The Seattle Sounders made history Saturday, notching their eighth win in a row with a 3-1 bout of 90-minute weirdness against Sporting Kansas City. No other Major League Soccer team has accomplished the feat since the abolition of the shootout to ensure that no match ended in a draw in a single season of play.
24 points from eight games. A perfect return that has included four clean sheets, a +15 goal differential and a rocket boost up the Western Conference standings. In effect, late summer Sounders soccer.
Yet something has been different in the 2018 late push for the Sounders. Things have felt bizarre, particularly when held against the similar runs of form the previous two seasons have yielded en route to the MLS Cup final.
Saturday’s result was no different. Harry Shipp forced an own goal from Graham Zusi that seemed to have been guided into the side net by divine intervention, Brad Smith got a penalty kick call two minutes later by blasting a cross off Ike Opara’s arm and Chad Marshall got sent off for a challenge that wouldn’t have broken glass.
Apart from the vicissitudes of VAR Saturday afternoon, it seems like the Sounders have been on the right side of fortune on their 11-match undefeated streak.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer put it another way:
“It always evens out at the end of the year,” Schmetzer said. “You make your own luck as well. I would say that that group in there is starting to make their own luck. Yes, we’ve been unlucky in the beginning of the year. I’m not going to deny that, but yes, I do think that the overall full season, it does even out. Kim Kee-hee against Portland, you can say that was lucky, but he put the ball in a dangerous spot. Harry put the ball in a dangerous spot. When you put pressure on opponents, good things happen.”
Certainly, the club has benefitted from some bizarre incidents and trends on its win run.
Against the Whitecaps, Doneil Henry inexplicably threw his arm up on a ball into the penalty area, allowing Seattle the lead in the first five minutes of play off a penalty kick. Later, Stefan Marinovic had a shot from Nicolas Lodeiro get by him, slowly rolling into goal.
Against San Jose, the Sounders had a case of the “you-take-its,” giving the ball away to the Earthquakes in their own half. Admittedly, choosing to have a poor performance in midfield is usually safest against a team that had only won two matches in its season to that point.
Against New York City, the Sounders decided that possession was not a necessary prerequisite to success, allowing NYCFC to hold nearly 60 percent of the possession before battering the second-place team in the Eastern Conference 3-1.
After that match, Cristian Roldan offered a good summation of the then-six-match unbeaten streak, compared to previous years:
“They are all different,” Roldan said. “The incredible thing about this (streak) is that we aren’t playing well, we are grinding out games, we are winning these games because we are playing good defense and scoring that one or two goals. That’s the scary part. You think about six unbeaten and then if we start playing like we are supposed to, we can go on a really long run.”
Roldan proved to be prophetic, thanks to a very late penalty given by VAR against Minnesota and Will Bruin scoring the chip of the year (and maybe the decade) at the death.
The 2-1 win against FC Dallas was arguably Seattle’s most complete win of the stretch. The club played in a familiar manner and looked dominant, save for a 10-minute spell in the first half when nothing went right. Still, the sending-off of Reto Ziegler and the lack of action of what seemed to be a pretty obvious backward headbutt by Raul Ruidiaz in the match’s final seconds can be considered a spot of luck (whether it’s karma for Josef Martinez’ unpunished headbutt on Chad Marshall is up for debate).
It was at this point that Bobby Warshaw wrote a column that essentially threw up its hands at the Sounders’ win streak. “The Sounders win, but it’s not clear why or how,” Warshaw wrote.
The game against the Galaxy reached new levels of comic absurdity. Absent five starters and their four highest paid players, the Galaxy gifted three of Seattle’s five goals, including an own goal as the Sounders ran former manager Sigi Schmid and Los Angeles straight out of town.
After being outshot 22-6 by the Portland Timbers and making 41 defensive clearances, the Sounders won for just the third time in MLS play at Providence Park on the back of a 75th minute Julio Cascante own goal.
Throw in Saturday’s weirdness, and you might have a case that an angel looking like Christopher Lloyd named Al came to a young fan one night and offered to help make the team make the playoffs so he could grow closer to his estranged father.
The reality, though, is closer to what Roldan has suggested. Seattle is playing lights out on defense. The club has conceded six goals since June 30. This should not come as a huge surprise. Five of Seattle’s top 10 earners were defenders or holding midfielders when the Players’ Union released salary info at the beginning of the year, and Schmetzer has always made sure his teams are committed to hard defending.
Good defense can do a lot to cover up a schizophrenic offense, which is how the team has looked at times during this streak. Still, Schmetzer’s point about making one’s own luck rings true.
The win streak has pushed Seattle to fifth in the Western Conference. With a 12-9-5 record and 41 points, finishing at the top of the table is not beyond the realm of feasibility for Seattle.
Some of the play may not be as glamorous as the talent on Seattle’s roster would seem to provide, but if the club can keep winning ugly, there’s no telling where Seattle will go. Brian Schmetzer’s comment about the team’s response to Sporting KC’s early goal can also serve as a summation of their season:
“It’s is a testament to the resilience of the group,” Schmetzer said. “I mean, I think our road record (5-5-3) is pretty good this year. I have gone on record on many, many, many occasions that MLS is a league filled with parity. We understand how challenging it is. But, again, those guys in there, they never gave up. I think the response after our two-minute patch of not thinking about things was great. I think after that two minutes when they scored, it was like, okay, shoot, we’re in a big game here. And their response was a well-taken goal by Raúl (Ruidíaz), and the team coming together and saying, ‘That’s not going to happen again.’ So, again, all credit to them.”