Notably absent from the discourse surrounding tonight’s MLS Western Conference final is any genuine discussion about who’s favored. For once, Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath hasn’t even tried to manufacture an underdog narrative. No one seems be arguing against the belief that this match is the Seattle Sounders’ to lose.
There are good reasons to believe this. Heath-coached teams are 0-7-1 against the Sounders, scoring just four goals in those eight games. The Sounders are riding a seven-game playoff winning streak and haven’t lost a postseason game at home since 2013, a stretch of 14 games.
This year’s squad is arguably even stronger than any of those previous teams, having posted a +24 goal-difference overall and going 9-1-2 at home. They have three Best XI players, all of whom are proven playoff performers. Their central midfield trio is capable of controlling the game through precise passing, covers as much ground as anyone and isn’t afraid of putting in a hard tackle. The defense collectively ranks among the best in the league, by both goals allowed and the quality of chances they give up.
While none of this guarantees victory, there is not an obvious weakness just dying to be exposed.
Under normal circumstances, you might even say that this sort of expectation has a potentially negative effect. That this sort of sense of inevitability is what sank a generationally-great time like LAFC last year or contributed to the downfall of the LA Galaxy dynasty.
And that’s where I think what the Sounders have built feels different. To a man, the Sounders understand that the expectations of winning is simply part of the deal.
“We don’t sugarcoat it, we don’t beat around the bush, we want to win,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said earlier this week. “The club just has a long history of being successful. In my time here, I want to keep that going.
“Is there pressure because the pundits are saying, ‘Now the Sounders are the favorites’? Yeah, sure there is. There’s always pressure. We’re not silly enough to read those quotes from different pundits and then take our eye off the prize and forget about our friend Ozzie [Alonso], forget about [Kevin] Molino, forget about all the guys they have on the field and think we’re already in MLS Cup. That’s a bunch of of baloney.”
It’s this attitude that not only makes me confident that the Sounders will prevail, but also what I find so refreshing. Schmetzer is not interested in doing sideshows about “who’s the underdog” or attempting to shift pressure onto his opponent. Those are things coaches do in order to alleviate external pressures. But it’s not necessary if the players are already comfortable with the idea that anything less than winning it all is simply unacceptable.
This is a confidence that can’t be manufactured, but it’s one the Sounders have effectively spent generations cultivating. Going back to their A-League revival, the Sounders have won the league championship six times in 27 years. Beyond that, they’ve been legitimate contenders nearly every single season, having missed the playoffs just twice and never since 2008.
While some coaches have distinct playing styles and game models, the Sounders have built a team culture around winning. Having that sort of culture obviously doesn’t guarantee anything tonight, but it should give us confidence that it’s just a matter of time before the Sounders are back in this position.