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Sounders are willing their way into playoff contention

Don’t look now, but the playoffs are a totally realistic goal.

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake: Photos Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

Take a second and think about the state of the Seattle Sounders’ season about three weeks ago. They were coming off a depressing 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City, had won only once in their past seven and were left with little choice but to fire organizational architect Sigi Schmid.

It was depressing. Missing the playoffs seemed like a foregone conclusion. There wasn’t so much a public argument about who should be fired, as much as who shouldn’t. Everyone in the organization was having fingers pointed at them, from Schmid to the front office to ownership to the players.

Somehow, that now all seems like a distant memory.

The Sounders are now coming off their first two-game winning streak since May, and thanks to a lot of teams ahead of them dropping points, they are just five points out of the final playoff spot with two games in hand on the sixth-place Portland Timbers (let’s ignore the San Jose Earthquakes for now). Crazy as it sounds, the Sounders could well be sitting in a playoff spot in two weeks even if they fail to win all three of the games they’ll play between now and then.

Here are some thoughts on their latest performance:

Nicolas Lodeiro is really, really good ... duh: The most obvious change has been the inclusion of Lodeiro, whose arrival came too late to save Schmid’s job. Lodeiro has pushed the Sounders forward unlike any midfielder they’ve ever had. It’s not that he’s so accurate — he’s completed 81 percent of his passes so far, which is good, but not spectacular — it’s that he pushes the action so well. If there’s a player making a run, he sees it. If there’s space to take with a dribble, he takes it. If the shot opens up, he lets fire.

It’s the kind of play that inspires confidence in teammates, make them want to push the line, make an extra run, or just to have the confidence that if they miss a decent chance, another one will soon follow. If there’s an extra spring in the step of someone like Clint Dempsey or Jordan Morris and they suddenly seem to be making smarter runs, it’s not hard to see Lodeiro’s role in all of that.

The Sounders are being tested, and they're passing: At one point late in Sunday’s match, color analyst Brad Friedel said something to the effect of "The Sounders could be leading this 5-0, instead of clinging to a 2-1 lead." He wasn’t wrong. In addition to the two first-half goals they scored, the Sounders had at least two more quality looks at goal — one from Morris that he put wide and another from Dempsey that he surprisingly chose to pass — just minutes after he missed a penalty. And while there were plenty of nervy moments, the Sounders recovered enough to see the match out. They never looked panicked, even knowing that a tie would have probably short-circuited whatever playoff hopes they had.

A week ago, the Sounders actually trailed before staging their first come-from-behind victory in over a year. They could have scored five in that one, too, which made life much easier. All those missed chances are frustrating, no doubt, but they are also symbolic of a team that’s actually generating enough quality looks that they don’t need to be perfect. This three-game run has been encouraging for lots of reasons, but one of them is how much room for improvement remains. That should scare everyone in MLS.

The playoffs are a real, tangible goal: We kinda went over this, but it’s worth saying again. If making the playoffs seemed like some kind of far-fetched fever dream a few weeks ago, we’re slowly awaking to find them shockingly realistic. The Timbers currently occupy the sixth and final playoff spot in the West. The Sounders trail them by five points, with two games in hand and will play them two times over the next three weeks.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, but it shows how much the gap has closed in a relatively short period of time. The most notable complicating factor is the San Jose Earthquakes, who are currently in seventh place in the West, and have four more points in the same number of games. But there are a couple outs, too. Sporting Kansas City, currently fifth in the standings, are just eight points up with three more games played. The Sounders also have a game against the Earthquakes, while Kansas City has two more games against San Jose. It’s still going to require the Sounders to win more than half of their remaining 11 matches, but making the playoffs is not a crazy thought anymore.

On Dempsey’s penalty: There’s been more than a little frustration over Dempsey’s penalty miss. With a chance to calm frayed nerves in the stadium, the Sounders’ highest-paid player confidently demanded the ball and then promptly struck his 12-yard attempt off the underside of the crossbar. It wasn’t a particularly awful attempt, but it did fit a long-time narrative that Dempsey just isn’t very good from the spot. Truth be told, I couldn’t find any detailed information about Dempsey’s penalty history. I know he’s missed a couple times with the United States national team and had a few poor attempts when he was at Fulham, but he had been 4-for-4 with the Sounders before this one.

As much as we tend to think of penalties as virtual gimmes, the reality is that the conversion rate is around 80 percent. Even stone-cold spot-kick assassins like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane have missed their fair share. Let’s also not forget that Lodeiro missed his most recent penalty, in his final game with Boca Juniors. What I want is for someone to demand the ball, just like Dempsey did on Sunday, and I fully expect for him to do the same thing next time the Sounders get a chance. I also fully expect him to convert.

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