Shortly after the Seattle Sounders beat Real Salt Lake to clinch their spot in the MLS Cup playoffs, a team official pulled me aside. He was beaming. With a smile stretching from ear-to-ear his message was simple: “We’re playing with house money, now.”
As much as simply qualifying for the postseason was never seen as a satisfying result in and of itself, the relief in the organization was palpable. Making the postseason was material proof that this team had engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in MLS history, going from 10 points out of the No. 6 spot to hosting a playoff game in the span of 14 matches.
Through the first two matches of the playoffs, the Sounders played like a team freed of expectations. It was never more apparent in the home leg against FC Dallas when the Sounders scored three second-half goals to surge to a playoff-record tying lead heading into the second half.
What happened next was probably predictable. Despite voicing intentions to do the exact opposite, the Sounders fell into a shell during the first 45 minutes of the return leg and were probably a bit lucky to still have a two-goal lead heading into halftime. They steadied the ship in the second half and ultimately won comfortably after Nicolas Lodeiro scored an away goal, but the freedom they had been playing with had seemingly been lost as expectations had shifted.
If this is to truly become a special season, the Sounders are going to have to get comfortable with being favorites.
The biggest test comes tonight. After getting past a very tough defensive team in Sporting Kansas City and dispatching the Supporters’ Shield winners, the Sounders will face a Colorado Rapids team with plenty of questions. Their records may suggest the Rapids are the better team, but even betting lines understand that the Sounders are the favorites to advance.
While the Sounders should be close enough to full health, the Rapids will be missing their USMNT goalkeeper; their leading scorer is, at best, hampered by an injured ankle; and their midfield engine is coming off a week that saw him play 161 minutes and fly around 5,000 miles while his Sounders counterparts were resting.
What stands in the Sounders’ way of a first-ever MLS Cup finals appearance is a challenge quite different than ones they’ve previously faced. Their biggest rivals are already home for the holidays, the LA Galaxy are no longer around to play bogeyman. The Rapids won’t be pushovers, but most seem to be treating them as a bit part in the Sounders’ season-long narrative.
The Sounders have gone from precocious underdog to leading man in the span of a few weeks.
The Sounders need to own their new role. They don’t have 45 minutes to let the opponent dictate tempo, the way they did in the second leg against Dallas. The Sounders must open as the aggressors and force the Rapids to react. It’s imperative that the Sounders take advantage of this hobbled opponent before the series returns to Mile High where the altitude can have all sorts of influence.
Like it or not, the Sounders are no longer playing with house money. This is now their series to lose, and maybe even their cup depending on how that other conference final goes. To a certain degree, that’s always how it was going to have to be. When you’re a team that casts as big of a shadow as the Sounders, you can’t sneak up on opponents forever.