Throughout their four-plus-years of MLS Playoff dominance, the Seattle Sounders have often been effective. They’ve found different ways to win, sometimes with ruthless efficiency, other times with suffocating defense and alway displaying a difficult-to-quantify characteristic that can best be described as “heart.”
What they haven’t often been is simply “fun.” Sure, watching them win is itself fun, and it would hardly be controversial to call Brian Schmetzer’s time as head coach the most enjoyable postseason run in franchise history. Still, I think it’s almost as non-controversial to point out that neutrals don’t seem to find the Sounders’ style to be particularly pleasing.
Partly that is because Schmetzer’s teams have never been easy to analyze. For all the winning they do, outside observers have often bemoaned that they can’t exactly explain why.
I don’t want to read too much into one result so early in the playoffs, but there were definitely signs of a changing narrative following Tuesday’s emphatic 3-1 win over Los Angeles FC.
The Sounders surely been more dominant — let’s not forget they once dismantled the Houston Dynamo 5-0 over two legs of a Western Conference final. And I think you can argue that they were simply better in a bigger game when they beat a historically great LAFC by the same 3-1 score to quality for last year’s MLS Cup final. This performance, however, was quite possibly the most entertaining soccer the Sounders have ever played in a postseason game.
All three goals were wonderful in their own right. The first was an expertly crafted counter that came off an opposing goal kick, featured impressive interchanges, exquisite movement and a smooth finish.
Can't stop watching this. @NicolasLodeiro's goal is the @TCLMobileGlobal Play of the Match for #SEAvLAFC! pic.twitter.com/3e4S3ivokc— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) November 26, 2020
The second goal showcased Raúl Ruidíaz’s other-worldly finishing ability, as he somehow beat the goalkeeper while backpedaling.
Nobody loves watching Raúl highlights more than Raúl! pic.twitter.com/W7zf6MhSCX— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) November 28, 2020
The final goal was simply clinical, with Jordan Morris tracking back deep into his own end to make an interception, push the ball forward and then sprint into space before finishing with his left.
This squad!!!! @JmoSmooth13 makes it 3-1! #SoundersMatchday | #SEAvLAFC pic.twitter.com/hqkZM2rYuF— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) November 25, 2020
In between those goals were a host of other quality chances, all showing off similar skills and movements.
That this all came against a quality — if somewhat shorthanded — opponent only adds to the enjoyment factor. It also seemed to grab the attention of pundits, who mostly now seem to agree that the Sounders are favorites to repeat as MLS Cup champs.
There was a time, maybe not so long ago, where those types of expectations would be concerning for Schmetzer. Like most coaches, I think he’s more comfortable using the underdog narrative than leading from the front.
In the lead-up to last year’s MLS Cup final, Schmetzer recognized that shirking favored status can ring hollow at times. Winning is always the internal expectation in Seattle, after all, so why not just lean into it?
“The team knows that, the team feels that,” Schmetzer said following Tuesday’s game. “That mental toughness is what allows us to win games like this.
“These guys are all winners in this locker room. That’s what makes me so proud of this club. These guys get it.”
Asked for a moment that stood out to him when rewatching the game, Schmetzer pointed not to any of the goals or even a particularly impressive series of movements, but to a sequence around the 83rd minute. The Sounders were up 3-1 and LAFC were able to break the press. Before LAFC could set up their attack, however, the Sounders already recovered with all 10 outfield players in the defensive zone. Among them were Ruidíaz and Morris, who both end up defending in or around the penalty area on the sequence.
“In those moments when they needed to do something, they do it,” Schmetzer said on Friday. “That’s what gets me fired up.”
What makes this even more satisfying for Schmetzer is that he doesn’t need to tell the likes of Ruidíaz or Morris to defend, they understand that it’s simply part of the deal. If there’s a secret behind their success, that’s probably it: Even their most talented players are willing to put in the dirty work. And when everyone is committed, having fun is simply a byproduct.
That ethos is what should breed the most confidence moving forward. For as skilled as this group is — and it’s not a stretch to suggest it’s the most talented Sounders squad ever assembled — they’ve also proven themselves in the biggest games.
This group is now on a six-game playoff winning streak, something no other team has accomplished in the post-shootout era. They’ve scored at least two goals — and averaged 3.0 — in all of those games, the first time a team has done in that in the MLS playoffs.
As opening statements go, it’s hard to imagine the Sounders making a better one.