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Postgame Pontifications: Dare to be optimistic

The Sounders’ young midfield passed their biggest test in handling Austin FC.

MLS: Austin FC at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE — For most of the past couple of months, finding reasons to be optimistic about the Seattle Sounders’ chances not just to make the playoffs but to do something in them has felt a bit forced. It was way back in June that the Sounders last accomplished something as basic as consecutive wins and you’d have to go back to July 2 to find the last game they won by multiple goals.

It still requires a bit of an optimistic mindset, but the Sounders’ 3-0 win on Saturday over Austin FC — the team currently No. 2 in the Western Conference, no less — at least gives legitimate reason to believe that this team might still have a run in them. At the very least, it was a reminder of what Seattle is capable of, even when they’re missing several key pieces.

“Today you saw the real Sounders,” midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro said during the postgame broadcast. “It was a good game to show that we can do better. We have to repeat, repeat, repeat and win a spot in the playoffs. Vancouver is our final now.”

On paper, at least, Austin FC posed the Sounders’ biggest challenge down the stretch. The second-year team has at times played as well as any team in MLS this year, combining attractive attacking soccer with a proactive pressing defense. Austin came into the match having scored the second-most goals in MLS and had actually been better on the road than at home.

At no point on Saturday did they look to be clearly better than the Sounders. The Sounders played through Austin’s press with remarkable ease, went into halftime leading 2-0 after capitalizing on two well-worked and high-probability scoring chances, and were able to cruise through most of the second half. The statistics weren’t as flattering as they were a week earlier against the Houston Dynamo, but this was obviously a much better opponent and those two first-half goals dramatically influenced the game-state.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of the performance was the play of midfielders Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva. The pair of Homegrowns had looked very competent a week earlier against the Dynamo, and this was expected to be a much bigger test. Unlike the Dynamo, Austin would force them to make tough decisions in their defensive half, both with and without the ball.

To say they passed the test feels like an understatement. They combined to complete 98 of 111 passes, were never dispossessed, won 11 of 17 duels and had 13 recoveries between them. They did this while matched up against what many consider to be among the best midfields in MLS — albeit one that was missing MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi for most of the match. Once again, their positional discipline also allowed the Sounders’ offensive players to stay higher up the pitch and give a balance that has been missing throughout the summer.

“Me and Danny have been together for four or five years, played a lot of games,” Atencio told reporters after the game. “We took some time to mesh at this level, but the last few games we’ve done well together and stepped up when we needed to.

“We spent a lot of time reviewing film and reviewing how they’d press. Coaches did a great job of preparing us for what we’d face and they played exactly how we thought. We did a pretty good job of getting through that front four.”

It wasn’t all hard-to-appreciate dirty work, either. Atencio and Leyva came very close to combining on what could have been a signature moment. Toward the end of the first half, Atencio did some solid defensive work to create a counter-attacking opportunity and pushed the ball forward to Leyva, who showed the veteran savvy to scan the field before receiving the ball. As a result, Leyva knew that Jordan Morris was making a run down the right wing and set himself up to make a first-touch pass into space. His ball didn’t quite hit Morris in stride, but still allowed the counter-attack to develop. Atencio never broke stride from the moment he passed to Leyva and found himself all alone on the weak side of the penalty area. Unfortunately, Morris couldn’t quite get his pass off, but the sequence showed an impressive awareness and instinct.

That these were two Homegrown Players who started playing on the Sounders Academy together when they were 14 or 15 years old, stepping up in one of the most important games of the season should not be lost on anyone.

The Sounders have long preached to their academy players that they are the organization’s future and built in a healthy competitiveness among them that leads directly to performances like this.

“It’s interesting when it’s you and one of your good friends fighting for a spot,” Atencio said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had moments where I’m rooting for him to play bad, which I think is a good thing and I really appreciate having a guy like that to challenge me. I think we make each other better. He’s one of my good friends, so I’m always rooting for him and these last two games he’s played really well.”

The Sounders still have plenty of work cut out for themselves. By most estimates, they’ll need at least nine points from their final four matches and might need to win out in order to qualify for a 14th consecutive MLS postseason. But performances like this one suggest there are better days ahead.

“One good performance can build into many, many other good performances,” Atencio said. “These last few weeks, we’ve shown really well, shown some resiliency, shown we can beat any team we come across. We’ll be feeling confident against Vancouver.”

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