TUKWILA, Wash. — For all the ups and downs, all the fits and starts, all the hair-pulling frustration, the Seattle Sounders head into the final game of the regular season in an enviable position. If they can beat Minnesota United on Sunday at home, they’ll secure the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and put themselves in position to finish as high as third in the Supporters’ Shield race.
The last time they finished higher than fourth in the overall table was when they won the Supporters’ Shield in 2014.
As notable of an achievement as that might be, this is still a team that can’t quite shake the feeling that an opportunity was missed after starting the year 5-0-1.
“Anytime we don’t compete for a Supporters’ Shield with the talent we have is a fail,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan bluntly stated following Thursday’s training session. “I’m bold to say that, but with the talent we have we should be competing for a Supporters’ Shield.”
Still, Roldan noted, MLS offers a second chance.
“You put yourself in a good playoff spot and then playoffs is a completely other season,” he said. “You can define that season by that playoffs, but first you have to put yourself in a good spot.”
That’s why Sunday’s game is so important. A loss could leave the Sounders as low as fifth in the West and facing arguably the toughest possible road to MLS Cup.
While it’s almost always unfair to allow one match to define an entire 34-game season, the match offers a sort of referendum on the season.
“Maybe it’s more of a redemption type game for us,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “We’ve had so many opportunities to make a statement game and squandered quite a few opportunities. Here we are with another chance to make an important statement game out of it.”
Among the matches likely on Frei’s mind as missed opportunities was the home loss to the Portland Timbers that followed an encouraging win over Atlanta United. That loss was the first of a disappointing stretch of three home games in which the Sounders claimed just one point. There was also the 2-2 tie on the road against the LA Galaxy in which the Sounders needed a own-goal to salvage a point after playing up a man for 75 minutes. More recently, the Sounders failed to build on their first multi-goal victory in six months when they settled for a 0-0 home draw against an FC Dallas team that has been mostly awful on the road.
Perhaps more than the individual results is that the Sounders have been unable to build anything like the momentum that had carried them through the second halves of previous seasons. The Sounders have not won three straight since the first three matches of the season and have gone a middling 8-6-3 since returning from the Gold Cup break.
Thanks to results around the league, though, the Sounders still find themselves largely in control of their own destiny heading into the regular-season finale.
“We’ve been very fortunate, let’s be honest,” Frei said. “Our season has been not the best. It was nice to start on top, but the remainder of the year has been quite a struggle. We’ve been very, very fortunate with the way the other teams in the West have struggled to follow suit with LAFC. It’s allowed us this opportunity to still gun for second. We have to take it. At some point, you have to make that statement game. We have to grab it and do it.”