The defining characteristic of a championship team is not how ably they avoid problems, but how they handle them.
Although a variety of challenges have cropped up throughout the season, the Seattle Sounders recently hit their first patch in which they struggled to meet them. The most concerning part about their recent five-game stretch in which they went 1-3-1 was that it included a three-game homestand where they claimed just one point and scored only two goals. Heading into a three-game road trip spread out over seven days, it was not hard to imagine that stretch of games snowballing into a genuine crisis.
Now two games into that sojourn, those concerns seem almost quaint.
The Sounders opened this potentially season-defining stretch with a resounding 6-2 demolition of their biggest rivals. They followed it up with a far-less convincing — but, in its own way, perhaps more encouraging — 1-0 win over FC Dallas on Wednesday.
“The Portland game lifted us because it was an arch-rival,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the postgame press-conference. “But this was gritty, determined, and it has its place in a season. They both had the same effect. The spirit in the locker room is just tremendous. They’re feeling very good about themselves.”
The challenges facing the Sounders in the midweek affair were significant. The plan had been for the Sounders to train at Starfire on Tuesday morning, leave to Dallas in the afternoon, and have plenty of time to rest, relax and prepare for Wednesday’s game.
Instead, thunderstorms caused delays that resulted in the Sounders not getting to their hotel until around 9:30 p.m. Essentially, it was straight to dinner and then to bed.
Gameday wasn’t any easier. Despite the game kicking off at 7:30 p.m., temperatures were in the low-80s and the humidity was at 87%.
Goalkeeper Spencer Richey described the conditions eloquently: “I was breathing out of my ass in warm-ups.”
Rather than risk grinding his starters into dust, Schmetzer opted to heavily rotate his lineup. Just four players who started against the Timbers also started this game, and just two of them were in the same position. Xavier Arreaga ended up being the only player to go 90 minutes in both games.
None of that stopped the Sounders from standing toe-to-toe with an opponent who had only lost one home game in the past year. Through the first 45 minutes, the Sounders actually had a slight xG advantage (.35-.31).
In an effort to further save his players’ legs, Schmetzer swapped João Paulo for Cristian Roldan at halftime and then brought in Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro at the 63rd minute. João Paulo, Lodeiro and Ruidíaz would all combine on the game’s only goal almost immediately.
It was perhaps the only real moment of class from either side, but one of the things that has defined the Sounders under Schmetzer is how little they care about winning style points even after showing they’re capable of putting on impressive displays of skill.
A win like Sunday’s is satisfying for all the obvious reasons. The six goals, the three golazos, doing it in front of your biggest rival’s fans. But the win over Dallas was important because it was a reminder of the team’s depth, it got players involved who don’t necessarily play massive roles when everyone is healthy, and showed how the Sounders can win even when everything isn’t falling into place. It also illustrated how important all those depth-testing results were earlier this year as, despite the heavy rotation, everyone but newly acquired Nicolas Benezet and Richey had logged at least 500 minutes prior this game.
“If you want to be a championship team, you have to find ways to win games,” Richey said after registering his second shutout in as many starts, both of which have come while backstopping heavily rotated lineups. “We won this one more through grit. You have to have different ways to win games. They are great in different ways, but in games like this where you have dig in, these are almost more satisfying.”