we’re doing and hopefully we can continue this and…beat a record next year and make the playoffs (again). But it’s about this year and hopefully we can make an impact in the playoffs.”
A leaping, third minute volley by Rodriguez on a long ball in by right back Kelvin Leerdam gave the Spanish midfielder his fourth goal in the last three games. Fewer than 10 minutes after that, former University of Washington standout Bwana turned a defender inside out and fired a deflected shot home to get started on what appeared to be a rout.
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Instead, the Sounders eased up and their hapless opponents took advantage. Orlando City kept pressing and finally made a second half game of it with a 57th minute Dom Dwyer goal that came moments after Osvaldo Alonso had just missed bagging his team’s third of the match.
“I think we hung on,” Roldan said. “I think we suffered a little bit and maybe that’s part of playing away on the road.”
An added six minutes of stoppage time made things interesting, especially when a late cornerkick was awarded the home side, but Orlando City could not deny the Sounders a third straight win.
“I think it seemed easy (to start) because our movement was better in the first half,” Bwana said. “We were moving for each other, so it looked a lot easier because the movement created space to get to the ball and we were confident on the ball.”
Not so much in the second half. But while the closer-than-needed result against the Eastern Conference’s worst side will inevitably cause hand-wringing by the perfectionist Rave Green, the much bigger picture dating back to the start of July tells a happier story.
In that broader view, a team for which the playoffs seemed a delightful fantasy after a stunning June 30 home loss to Portland, has managed to go 13-2-2 since. That 2.4 points-per-game average over 17 games — a turnaround exceeding anything done by the team the prior two years over shorter stretches — gave the Sounders far more leeway than envisioned, turning what promised to be a fight-to-the-finish for a final Western Conference playoff spot into an anticlimax the season’s final month.
“The guys are in good spirits,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We talked about that before the game. About not backing in. About not waiting for the other games tonight (with playoff implications), so, it’s a big achievement for the club.”
The playoffs seemed certain even before September ended, the only remaining suspense being whether the Sounders could run the proverbial table the rest of the way and avoid a first-round “knockout” stage contest. That’s still a possibility, with the Sounders now in fourth place and only three points behind No. 2 LAFC — both have two games remaining — in a bid for that first-round bye spot.
At the very least, if they stay right where they are, the Sounders would play host to a “knockout” round game. One of their two remaining contests will see them close out the season against a San Jose squad with the worst record in MLS, so, if they take care of business at Houston on Sunday, anything is still possible.
If anything, this presents an interesting crossroads for a franchise that’s never seemed satisfied with merely making the playoffs. This latest, less-than-perfect victory over Orlando City solidifies an accomplishment nobody saw coming back in June — a record 10th straight postseason that equals the Los Angeles Galaxy squads of 1996-20o5. There are no trophies awarded for it, but it’s a standout accomplishment.
Thing is, the team that’s ignited behind the arrival of Raul Ruidiaz, the resurgence of Nicolas Lodeiro, a return to health by Victor Rodriguez and perhaps a final stand by Alonso now expects more. The squad with a potential Goalkeeper of the Year in Stefan Frei and Defender of the Year in Chad Marshall doesn’t want to risk blowing it all in a “knockout” round night gone bad.
And that’s why the aforementioned players will undoubtedly dissect this latest triumph in terms more negative than their postgame celebrations in Orlando might indicate. They know their recent schedule hasn’t been the toughest and their play throughout those matches not always consistent.
They worry that when the competition steps up, especially if they are forced to play a single-match elimination game in the opening playoff round, it can all go up in proverbial smoke. It already happened against Philadelphia last month in a 1-0 loss at home that ended the team’s MLS record nine-game win streak in the post-shootout era. It nearly happened on Wednesday after the Sounders hit the snooze button and let Orlando buzz around them like an annoying bunch of hornets seeking one lethal sting.
Schmetzer said the team discussed at halftime the need to improve in order to make a deep playoff run.
“They gutted the performance out,” Schmetzer said. “Some of the soccer, we can work on. Chad (Marshall) and those guys, they always give me everything they have. That’s the spirit of this team. So, in that sense it was good. But we’re still going to try to fine-tune some stuff.”
In fairness, though, this was a team without Ruidiaz or Lodeiro playing. A team also still missing Gustav Svensson as well, due to recently-completed international play. The full team will be around come playoff time and have a dry run these next two matches to get some cohesion going again at a point when rookies like Bwana and reserve midfielder Jordy Delem are unlikely to see the playing time they did in this one.
At least, the Sounders hope their season extends long enough for Delem and Bwana to see plenty of bench time. To guarantee that, they’ll aim to play better than in their Florida clincher and ensure their upcoming playoff run lasts more than just a single game.