The Sounders are on the brink of a title that would have been laughable to all but the truest believers back in late July.
In the darkest days of the Sounders’ season, when they were “left for dead,’’ in the words of Herculez Gomez, Brad Evans had a perverse thought.
Driving to work with teammate Erik Friberg, he mused about all the issues facing this year’s underperforming team, juxtaposed against all the near-misses by past Sounders squads in seasons when they were expected to win.
Wouldn’t it be crazy, they pondered, if, amidst the coaching change and the underperformance that was drowning the Sounders season, they finally found the elusive path to glory?
MLS Cup Final
Saturday, Sounders @ Toronto, 5 p.m., Ch. 13
“Even in our car pool, midway through the year, we always thought, ‘Yeah, this is going to be the year that this could happen,’ ’’ Evans said. “It was always maybe a joke. It was, like, the way things are going now, we’re probably going to win the MLS Cup. We’re probably going to make the Cup. It’s weird how it happened.”
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Weird, and wonderful, all wrapped up in a comeback that indeed has somehow brought the Sounders to their first Cup. They are on the brink of a title that would have been laughable to all but the truest believers back in late July.
That’s when Sigi Schmid was fired and replaced by his long-time assistant, Brian Schmetzer. Everyone was happy that the ever-faithful Schmetzer, a Sounders fixture behind the scenes seemingly forever, was finally getting his shot. But Schmetzer seemed destined to be replaced by a sexier name once his interim stint had run his course.
What happened, of course, is one of the most rousing stories in Seattle sports history. Mired at 6-12-2 when Schmetzer replaced Schmid on July 26, in ninth place in the Western Conference, the Sounders began winning, and never stopped.
Along the way, Nicolas Lodeiro arrived, Clint Dempsey was shut down, Jordan Morris blossomed, Schmetzer’s status changed from interim to permanent — and darned if the Sounders didn’t sail through the playoffs, just as Evans and Friberg dreamingly envisioned. They will face Toronto in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, an occurrence that still is met with some well-earned incredulity, even as Seattle’s Western Conference final triumph over Colorado settles in.
To goalie Stefan Frei, Seattle’s turnaround will one day become the stuff of legend, particularly if it’s topped off by a victory in Canada.
“I think it would go down as one of the seasons you’ll probably hear commentators talk about a lot,’’ Frei said. “When you’re talking about, ‘Oh, does this team still have a chance of making the playoffs? Well, the Sounders back in 2016 in July had a 7-percent chance of getting into the playoffs, and they won the MLS Cup.’
“It would be an incredible story, right?”
So incredible that the explanations and root causes of Seattle’s turnaround are hard to pinpoint — and trust me, many people will be probing that very topic next week when the Sounders arrive in Toronto.
It’s not as if Schmetzer brought an entirely new system or philosophy to jolt their sensibilities. Lodeiro was a huge boost, obviously, but you could make the case that it was offset by the loss of Dempsey. More than anything, from what I can gather, the Sounders had reached a point where they desperately needed a new voice, maybe with similar words as Schmid but a different tone.
“You never want to see a coaching change,’’ said Gomez, “but something had to be done. The standard that was set during the summer months wasn’t good enough.”
Under Schmetzer, Evans added, “It was a continuation of what everyone thought, from top to bottom, was a good team. But we just needed a change. He brought a little bit of belief in the guys that everything was kind of about the players. Whether or not Sigi felt that way also, maybe he didn’t portray it in a way that Brian did.”
And when the wins started to flow, it just reinforced the confidence that had always been lurking, deep down, that the Sounders were a championship-caliber team hiding in plain sight.
“When people started jumping ship, we stayed firm,’’ said Gomez.
When the Sounders players watched video, even during the struggling portion of the season, they didn’t see a team that was in disarray. They saw a team on the verge of breaking through.
“We weren’t leaking goals by any means,’’ Evans said. “It was like, ‘We’re so close on so many chances of being on the right side of a result.’ If 10 games in, 15 games in, every game we were getting shellacked, and the mood in the locker room wasn’t good, it would have been a different feeling.
“But come Schmetz, the changes, we gave ourselves a good chance. We were tough to play against. And things were rolling our way. We kind of just rode the wave.”
And Schmetzer, who these days carries the glow of someone who knows he has been touched by a life-changing circumstance, is soaking it all in. He’s fully aware of the astounding story he is living and breathing.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, so it makes it a little more …” Schmetzer said, before pausing to search for just the right word. “… Emotional. A little deeper. The depth of the valley, and the mountain.”
For the Sounders, the peak is in sight. The team once left for dead is on the verge of its greatest triumph.