The Sounders are back in a share of first place for the first time since July 2015 after defeating Sporting Kansas City 1-0 on Saturday and running their shutout streak to a club record 400 minutes.
Inside the Sounders locker room after Saturday’s game, the newly minted first-place team was informed it had set a club record by extending its shutout steak to 400 minutes and counting.
Soccer tradition dictates that Sounders keeper Stefan Frei gets primary credit, but once the news was delivered, he pointed around the room at various sets of teammates, saying: “No, it’s you guys, it’s you guys, it’s you guys.’’ Such modesty is sometimes false in sports, but after a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, it’s obvious the Sounders are finally blending in to an overall unit as lethal as the one that won a championship last December.
After a half-season of sputtering fits and starts, some stability on a back line aided by the arrival of Dutch right back Kelvin Leerdam has helped the Sounders solidify defensively while buying time for their attack to find cohesion.
As a result, the Sounders moved into a tie with Sporting K.C. atop the Western Conference, marking the first time since July 2015 they’ve been in first place.
“Consistency always helps,’’ Frei said after his fourth straight clean sheet. “Because you allow guys to figure out what their tendencies are and it usually tends to erase some errant passes and things like that. If you know that someone prefers to check and then go long, or check and then stay short, all of those things are very important.’’
A crowd of 43,530 at CenturyLink Field saw the Sounders extend their unbeaten streak to eight games in the type of match they might have lost earlier in the season. The weary K.C. side — playing its third game in seven days — had a solid possession plan throughout. It pressed up high and kept the middle of the field bottled up, forcing the Sounders wide to create chances.
And that is what the Sounders did, scoring the only goal they’d need in the 36th minute when Jordan Morris put a perfect cross — and from the opposite right side of the field at that — into the box that Clint Dempsey headed home. It was the 50th goal by Dempsey in all competitions in a Sounders uniform and his third in the past two matches.
Morris to Dempsey. Header. Money https://t.co/sMIqnmfWki
— Seattle Times Sports (@SeaTimesSports) August 12, 2017
Dempsey missed the club’s second-half run to an MLS Cup title last season, sidelined by an irregular heartbeat. But he senses the team rounding into the same elite level form and agreed consistency and greater depth has played in to it.
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“Things are going really well,’’ he said. “We have a lot of depth on the team and we’re able to have that competition for spots. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a pretty consistent lineup.
“But still,’’ he added, “we’ve had players that needed to step up when they got called and I think that just shows how much depth is on this team right now.’’
The depth situation changed dramatically when the team imported right back Leerdam last month for Targeted Allocation Money. Leerdam came on as a second half substitute July 19 as the Sounders erased a 3-0 deficit against D.C. United and secured a 4-3 win that Dempsey calls a “defining moment’’ in the team’s season.
From the moment Leerdam entered that game and his four consecutive starts since, the Sounders have yet to yield a goal.
“It’s been a massive help,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of Leerdam’s arrival. “Chad Marshall, three-time defender of the year, does great, right? A lot of individual accolades for that guy. Roman Torres is a beast — he does a really great job. We all know how good Joevin Jones is.
“But until we added that fourth piece to the puzzle, we were a little disjointed. And so, having some familiarity on a back four is always super important.’’
Schmetzer added that the team has also done well with Nouhou Tolo and Brad Evans handling the back line. But too often, injuries and other absences had pressed reservists or midfielder Gustav Svensson into emergency defender duty.
“When we’ve had the right guys on the field, it’s been pretty good,’’ Schmetzer said.
Leerdam shrugs off the timing of his arrival and the shutout streak, saying he played his worst game yet last weekend in Minnesota. He’s had Evans start two games on the right wing in front of him and is now adjusting to the very different style of Nicolas Lodeiro at that same spot.
“You have to adapt to that and it’s not easy,’’ Leerdam said.
But it’s easier for the team’s other defenders to look to their right and know Leerdam will be there. Bad days or not, he’s given the Sounders two-way speed along the right flank they’d only previously had on the left with Jones.
Now, with both flanks covered, the rest of the team is quickly getting their act fully together in the quest to repeat as champions.