One of the most overused cliches in sports, the 'Next Man Up' catchphrase doesn't begin to describe what the Sounders have accomplished the past two seasons with several top players missing throughout
HOUSTON – Perhaps the Sounders can be forgiven for continuing to rely on one of the most overused clichés in sports as a motivational tool.
After all, compared to others across the sporting landscape claiming the “next man up’’ mantra as their own, the Rave Green actually are about as true to its meaning as it gets. In Seattle, the Seahawks also like using the catchphrase, but everybody knows they’re toast if Russell Wilson goes down and that the defense isn’t the same without the Legion of Boom. And sure, the Mariners deployed it when Felix Hernandez, James Paxton and others got hurt last season, but they still finished with a losing record.
Meanwhile, the defending champion Sounders are 90 minutes from returning to the MLS Cup final after a 2-0 road win Tuesday night against the Houston Dynamo minus injured star goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Stalwart midfielder Osvaldo Alonso also remained out, as did reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris, while midfielder Victor Rodriguez missed the first half. Right back Brad Evans was lost for the season and Roman Torres and Chad Marshall – one of the most imposing defender twosomes in MLS history — both missed significant time this year due to injuries, suspensions or both.
Instead of fading, the Sounders seem to be getting better.
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Still, even Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer seemed to realize the “next man up’’ line he’s used for months is getting stale, adjusting his postgame phrasing slightly Tuesday night when discussing how seldom-used Tyler Miller had stepped in for Frei.
“We have a mantra on this club that the next man steps forward,’’ Schmetzer said.
The idea behind “next man up’’ is as old as Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp. Or, for modern fans, Tom Brady filling in for Drew Bledsoe. It’s even the title of a 12-year-old NFL book by well-regarded sports writer John Feinstein. A quick online search finds that, within the past few months alone, the phrase has been used to describe the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Sacramento Kings, St. Louis Blues, Rutgers football, Arizona Wildcats basketball, and even the Melbourne Storm rugby team in Australia.
But none of those are winning anything big. And “next man up’’ isn’t supposed to celebrate decent teams staying decent, or bad ones staying bad.
That part’s easy.
The talent level in professional sports is so high that players know somebody can always replace them. There’s nothing remarkable about starting players – even good ones – being replaced for extended periods by equally talented backups itching for a chance.
It’s when the elite go down that “Next man up’’ starts to matter.
The defending champion Sounders, during this two-season run of theirs, have taken the concept to a different level. This championship team is now very close to repeating despite missing several top cogs throughout.
Clint Dempsey is one of the best to play the game in this country and yet the Sounders won the MLS Cup final without him last year. Morris is one of the more exciting American youngsters to emerge this decade and the Sounders this season have generated more scoring up top when he’s out.
Rodriguez was signed out of Spain to ignite an offensive spark and has yet to start a game this post-season. Neither has Alonso, one of Major League Soccer’s top defensive midfielders.
And yet, the Sounders keep winning with relative ease. They’ve outscored opponents 4-0 this post-season and 11-0 their last five matches. They’re so good, they worry when 2-0 wins like Tuesday’s opener aren’t 3-0 or 4-0.
As deep as they were a year ago, they are arguably deeper now. That explains how Miller – with only two MLS appearances heading in – produced a clean sheet facing an opponent beaten only once prior all year at home.
“This was my moment,’’ Miller said. “I felt I was prepared for the game and I went out and had a solid game.’’
More importantly, he didn’t mess up. There simply wasn’t all that much for Miller to do. Even with Alonso out and stud left back Joevin Jones pushed up into an attacking role because Rodriguez still isn’t starting, the Sounders mostly contained the fast-breaking Houston side of Alberth Elis, Erick Torres and Romell Quioto.
Standing not far behind Miller in a corner of the postgame locker room was smiling general manager Garth Lagerwey. It was his largely underrated moves that added the above-average depth pieces.
Two years ago, on a whim visit to the jungles of Cameroon as a favor to a friend, he spotted a teenager named Nouhou who is now a starting rookie left back that enables Jones to move up in an attacking role.
While the fan base clamored for international transfer target Derlis Gonzalez last summer, Lagerwey instead added lesser known right back Kelvin Leerdam to solidify the back line.
In training camp, he’d signed a journeyman Swede named Gustav Svensson out of the Chinese Super League for spot-duty and veteran presence. Before that, when the Dynamo felt striker Will Bruin was showing his age, Lagerwey figured he could do worse than having a 50-goal-scorer back up Morris.
It seemed fitting that Bruin and Svensson both scored Tuesday, given how either could be the team’s unlikely Most Valuable Player.
Svensson was replacing Alonso just one week after helping lead Sweden past Italy and in to next year’s FIFA World Cup.
“This was obviously one of the best weeks of my career,’’ Svensson said. “The only thing that beats this is when my son was born and getting married. Other than that, looking back, this is going to be a very good memory.’’
As will the coming weeks for his teammates if this impressive run continues. They won’t have a suspended Torres for the Nov. 30 second leg, nor Alonso and perhaps not even Frei.
But no matter. For the Sounders, it truly is “next man up.’’
If only they could call it something else. Right now, the oft-misappropriated phrase doesn’t do their performance justice.