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Brian Schmetzer has passed his big test

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We wondered how he would handle the ups and downs of a full season. Turns out, he did just fine.

SEATTLE — Given the ups and downs of this season, it seems almost strange to see how the Seattle Sounders finished up. With their 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids, the Sounders finished Top 2 in the West for just the third time in their nine MLS seasons and this is the highest they’ve finished since winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2014. Their +13 goal-difference is also their fourth-best mark of the MLS era.

The Sounders were particularly impressive at home, where they accumulated a franchise-record 38 points. The did this with a +20 home goal-difference that was helped immensely by 32 goals, both of which are also the top marks of their MLS existence (h/t FrankMSounders).

What makes all of this even more remarkable is that after losing to Toronto FC on May 6, they were just 1-1-2 at home and 2-3-4 overall. They followed that up with two more road losses to fall to 2-5-4 roughly a third of the way through the season. As much as I may have been pushing the “it’s too early to panic” narrative, I’ll admit that I understood why people were becoming increasingly frustrated.

I think we all knew that Brian Schmetzer would be tested in ways as a head coach he wasn’t last year. It’s one thing to get your players to buy-in when every game is a virtual must-win. It’s another when you’ve got a whole season ahead of you. I don’t think we necessarily expected that test to come so early in his first full season.

But Schmetzer never seemed concerned. Frustrated? Sure. There was never the sense that he was losing the locker room, though, even after the departure of several veterans threatened to upend the locker room and Clint Dempsey’s return did the same on the field or when Roman Torres all but openly demanded raise while Joevin Jones signed a pre-contract to get that exact thing. Injuries to key players? Schmetzer refused to offer excuses and simply demanded “the next man” step up.

The turnaround this year wasn’t nearly as outwardly impressive as last year’s, but it may have better showcased Schmetzer’s ability to control a team through many obstacles. Making another run to MLS Cup doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

The new dynamic duo

Chances are we won’t get too many more chances to see Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan paired together this year, but the Sounders now know this is a pairing that can definitely work. After seeing them together for nearly 70 minutes last week, Schmetzer decided to give them a full game together. It worked wonderfully.

Granted, this was against a bad Rapids team with literally nothing to play for. Still, it was encouraging that Roldan still found a way to get involved with the offense while handling the bulk of the defensive duties and Lodeiro was as effective as ever starting a little deeper.

Lodeiro, in fact, had one of his best games, scoring two goals and just missing out on another. The double-move he pulled in the 89th minute was absolutely gorgeous and it’s a shame Tim Howard made a pretty nice play to stop the shot.

Roldan, meanwhile, was doing a pretty darn good impression of “Osvaldo Alonso in his prime” as evidenced by his completing 93.5 percent of his passes and registering 11 tackles.

It’s this kind of versatility, where a player brought in to be an ostensible No. 10 can slide into a more defensive role almost effortlessly, that has allowed the Sounders to overcome something like Alonso’s injury with nary to hiccup. The Sounders improved to 8-2-2 i matches Alonso has played a half or less this year. Between 2012 and 2016, the Sounders had won only 8 of 29 matches where Alonso played a half or less.

Two sides of Deuce

This had all the makings of a sort of coronation for Clint Dempsey, who walked out onto the field with four kids in tow. He was one goal away from tying Fredy Montero’s franchise scoring record and Dempsey had feasted on the Rapids in the past.

It started out wonderfully. His switching ball to Kelvin Leerdam set up the first goal and his impeccably weighted ball to Will Bruin should have set up another.

Dempsey was clearly feeling it, and with the Sounders dominating chances early on it seemed like only a matter of time before he’d pass Montero.

We know what happened. On a somewhat innocuous play that saw a shot go wide, Dempsey caught Mike da Fonte with an elbow. Was it purposeful? Hard to say. Was it the kind of play we’ve often seen red carded? Yes.

Either way, he was tossed and now the Sounders are left hoping he’s at least allowed to play in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals, where he’d at least get one more chance to play at CenturyLink Field. It’s a shame to be talking about him in these terms because he’s been so good lately, but there’s simply no denying that his future is uncertain.

For now, though, the Sounders are clearly a more explosive team with him on the field. If Schmetzer can figure out how to get him, Lodeiro, Roldan, Victor Rodriguez and Jordan Morris onto the field together in a way that makes tactical sense, watch out.

A pair of engines

There should be no doubt that Joevin Jones is the best offensive fullback in the league. His departure will be felt, no doubt. That doesn’t mean the Sounders need to stress, though.

With Jones again pushed into the offensive band, Nouhou did a fine job holding down the left back spot while Kelvin Leerdam showed a bit more attacking verve on the opposite side. Even ignoring Leerdam’s assist, this was a spectacular attacking performance.

His best play came late in the game when some clever footwork along the sideline opened up this chance that by all rights should have resulted in Lamar Neagle’s third goal of the season.

That play doesn’t even count as one of his three key passes, all of which created danger on their own. He also nearly stole a goal when he pressured Howard into a turnover in the first half and again came close to scoring a goal on a breakaway.

The Sounders are now 8-2-5 with eight shutouts since Leerdam made his debut and have outscored opponents 26-8 during his 1,290 minutes on the field.

Nouhou’s contributions are more fairly illustrated with gifs. This one was my favorite from this week:

There’s a phrase that’s becoming more and more popular to describe plays like this, “That’s so Nouhou.” I recognize that this is probably not a great defensive play from start to finish, mainly because the overhead at the end is probably unnecessarily risky. But the recovery speed he shows in denying the pass is wonderful and while he’s definitely unorthodox, things almost always seem to work out in the end for him. In any case, he’s an absolute joy to watch.

Stat of the day

2.37 — Since Brian Schmetzer took over as head coach, the Sounders have gone 19-1-7 at home, good for a points per game of 2.37. One of his first stated goals upon taking that job was to make CenturyLink Field a fortress. Safe to say he’s accomplished that.

Quote of the day

“This is exactly why I’m here. Personally, I haven’t been to the playoffs in three years so personally it feels good. It’s fun.” - Will Bruin on qualifying for the playoffs