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Five times the Sounders excelled as underdogs

It’s not a familiar role for the Sounders, but they play it well.

Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles FC - Western Conference Final Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

Especially during their 11 MLS seasons, the term “underdog” has only been used sparingly when talking about the Seattle Sounders. In each of those seasons, the Sounders have consistently been among the best-resourced teams in the league. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely unfamiliar with the label, especially if you stretch back to the final years of their USL existence.

Here are five times the Sounders played the underdog role perfectly:

2007 U.S. Open Cup vs. Rapids

I realize I’m sort of cheating by including a game from the Sounders’ USL era and that this wasn’t even the first or last time they upset an MLS team in the U.S. Open Cup, but it might be the best example of them doing it. What makes this game particularly notable is that it came a few months before Seattle’s promotion to MLS was announced, which means it was almost certainly before players knew it was happening. This was a “real” USL team, in other words, not an MLS team in waiting.

Not only did this USL team thump an MLS opponent by a 5-0 scoreline, but they did it against what was effectively a first-choice lineup. Among the Rapids starters in this game were Zach Thornton, Pablo Mastroeni, Conor Casey and Herculez Gomez. Thornton was actually one of the only players who would start fewer than 10 games that season and he’s one of the most decorated goalkeepers in MLS history. Despite all that, Brian Schmetzer put together a gameplan that never looked remotely overmatched and cruised to victory.

The win put the Sounders into the Open Cup semifinals for the first time in club history, where they played well enough against another MLS opponent — FC Dallas — to force extra time before falling 2-1. More than 10,000 people showed up to Qwest Field for that game, which surely helped seal the deal for the MLS announcement that would come a couple months later.

2011 Concacaf Champions League vs. Monterrey

It became a bit of footnote in MLS history due to FC Dallas winning in Mexico a day earlier — ending something like 50 years of American club futility in Mexico — but the Sounders’ win over Monterrey was arguably more impressive. This was a Monterrey team that was the defending CCL champions and one that would go on to win this tournament as well. But they were no match for the very second-choice lineup the Sounders put out that day.

OK, that’s overstating things a bit. Monterrey out shot the Sounders 17-7 and forced Terry Boss into six saves, while Alvaro Fernandez’s goal was the Sounders only shot on target.

What was so amazing about this game was that this was the lineup Sigi Schmid put out that day: Terry Boss; James Riley, Jeff Parke, Zach Scott, Tyson Wahl; Roger Levesque, Servando Carrasco, Brad Evans, Alvaro Fernandez; Pat Noonan, Nate Jaqua. Only five of those players made as many as 10 starts that year, and guys like Kasey Keller, Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales didn’t even make the trip.

2016 MLS Playoffs vs. FC Dallas

The obvious candidate from the 2016 season is probably the MLS Cup final against Toronto FC. But let’s be honest — aside from playing at home, there was no reason to think TFC was that big of a favorite against the Sounders. FC Dallas, on the other hand, had just won the Supporters’ Shield and had become a bit of a darling in certain MLS circles.

After just squeaking by Sporting KC a round earlier, the Sounders never looked remotely intimidated by an opponent they were now facing in the playoffs for the third straight year. After a scoreless first half in the home leg, the Sounders scored three goals in an eight-minute span to take control of the series.

As you’d probably expect, Dallas gave the Sounders all they could handle in the return leg. The Toros scored first and were all over the Sounders for much of the first half until Tyrone Mears made a remarkable defensive play to win a ball deep in Dallas’ end and then set up Nicolas Lodeiro for a goal that effectively ended in the series.

2018 MLS regular season vs. Atlanta United

This is the only game on our list in which the Sounders didn’t actually pull off the upset. What I feel makes it worth including was the whole situation surrounding it.

First off, it needs to be pointed out that the Sounders were just barely starting to turn around their season when they rolled into Atlanta. About two weeks earlier, they were 11 points out of the playoffs and their season was slipping away. Atlanta, meanwhile, were well on their way to one of the great seasons in MLS history, one that would end with 69 regular-season points and an MLS Cup.

United fans were basically licking their lips at the chance to take the Sounders down in front of one of the biggest TV audiences to ever watch an MLS game. Not only was this game on big Fox, but it had the World Cup final as a lead-in. The game would end up drawing a then-record 1.5 million viewers.

The Sounders simply refused to be bowled over, though. Mostly content to counter-attack, the Sounders absorbed whatever pressure Atlanta generated and created enough chances of their own to keep their opponents honest. The Sounders were surely more than happy to collect their point and head home, while Atlanta spent most of the week complaining about penalties that weren’t called, overlooking their star player escaping punishment for head-butting Chad Marshall, and accusing the Sounders of “killing soccer.”

2019 MLS Playoffs vs. LAFC

If there’s one time the Sounders deservedly leaned into their underdog status, it was in last year’s Western Conference finals. The Sounders had never before beaten LAFC and had gotten smoked the last time they visited Banc of California Stadium. LAFC had assembled possibly the greatest collection of talent in MLS history and had been breaking all sorts of records all season, including 72 points and an unbelievable +48 goal-difference.

Rumor had it that MLS was so sure that LAFC would win that they had already made all sorts of plans for events all around Los Angeles for the next two weeks.

The Sounders spoiled all that. Despite falling behind early, the Sounders never played intimidated and managed to go into halftime with a 2-1 lead. Raúl Ruidíaz would put the match away with a wonderful goal in the second half and the Sounders actually could have won this game by an even wider margin with some better finishing.

Few wins in Sounders history have been more satisfying than that one.

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