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Making the playoffs is just business as usual

Just because everyone wrote them off a few months ago didn’t mean the Sounders were about to break tradition and celebrate their equivalent of paying bills on time.

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake: Photos
Sounders making the playoffs is basically the equivalent of holding your kid when they fall asleep in your arms ... or something. (Look, we just wanted an excuse to use this photo, OK?)

Over the last couple months, raucous postgame celebrations have become sort of the Seattle Sounders’ thing. Led mostly by resident DJ Roman Torres, victories are often followed by blaring music and even dancing.

After clinching a playoff berth with a convincing-enough victory over similarly postseason-bound Real Salt Lake on Sunday, you’d have expected a similarly upbeat atmosphere.

There was some music in the background, pleasant smiles and certainly a fair amount of laughter, but this was not an overtly celebratory scene. Rather, the Sounders had more of a quiet confidence and maybe a bit of relief at qualifying for an eighth-straight postseason.

The time is now to make Brian Schmetzer's title permanent

The time is now to make Brian Schmetzer's title permanent

Posted by Sounder at Heart on Monday, October 24, 2016

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Brad Evans said. “This was a workmanlike performance and how we got here was very workmanlike. We continue that mentality.

“We’ll enjoy this, but there’s no need for celebration in here like that.”

Prior to Torres doing his part to change things, the Sounders’ postgame locker room has always been this way. The music sometimes plays louder and there might be a few more players making inside jokes at one another depending on the personnel, but perhaps the most constant thing about their locker room over these eight years is the relatively even-keeled nature.

Big celebrations have been reserved for winning trophies, meaning the Sounders have had exactly four (after each of their U.S. Open Cup titles). Even the 2014 Supporters’ Shield didn’t merit anything more than some postgame photo ops. Certainly, the Sounders have never had a beer shower simply for qualifying for the playoffs.

That’s because making the playoffs is the baseline expectation. The Sounders are no more inclined to celebrate that than you are to celebrate paying your rent on time or remembering to pick your kids up from school.

But just because the organization has taken playoff soccer somewhat for granted shouldn’t diminish what the Sounders have accomplished.

On a high level, the Sounders’ active streak of eight postseason appearances is tied for the longest in MLS. Only the LA Galaxy can equal it and only the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake can even claim to have made it 7 of 8 years. The only team with a longer all-time streak is the Galaxy, who made it every year from 1996-2005 when MLS was a very different league and an even higher percentage of teams qualified for the playoffs.

Over these last eight years, the Sounders have amassed 429 points, the second highest total in MLS behind the Galaxy’s 445. RSL has the third most points with 405, but no one else has as many as 400.

Keeping this impressive streak alive was hardly guaranteed, though. We don’t have to think too hard to remember back to the summer months when finishing dead last seemed more likely than playing in the postseason. The Sounders actually spent a few days in the Western Conference basement — the first time that had happened so late in a season — and were a whopping 10 points out of the playoffs the day Sigi Schmid was fired.

Most observers had reasonably written off the season at that point. While there were examples of bigger turnarounds record-wise in MLS history, no team had ever closed such a large points deficit to make the playoffs. The Sounders needed to play at a Supporters’ Shield-winning level for the final 14 games, and that’s exactly what they did. If they could equal the 2.0 points per game they averaged during those games over a full season, they’d tie the post-shootout record for points in a season (68).

Much of the credit will deservedly go to the signings of Nicolas Lodeiro and to a lesser-degree Alvaro Fernandez, as well as Roman Torres returning to health. Adding three starters will help any team. But let’s also not forget that Clint Dempsey ended up missing the final 10 games, Brad Evans only played in two of the final eight, Andreas Ivanschitz only played 16 minutes over the final four games and virtually every other key player missed a game or two down the stretch.

Brian Schmetzer may have had a few more face cards to play, but he was by no means holding the soccer equivalent of a full house.

What Schmetzer did better than Schmid was play the hand he was dealt without spending too much time worrying about why it wasn’t better. A player like Nelson Valdez was transformed from wasted Designated Player spot into useful late-game sub. Tyrone Mears became an asset even if he was more conservative than the team liked. Lineups changed, but the style of play remained relatively consistent. There was a seemingly singular focus to his time in charge, and that was not just making the playoffs but putting the team in position to compete for a MLS Cup, either this year or down the road.

Whether or not you believe the Sounders — who swear they believed they could turn this around — there was nothing predictable or preordained about what they accomplished. The Sounders have no real business being in this postseason. But they may as well go ahead and finish the job.

Roldan’s action map vs. RSL (via MLSsoccer.com)

Roldan rising: This is hardly the first time we’ve talked about Cristian Roldan having a stellar performance. But what made this game stand out was he did it from a wide position.

Most of Roldan’s best moments this year have been on the defensive end or through steady passing. What we saw in this one was something different: A player more intent on making a difference on the offensive end.

He started off by showing some flare with a backheel pass that set up the first goal and put his stamp on the game when he stabbed home the rebound from a Torres header where Roldan started out basically just clogging up space near the goal. This was not Roldan’s tidiest game, as he only completed 65 percent of his passes. But he was constantly looking forward, pressing the defense and forcing the action. He played the role the Sounders needed him to perfectly, another hallmark of Schmetzer’s Sounders.

Serendipity: It seems only fitting that the Sounders will open their playoff campaign against the team who basically kickstarted their turnaround. The last time the Sounders faced Sporting Kansas City was on July 24.

In case you have excised that from your memory, here’s a quick recap: The Sounders were out shot 19-1, lost 3-0 and played the least inspired match in franchise history. It was hard to see Schmid coming back from that, and he didn’t. Just for good measure, KC beat the Sounders 1-0 at home in the season opener.

“This one has a little more meaning for the guys,” Evans said. “We remember what happened in Kansas City.”