Nine straight victories by the Sounders have given a different feel to this year's 12-game unbeaten streak compared with a team-record 13-match run last year. The Sounders have also shown increasing variety in how they win.
A franchise-record 13-game unbeaten streak of a year ago is something the Sounders can match Wednesday night in a quick turnaround off their latest victory.
But while the two streaks in consecutive years might appear similar, there’s a different feel now. Last season’s run included more draws than victories, while this year’s features a nine-game winning streak that has eclipsed a Major League Soccer record for a season in the post-shootout era.
It won’t get easier Wednesday, as the surging Philadelphia Union, 4-1-1 in its last six outings, visits CenturyLink Field for the Sounders’ second of three matches in eight days. But the Sounders have become increasingly innovative at finding ways to win: from blowouts, to late comebacks to just hanging on, as they did Saturday at Vancouver.
“I think the diversity of wins is great,’’ Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “Because you rely on these experiences. At some point, you need to be able to deal with tough situations. And so we’ve experienced a number of them.’’
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An inability to surmount Toronto FC’s pregame alignment shift was a big reason the Sounders lost last year’s MLS Cup final. And winning back the title this year could well involve some of the improvisation and resilience shown by the Sounders during this run.
Last year’s midsummer unbeaten streak saw them go 6-0-7 for 25 points. But this year’s 10-0-2 clip has produced 32 points in one fewer match and a victory over the Union would leave the Sounders four points out of the Western Conference lead.
A conference title was unthinkable two months ago. But the Sounders have averaged 2.67 points per match over their last dozen to reach fifth in the conference standings.
The unbeaten streak began with the Sounders needing a second-half goal by Will Bruin to defeat lowly Colorado on the road. They followed with a scoreless draw at New England and then survived a second-half onslaught to emerge 1-1 at Atlanta.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer had avoided debuting newly acquired striker Raul Ruidiaz during the Atlanta match after going down a man, opting to preserve a road point rather than try for three despite his team’s huge deficit in the standings.
Schmetzer took heat for that. But now, that deficit turned on its ear, his Atlanta decision looks wise.
For Schmetzer, this unbeaten run has a different feel than last season’s.
“Last year we were pretty proud of the fact that we only lost twice in our last 18 games and the streak last year was 13, but it was like six or seven wins and six or seven draws,’’ he said. “So, we were hard to beat. Now, we’re actually finding ways to win. We’re still hard to beat, but we’ve got a couple of weapons, we’ve got some things going our way that those bounces have generated more points, obviously.’’
Last year’s team outscored opponents 23-11 during its unbeaten run. This season, the Sounders have outscored them 24/7 over the 12-match span.
They have won their nine straight since adding one of Schmetzer’s “weapons” in Peruvian transfer Ruidiaz — who has scored five of his team’s 21 goals in that span.
Meanwhile, the often-overlooked defensive unit has allowed a league-low 28 goals overall. Between the ever-reliable Frei, improved center-back play with South Korean transfer Kim Kee-Hee alongside veteran Chad Marshall, or the resurgence of defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, they’ve kept the Sounders in games they haven’t always played well in.
The Sounders were outshot in seven of 12 matches during this streak and out-possessed in six. But defenders keep blocking shots while Frei stops the vast majority making it through.
On attack, Ruidiaz has freed up space for Nicolas Lodeiro, who has six goals during the unbeaten run — one more than Ruidiaz — while seven different players have scored over that stretch, six of them at least twice.
Marshall has three goals during the 12 games, tied with Bruin for the most by anybody not named Lodeiro or Ruidiaz. That offensive variety led to a 5-0 blowout of the Los Angeles Galaxy and helped avoid disaster with two stoppage-time goals in Minnesota for a deserved 2-1 win.
Other times, defenders saved the Sounders in a 1-0 win at Portland and 3-1 home victories over Sporting Kansas City and New York City FC in which the Rave Green were outshot and out-possessed. Not to mention Saturday’s 2-1 victory at Vancouver in which they were outshot, out-possessed, outplayed and flat-out lucky at times.
“I would think the consistent part is that the mentality of the group to win games has always been the constant,’’ Schmetzer said. “How they win, why they win, make your own luck, are you lucky? … All of that aside, I think that group, starting with Stef (Frei) and moving up through the field … that group has the right mentality.’’
Bruin has been coming off the bench since Ruidiaz’s arrival. But the streak started right before that with his two goals at Colorado and continued with Bruin’s late score in Minnesota — providing three points each time the team could not afford to give away to inferior opponents.
“Every game, we always think we can play better,’’ Bruin said. “But at the end of the day, we find ways to win. We’re getting three points and that’s all that matters.’’