When Svensson needed to leave the Sounders early in late August to spend extra time training with Sweden before some World Cup qualifiers, the Sounders readily agreed. And Svensson impressed the team enough to be invited back for the series against the favored Italians.
Moments after the final whistle blew on the biggest victory of his soccer career, Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson embraced a legend walking tearfully across the field.
Svensson and his Swedish national team had just eliminated Italy from a World Cup berth last Monday for the first time in 60 years right in the Italians’ backyard. Now, an emotional Italian goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, one of his generation’s best and who’d subsequently end up retiring from international play, was heading his way looking inconsolable.
“You’re very happy when the final whistle comes but then you see a player and a legend like Buffon walking across the pitch and crying,’’ Svensson said. “Of course, you feel for the guy. It’s not the way he wants to end his career. I just walked over and tried to cheer him up a little bit.’’
Western Conference championship
Sounders (2) vs. Houston (4)
Leg 1 at Houston: Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., FS1
Leg 2 at Seattle: Nov. 30, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Eastern Conference championship
Toronto (1) vs. Columbus (5)
Leg 1 at Columbus: Tuesday, 5 p.m. ESPN
Leg 2 at Toronto: Nov. 29, 4:20 p.m. FS1
It’s typical for Svensson to think of the other guy, even after his own country’s stunning first World Cup qualification since 2006. The globe-trotting Svensson, 30, had doubted he’d even get another national-team look. His last stint for Sweden had come in 2009, the squad had a new coach and he’d spent 2016 playing in near anonymity in the far-off Chinese Super League.
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But upon joining the Sounders, they witnessed Svensson’s unselfish ways early as he filled a starting role at multiple positions he had less familiarity with. The defensive midfielder got a start at right back, then at center back and already was more than a month into his MLS career before playing the position he was initially brought to Seattle for.
For a while during the season’s first half, as he helped keep the injury-depleted Sounders afloat, it could be argued Svensson was their most valuable player.
So, when Svensson needed to leave the Sounders early in late August to spend extra time training with Sweden before some World Cup qualifiers, the Sounders readily agreed. And Svensson impressed the team enough to be invited back for this most recent home-and-home series against the favored Italians.
Svensson is the second Sounders veteran to play a key role in a surprising World Cup qualification by his country. Last month, Roman Torres scored a late goal that vaulted Panama into the first World Cup in its history and made him a national hero.
The Sounders hope these playoff-like experiences for their players provide an edge as the team prepares to open the Western Conference championship at Houston on Tuesday. The winner in that round faces the victor of the Toronto-Columbus Eastern Conference final in the MLS Cup.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer says it can be tough for players to get their heads into MLS games — even playoff contests — after such emotional international victories.
“It’s challenging,’’ Schmetzer said. “A lot of it comes down to the individual players. They have to kind of get back into the rhythm that they have here at home. Traveling with your national team, it’s a different rhythm, it’s different circumstances.’’
Sweden had beaten Italy 1-0 at home in the first leg, but few expected they’d prevail at the San Siro stadium in Milan. A hostile crowd even whistled and booed during the playing of the Swedish national anthem.
Several Italian players, including goalkeeper Buffon, proceeded to clap in an attempt to get home fans to drown out the hecklers.
Svensson is a reservist and wasn’t expected to play until late, if at all.
But then, in just the 19th minute, Swedish midfielder Jakob Johansson tore the ACL in his knee and left the game. Svensson replaced him and for the rest of the match helped his squad fend off the desperate Italian side for a scoreless draw that pushed Sweden through to the World Cup next summer in Russia.
“I don’t think anybody really believed we were going to go through,’’ Svensson said.
The game itself was one of the most difficult road environments Svensson has ever experienced.
“It’s very difficult,’’ he said. “It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever played in. And against one of the best teams as well. You could just feel it when we walked out into the stadium and during the national anthem. It was a crazy atmosphere. They whistled and booed us — which I think is a bad thing.
“But it’s a great atmosphere … which makes us that much more proud.’’
He’d had little time to warm up after Johansson’s injury, but did what he could.
“I put my jersey on, the coach gave me some directives and I just went in,’’ he said. “It was a little bit difficult both not warming up and going in against Italy. It’s not really optimal, but I just did my thing and we got the result that we needed.’’
Now, barely a week after the most emotional soccer moment of his life, Svensson and the Sounders will look for a similar outcome as their MLS Cup quest continues.