Hang around a team long enough and you’ll get a sense for how confident they are. You’ll see it in training, in media scrums, in the way they carry themselves walking into the stadium. You’ll definitely get a sense for the mood when you pull players aside for 1-on-1 interviews.
Although the press has not gotten that same level of access this year, the outward confidence among the Seattle Sounders has been so obvious that it’s easy enough to see. You could see it in the way they dismantled LAFC in the Western Conference quarterfinals and in how they handled FC Dallas a round later.
But confidence is a fickle emotion. It’s one thing to be confident when you’re winning, tied or even down by one with plenty of match left to play. It’s an entirely different thing to maintain that confidence when trailing 2-0 with less than 20 minutes potentially remaining in your season.
The Sounders found themselves in that exact situation on Monday. And the way they played over those final 20 minutes suggests that confidence is perhaps even more deeply embedded into the spirit of this team than we could have ever before imagined.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said afterward. “That’s a championship team. I couldn’t tell you what tactics worked, it was the guys never quitting. ‘We’re going to make this happen.’ That’s their mentality. That’s what I appreciate about this team.”
In fact, the belief in the players’ ability may have been even stronger than Schmetzer realized. While the coach believed his team could come back, he admitted that the winner caught him a bit off-guard.
“Maybe I didn’t believe,” Schmetzer said when asked about what seemed to be a surprised look on his face. “But the assistants said ‘We’re going to do this.’ We’re all on the bench saying ‘We’ve got this,’ but I’m thinking about overtime. Those guys were the ones saying we were going to win.”
The belief may have been strongest from the players on the bench, a collection of talent that many teams would be happy to call starters. Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson, in particular, were itching to get onto the field.
Neither had appeared in either of the previous two playoff games this year. Bruin’s lack of playing time was mainly due to circumstance, his penchant for late-game goals not entirely necessary in matches the Sounders were already leading.
Svensson, though, had been a virtually guaranteed starter prior to the playoffs. But after missing the regular-season finale while on international duty, his return to action was delayed by a positive Covid-19 test. He had only recently returned to training, and with his long-term future seemingly in doubt, he was looking at the prospect of ending his Sounders tenure on a particularly depressing note.
He seemed disinclined to let that happen.
“If you’ve been in situations like this before, you know you can turn these games around,” he said after scoring the 94th minute game-winner. “I feel sorry for them. It’s a horrible way to lose a game. I’m sure they are very sad right now because it’s a bad way to lose.”
Almost from the moment Bruin entered in the 73rd minute — and certainly by the time Svensson came on in the 77th — the game’s tide was clearly turning. Minnesota deserves credit for taking their two goals well, but make no mistake: They both came against the run of play. Whether it was a conscious choice, United played like a team that was far more interested in holding that lead than doing anything to expand on it.
In the entire game, United only took seven shots and barely even attempted to play balls into the box from open play. After scoring their second goal in the 67th minute, they took just one more shot and hardly even attempted to play the ball in the Sounders end.
Another illustration: Sounders defensive actions after second Minnesota goal vs. United's defensive actions. One's proactive, one is very reactive. pic.twitter.com/HRM6eykeJE— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) December 9, 2020
“It was a bend-don’t-break defense for them, but unfortunately they broke,” Bruin said. “They couldn’t get out of the back; that’s tough on any team. Yes, I think they got a little tired.”
Once the Bruin got that first goal, the Sounders sensed the walls would start to crumble. That’s almost exactly what happened. Although it took Seattle another 15 minutes or so to find the equalizer, by then it was feeling like just a matter of time. The Sounders outshot the Loons 12-1 from the 67th minute onward, hit the post twice during that time and probably should have been awarded a penalty.
Adrian Heath, who has been on the wrong end of several Sounders comebacks, was exuding a nervous energy on the Loons’ sideline.
“They, somehow, always seem to find a way,” Heath said of the Sounders. “It’s in their DNA here.”
Just because it has happened before, just because they believed it was possible, shouldn’t take away from the epic achievement. This was just the seventh time in MLS playoff history that a team had overcome a multi-goal deficit to win, and it was the first time a team had trailed so late and prevailed before penalties.
The Sounders continue to show themselves to be a special team, so special that even Schmetzer is impressed.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” Schmetzer said. “God, I wish the fans were there. I wish I was there watching the game with ECS. I haven’t had a chance to soak it in. In our history, this will go down as one of our best games ever.”
History awaits if they can do it one more time.