There were so many things working against the Seattle Sounders before they took the field on Sunday. It wasn’t just that Clint Dempsey was out, or that Nicolas Lodeiro went and got himself suspended for the match.
They were also playing their third game in nine days — including two on the road that took them the length of the West Coast. Just before kickoff, they learned that Andreas Ivanschitz would need to be scratched from the starting lineup.
Then Alvaro Fernandez went down with a hamstring injury just nine minutes in, and his replacement Oniel Fisher gave up a penalty to put the Sounders in a 25th minute hole.
The “Curse of the Whites” appeared to be in full effect.
But if we’ve learned anything about Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders it’s this: They are a resilient bunch.
Osvaldo Alonso brought the Sounders even in the 39th minute — finishing off an excellent Joevin “my broken toe has been rendered a minor subplot” Jones — and they never really looked back. Yes, Pedro Morales gave them a hand when he needlessly threw an elbow into Cristian Roldan’s face and Brad Evans made it unnecessarily interesting when he got ejected for being a little too animated with his head gestures, but the Sounders never looked too rattled.
What’s really remarkable is how normal it all seemed. This was the third time the Sounders have come from behind to win and their fifth result after giving up the first goal in their past 10. All five of those results have come on the road, too, and four of them were against Western Conference opponents. They are 3-1-2 when giving up the first goal under Schmetzer, after going 0-10-2 after giving up the first goal and 2-9-1 against the West during the first 20 games of the season.
To put it another way, the Sounders have more come-from-behind road points (eight) in five games against Western opponents than they had in 12 games against the West, both home and away, (seven) in Sigi Schmid’s 20 games in charge. They now find themselves one win away from clinching a playoff spot and looking at the very real likelihood they may even host an opening-round game.
Evans’ red card, Lodeiro’s likely unavailability, and the questionable health of Ivanschitz and Fernandez increase the difficulty level down the stretch. There were plenty of times in this team’s history where we might expect them to buckle given those challenges.
“I’ve been pretty consistent with the story, I’ve given them ownership of the team,” Schmetzer explained after the game. “That is something that they believe in. I’ve gotten traction with that.
“So I think the whole group mentality is a testament to us playing well in these situations.”
I’m not quite ready to say the “Curse of the Whites” has been lifted — a lot did still go wrong — but Schmetzer has succeeded in helping remove the kind of mentality that allows such beliefs to take hold in the first place.
Five-seed, high and rising?: If the Sounders win any of their last three games, they will qualify for the playoffs. It’s that simple.
The more interesting equation is how high can they finish? As it is, they have the the fourth best points per game, .01 better than Real Salt Lake. That’s because they still have a game in hand on RSL and only one fewer point. That sets up a scenario where the Sounders could be hosting RSL in the season finale for a chance to see who hosts the play-in round between the same two teams a few days later.
There’s even a decent chance the Sounders could move all the way up to third, which would set up a date against Sporting KC or the Portland Timbers most likely. The Sounders are four points behind the LA Galaxy, who visit Houston and host first-place FC Dallas in their final two. Winning their two remaining home games makes passing the Galaxy entirely doable as the Sounders would have the tiebreaker if both teams finish on 50 points.
Getting all the way to second — which would mean a first-round bye — isn’t mathematically out of the question, either. But the Colorado Rapids still have four games left to play and a seven-point cushion. We’ll leave that one to the dreamers.
Alonso is unreal: There were a couple shaky moments — like his attempted bicycle kick and a couple loose passes that set up counter-attacks — but Osvaldo Alonso did a pretty decent Nicolas Lodeiro impression in this one, albeit from a deeper starting point.
Like Lodeiro, it was Alonso who was most willing to make that penetrating pass and popping up all over the field to make tackles, relieve pressure and generally make sure the Sounders kept the ball.
We’ve now gotten to the point where we’re almost taking Alonso’s performances for granted again, but it bears remembering that this was a player the Sounders were more than happy to move last offseason and around whom there was much worry going into this year.
Alonso currently leads MLS in completed passes (by more than 200), passing percentage (among those with at least 100 passes) and “duels.” He’s also scored three goals and has four assists, his best ever offensive season. Alonso isn’t simply enjoying a renaissance, he’s quietly putting up MVP numbers.
Improved defense: It’s easy to miss it given the improved play of the offense, but the defense has been putting together really solid performances too. Over the five-and-a-half games, the Sounders have given up just two non-penalty goals. That coincides with Roman Torres’ introduction to the lineup. You don’t have to squint too hard to see a correlation. Now, if we can just get our fullbacks settled...