There were so many moments when this season could have turned in such a different direction. Players, coaches and pundits have often pointed to the road game against Orlando City, Brian Schmetzer’s second match in charge. You probably remember that the Sounders ended up coming from behind to win that match 3-1 on the strength of a Clint Dempsey hat trick.
The Sounders went on to win their next two as well and salvaged a tie against the Houston Dynamo on a last-minute Nicolas Lodeiro goal to run their unbeaten streak to five games under Schmetzer. The belief was back in the team. There was just a little bit of swagger and suddenly pulling off what seemed impossible — making the playoffs — didn’t seem quite so outlandish.
For my money, though, I think the most important moment came at the end of that unbeaten streak. That same week it was revealed Dempsey was going to be indefinitely sidelined with a heart-related health issue. The once buoyant mood was dampened and it got worse once the Sounders took the field against the Portland Timbers, who jumped out to a 4-0 lead at halftime.
All the gains of the previous five games were in danger of being wiped away. All the hope of a fairytale finish was on the verge of vanishing.
“We told them at that moment that part of my narrative had been them taking ownership of the team, but the other not so positive side of it was we had to hold people accountable,” said Schmetzer, sitting in the coaches’ locker room with a beer in his hand and a smile stretched across his face. “We told them ‘if anyone quits, you’re done, you’re off the field, you’re not going to play for this club.’
“You know who stands up? Ozzie, and he says ‘We’re going to come back and win this game.`”
The Sounders did not, of course, actually win the game. But they did score two goals right out of halftime and were the better team for the second half.
“OK it didn’t work but it’s that kind of drive and determination from the senior guys in the locker room,” Schmetzer said. “When I challenged them, they responded.”
What easily could have been a momentum killing loss that had the potential to sink the entire season instead was nothing more than a bump on the road.
The following week, the Sounders scraped out a 1-1 road tie with the San Jose Earthquakes and followed that up with four straight wins that effectively sealed their spot in the postseason.
Along with the spirit the Sounders showed there was a literal change that occurred at halftime of the Timbers game that had just as big of an impact on the season: the insertion of Roman Torres into the lineup.
Torres hadn’t played in almost exactly a year after tearing his ACL, but showed only rare moments of rust against the Timbers. Torres more than held his own against Timbers forward Fanendo Adi and was a significant reason the Sounders nearly pulled off an amazing comeback.
The Sounders defense only improved from there. They would go on to allow just 10 goals and register seven shutouts in their final 14 matches — with Torres starting in all but two of those — and the defense proved to be the primary reason Seattle won its first-ever top-division soccer crown.
To win something like MLS Cup, so many things need to go right. As much as it’s about playing well and coming together as a team, luck plays its part too. Bounces, referee calls and so many other things largely out of the players control have to fall into place.
But successful coaches also have the knack of pushing the right buttons. They know just what it takes to get the most out of their players.
At halftime of the Timbers game, Schmetzer knew the tone he had to strike and the players responded.
Similarly, Schmetzer needed to select the five players he thought gave the Sounders’ their best chance to win the penalty shootout. Just like Torres wasn’t necessarily in Schmetzer’s initial plans when he took over the team, he knew when the time was right to bring the Panamanian into the fold.
So, with the penalty shootout going into its sixth round, Schmetzer selected Torres to be the player who could deliver the winning strike.
Torres rarely, if ever, takes penalties in games. But he is consistently one of the Sounders’ best spot-shooters in training.
Schmetzer put his faith in Torres. Torres responded. The Sounders are MLS champions.