It's fitting that the second season begins with a game against Colorado, because it was in a game against the Rapids that the Sounders' first season was nearly undone. No matter what Tim Cahill thinks, the home draw against New York was mildly disappointing at most — potentially just a bump on the road to a Supporters Shield. But it was in the thin, frigid air of Colorado that Deshorn Brown and his rampant teammates flayed away that dream along with the Sounders' defensive composure.
It was a fortnight-long beating that changed uniforms three times in the process, as the Sounders staggered through the end of the Cascadia season with consecutive losses to their rivals, losing their second trophy in short order. And it culminated with a shutout loss to a non-playoff team that included players who were literally fist-fighting each other before halftime.
The home draw that relegated Seattle to this midweek play-in match honestly came as a relief. It didn't matter that we gave up a lead at home. It didn't matter that we bought another game in the playoffs. We just played a pretty good team and didn't get shellacked. It was improvement.
But there's no time for gradual improvement. If this season isn't going to be abruptly over tonight, the team has to get a lot better a lot faster. Some of that is health. Clint Dempsey has another few days for his shoulder to improve. Obafemi Martins could be a major factor if he can return (though that seems unlikely). Leo Gonzalez, who's revealed how important he was to the defense in his absence, may be able to return.
But even more than healthy players, what Seattle needs is composure. It's a quality the Sounders have struggled to develop for their entire MLS existence. There is a confidence that teams can exhibit even when they're behind, based in the surety that if they keep playing their game the result will come. Seattle has rarely had it. It's a testament to their good skill and good training and good fortune that over these five years the team has been behind rarely, at least by soccer standards. But when they do go behind they're as likely to concede 3 more goals as they are to come back.
And that's a question of leadership. I'm a numbers guy. I think people vastly overemphasize 'clubhouse presence' and 'grit' and I think the more talented and better coached team usually wins. But there are times when character matters a lot. And it's when you're in a close match in the playoffs and you go down a goal, and the team needs to know what to do now and how to respond. Somebody has to set the example. . not to desperately fling the ball forward or bomb up the midfield trying to equalize immediately. But to have the confidence to settle the team.
For a team that's been very good over the years, I don't think Seattle has ever had that. Our most talented players have been young or impetuous, or both. We found leadership in journeymen like Pete Vagenas or Zach Scott who were struggling to show enough ability to hold down a regular starting spot at the same time they were trying to lead the team. Mauro Rosales is the closest we have to a captain on the field, but I don't think it's in his nature to bust the heads of his teammates. He's a hard worker and a leader by example, but if other players don't follow his example, it's for naught.
But there's no grizzled head coming to take the reins on the field. This is the team. The players we put out there tonight have to find confidence and composure themselves. Eddie Johnson is as fiery and competitive a player as there is in the league, but he needs to use that fire to make his teammates better, not scorch them in frustration. Osvaldo Alonso needs to find the patience to stay disciplined even when it looks like the game is winding out of control. Clint Dempsey is another leader by example, but right now he's the face of the franchise and its most talented player and there will be times he needs to take the team by the scruff of the neck, not dance the ball out to the corner.
Wild card teams can win the MLS Cup. In fact, judging by recent history they're more likely to win it than anyone else. The Sounders are as talented from 1 to 11 as any other team in these playoffs. But the team that wins will, I think, be the one that weathers adversity best with players who can rise above it. Cahill can do that. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan can do that. I don't think the Colorado Rapids can do that. And that's the entirety of my scouting report on them. I think they're too young and they're not ready for this. It's up to Seattle to deliver them the adversity that will break them.