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Postgame Pontifications: Big-time bounce back

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Rather than hang their heads following a frustrating loss, Sounders scored arguably their biggest win of the season.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

About two weeks ago, the Seattle Sounders began what promised to be a season-defining stretch of games. The Sounders were set to play as many as seven matches in a span of 23 days while attempting to win their first-ever international competition and contending for the top spot in the Western Conference, something they’d only ever accomplished once before.

It hasn’t been the dream stretch they had surely envisioned, but five games in it’s also far from the disaster it had the potential to be. Sunday’s result was potentially the inflection point.

The Sounders were coming off a frustrating and potentially dispiriting loss to León in the Leagues Cup final on Wednesday, allowing a title into which they had invested much effort and energy to slip through their fingers. The loss had the potential to be compounded in a road game against first-place Sporting KC, who could have moved four points clear of Seattle in the Western Conference race.

But despite being on a week’s less rest than their opponents, the Sounders scored a 2-1 win that had all the hallmarks of their early-season success. In the process, they moved back into first place, with a game-in-hand to boot. Perhaps just as importantly for their collective mindset, Seattle showed once again that they are among the league’s elite teams.

“It was a huge win,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said in the postgame press conference. “We felt like it was a must-win — a six-point game if we want to win the Western Conference. There’s still a lot of time, but if we want to achieve what we want to achieve, we needed to win that game.”

Roldan was a big part of why. The Sounders started Raúl Ruidíaz and Will Bruin together for the first time since June 26, leaving Roldan in the No. 10 role he had excelled at early in the year. He responded by scoring the opening goal, nearly setting up a second and generally finding himself in the middle of many of the Sounders’ most dangerous moments.

Roldan was also one of five Sounders outfield players to play 90 minutes against Sporting KC after playing all of the Leagues Cup final and has now logged an impressive 361 minutes during these five games, in which the Sounders have gone a combined 3-2-0 across all competitions.

Like the rest of his teammates, most of Roldan’s most dynamic moments came in a first half in which the Sounders looked like the team more willing to press the action. But as the game wore on, they traded sharp attacking movements for an ability to blunt Sporting KC’s attack.

Although Sporting KC ended up with 65% of possession and fired off 14 shots, they were mostly from long range and almost always contested. The Sounders blocked five shots, their second highest total of the season.

“Guys were bought in and willing to sacrifice a bit of their game for the team,” Roldan said, perhaps talking about himself. “The games don’t stop. It’s going to be tough but the boys are willing to embrace it.”

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer wasn’t quite willing call anything anyone did a “sacrifice” but he was rightfully proud of another signature road performance from team. The Sounders improved to 8-2-2 away from home, the best mark in the league and on pace to set a MLS record for the most road points in an MLS season.

The Sounders have rarely made it look easy this year, but they’ve consistently performed when the deck seemed to be stacked against them. Playing on short rest, following an emotional loss, facing a conference-leading opponent in a stadium where they’d not won since 2013 was as big of a test as they’ve faced all year. They responded with the kind of performance that could define the season.

“I think they play for each other,” Schmetzer said. “They all do what they can do. What they have is the sense of the togetherness that they’ll do whatever it takes, including helping teammates in whatever fashion they have to. I’d say that’s an inherent quality of this group.”