Even before the buzz had even begun to wear off from their ego-pumping win over Tigres UANL in Leagues Cup play, Brian Schmetzer had a simple message for his players.
“Don’t let this go to waste,” he urged them.
By Schmetzer’s thinking, the Leagues Cup win was really only as important as the momentum the Seattle Sounders were able to take from it. Advancing in the tournament was some level of reward unto itself, but getting the season back on track was a considerably bigger deal. Carrying the momentum into the upcoming three-game road trip in league play was how the Sounders could reward themselves for the impressive performance. Failing to do so would only be letting themselves down.
With one game down, so far so good.
The scoreline in the Sounders’ 6-2 win over the Portland Timbers on Sunday was certainly flattering, even if the balance of play was not quite as dominating as the blowout might have suggested. But coming off a stretch of games in which they went 1-3-1 with just three goals scored — including a downright disappointing homestand in which they claimed just one point in three games — it was exactly the kind of performance Schmetzer knew his players were capable of.
“The team is coming into focus for me,” said Schmetzer, barely able to hold back an ear-to-ear grin during his postgame press conference. “We’re proud of the fact that we have this team to a point where they get it, they understand the tactics they want. Even when Portland came back 2-2 there was never any panic. Maybe some shirts got tight, but our quality showed through at the end.
“Their understanding of what we want to accomplish and that locker room’s belief in themselves as individuals and as a collective, I’ve never seen a locker room that strong. It reminds me of 2016, they are really focused on what they want to do. They’re doing the work, they’re the ones that believe; my job is getting easier.”
That the Sounders were able to achieve such a historic blowout while not being at their best probably only serves to buoy Schmetzer’s enthusiasm. The Sounders went into halftime with a 2-1 lead despite Nicolas Lodeiro spending that entire time on the bench, and mostly getting outplayed. The midfield struggled to hold possession, the defense looked as suspect as they had all season, and Stefan Cleveland was asked to make several massive saves. But Fredy Montero was once again able to summon a bit of magic against his favorite opponent, and that had been enough.
Even after Lodeiro entered at halftime, the Timbers maintained their momentum for the first seven or so minutes of the second half. When George Fochive put away a rebound to equalize the score, there was a sense that maybe the Sounders were going to let one slip away.
Instead, it was just the opposite. With smoke still billowing out of the Timbers Army, Raúl Ruidíaz took a pass from Fredy Montero and drew a foul just outside the penalty area. He then lined up a free kick that will likely be replayed for years whenever someone talks about this rivalry. It was hit with such force and such accuracy that it was hardly a surprise that goalkeeper Aljaž Ivačič could only stand and watch.
From there, it was all Sounders. Ruidíaz added a second goal in the 72nd minute, Jimmy Medranda followed up with his own golazo in the 77th and then Nicolas Benezet put the cherry on top of the six-goal sundae on the game’s final play.
“There were times we were under it, but goals change games,” Cleveland said after making a career-high seven saves. “We took our foot off the pedal a little bit, but we showed up. We showed composure. Our goals energized them and then we took their energy and used it against them. I think we came out with a plan. We took the experience we had on the field and that third goal changed it.”
Almost as positive as the performance itself was that the Sounders know they can be even better. Lodeiro is only going to gain fitness from this point forward, and even in his diminished state the Sounders have scored six goals during his 100 or so minutes on the field. Nouhou will likely make his long-awaited return during this road trip and Stefan Frei could be back by the end of the month, adding two potential Best XI players to what is already arguably the best defense in MLS. Expanded roles for players like Josh Atencio and Medranda might even be able to raise the ceiling of what the Sounders did on Sunday.
This is a team that knows it’s still waiting to peak, and just as importantly, is well aware that one emphatic win is no time to linger on past accomplishments.
“We are absolutely enjoying the moment,” Schmetzer said. “We talked about a lot of things in the locker room, but we have to go back to work tonight (on the way home) because we have another tough game in Dallas.
“We have all this momentum starting. El equipo is in a good rhythm.”