Seattle beats Real Salt Lake 2-1 in the regular-season finale and takes the fourth seed into the playoffs. It will host Sporting Kansas City in a one-game playoff Thursday.
After all of that, the Sounders ended up in a familiar place.
At the end of this campaign — after the midseason coaching change, the addition of Nicolas Lodeiro and loss of Clint Dempsey — Seattle wound up just about where it usually does this time of year: preparing to host a playoff game and with MLS Cup dreams intact.
The Sounders clinched their eighth consecutive postseason berth with a businesslike 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake in front of a crowd of 50,022 on Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field.
Knockout-round byes: FC Dallas, Colorado
Sporting Kansas City @ Sounders FC, Thursday, 7 p.m., FS1
Real Salt Lake @ Los Angeles Galaxy, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
Knockout-round byes: New York Red Bulls, New York City FC
Philadelphia @ Toronto FC, Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.
Montreal @ D.C. United, Thursday, 4:30 p.m.
Seattle, the fourth seed in the Western Conference with a record of 14-14-6, will host Sporting Kansas City in a one-game playoff on Thursday at 7 p.m. at CenturyLink. Portland, as the schadenfreude topper for Sounders fans, ended up as the odd team out, the defending champions routed 4-1 by Vancouver up at BC Place.
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Seattle’s performance in Sunday’s regular-season finale was a triumph of the collectivism preached by interim coach Brian Schmetzer from the moment he took over for Sigi Schmid in late July, with the team 10 points out of a playoff spot.
Asked this week before a do-or-die finale how his team would replace Dempsey’s penchant for delivering in big games, Schmetzer conceded that the team’s biggest star is irreplaceable.
In some ways, the absence of Dempsey — who has been out since late August with an irregular heartbeat and will not play again this season — could be felt most keenly in the weeks ahead, as stakes continue to rise.
“I would love to have Clint out there,” Seattle’s Brad Evans said. “ … (Thursday) night, we have Clint, I think we would win four, five-nothing. We miss his creativity. We miss his finishing. We miss his feistiness. Going into the playoffs, that’s what you want. … We’re never going to replace Clint.”
Instead of looking for a like-for-like replacement, Schmetzer asked his players to collectively step up and fill the void. Against RSL, they heeded his call.
Jordan Morris may not have scored, but the MLS Rookie of the Year candidate was credited with an assist for his plucky back heel that set up Alvaro Fernandez’s third-minute goal. Lodeiro’s corner-kick cross onto Roman Torres’ head at the half-hour mark led to the game-winner, with Cristian Roldan on the doorstep to tap in the rebound.
“The kid has blossomed,” Schmetzer said of Roldan. “He does everything. That wasn’t his normal position tonight, and he showed he can still make an impact. … That kid has a really, really, bright future.”
Schmetzer pointed to former Sounders midfielder Gonzalo Pineda for his role in Roldan’s development, despite the fact that Pineda retired this past offseason. Roldan elaborated on his coach’s comments.
The second-year midfielder out of UW recalled staying up until midnight breaking down tape with Pineda during last year’s preseason in Tucson, analyzing what he could have done differently, inspiring a deeper understanding of the game.
“I owe him a ton,” Roldan said. “He’s a great teammate and an even better person. Ozzie (Alonso) has also helped me. Other players like Nico (Lodeiro). All these guys have contributed.”
Regular-season finales tend to inspire a big-picture view, both for the teams eliminated and those moving on. The reprieve is short, but the end of the eight-month regular season is a natural place to reflect and take stock.
Schmetzer traced the beginning of the path to the opening of training camp in late January. In the case of Pineda and Roldan, that genesis dates even further than that. The interim coach did not hesitate to give his predecessor a measure of credit in inspiring the mindset that helped the Sounders over the line at the end.
“We all wanted this franchise, including Sig, to make the playoffs, to win, to be successful,” Schmetzer said. “I am proud of what those guys accomplished. I’m hoping Sigi finds some bit of joy in this. I know it was a tough situation, but it’s part of his team as well.”
There’s a sense that this team must still find another gear if it is to make a run deep into the MLS Cup playoffs. The highs of the Dempsey/Lodeiro/Morris attacking front has given way to something grittier, an all-for-one mentality Schmetzer has encouraged from his first day on the job.
“What happened here wasn’t rocket science,” Evans said. “It wasn’t a change in formation. It was maybe a little bit of change in training sessions, but what comes with that is a different demeanor, a different attitude and just a different voice. We all rallied behind it. We’re going to get behind this and do it together.”
On Sunday afternoon, their reward was the bare minimum of playoff qualification, a feat they’ve managed in every single year of their MLS existence. On Thursday, the Sounders collective takes aim at an ultimate prize that has proved more evasive.