SEATTLE — It would hardly be hyperbole to suggest the Seattle Sounders’ season was hanging at the precipice on Sunday. Already an extreme long-shot to make the playoffs after claiming just one point in their previous five, anything short of a win at home against the lowly Houston Dynamo would have made a season-salvaging run virtually impossible.
Through the first 58 minutes, the Sounders had played like a team who knew this. There was an urgency about them, a certain determinedness that hadn’t always been there. A somewhat unlucky goal had left them trailing 1-0 at that point, but the Sounders were outshooting their opponents 13-3 and had been dominant in their control of the field.
Still, they needed someone to break through.
That it came through quite possibly the most unlikely player felt almost fitting. When Nouhou — who had not scored for the Sounders in well over 10,000 all-competition minutes dating to 2017 — intercepted an attempted clearance, controlled it and then rifled it inside the near post with his weaker foot, the reaction from the crowd was as loud as anything I’d heard at Lumen Field outside of a championship game.
From that moment forward, the mood inside the stadium was taken to a new level. It was as if the summer of our discontent — in which the Sounders had claimed just 10 of a possible 39 points since June 29 — was no longer front of mind and the foreboding sense of “here we go again” was nowhere to be found.
Even after Nicolás Lodeiro had his penalty saved — ending a streak of 19 straight conversions — the crowd continued to buzz, anticipating something special.
That it was Nouhou coming through again — this time delivering a pinpoint cross to Fredy Montero at the back post — was almost too perfect. Not only was it the first goal scored by a Sounders substitute this season, the 76th minute strike was their latest game-winner since May. Houston never came particularly close to sniffing the equalizer, managing just a single shot over the final 30 minutes.
The group that had looked so fragile over the last five games finally looked like the resilient bunch that had withstood so many punches during their run to the Concacaf Champions League title.
“It seemed like we had been trying to find ways to lose games,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said, in recalling the recent stretch of poor results. “Those were gut punches, they were hard games to come back from. But credit to those players who are firmly committed to making sure we make a run at this and see if we can sneak into the playoffs.”
There is, obviously, a ton of work left to do for that to still happen. By most reasonable estimations, the Sounders can afford to drop no more than 2-4 points over their final five matches and that will still require some help. But Sunday’s performance, even against a bad team, showed there’s still something here.
Schmetzer made one of his biggest tactical adjustments yet, pushing Albert Rusnák into the attacking midfield band and taking a chance on the young double-pivot of Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva, while reverting to the 4-2-3-1 they had used for most of the season until this recent three-game road trip.
For the most part, it worked as intended. With Atencio and Leyva more inclined to sit, Nicolás Lodeiro and Rusnák were able to be more focused on the offensive side, while Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris were freed from worrying about dropping into the midfield to get touches. It wasn’t exactly free-flowing soccer, but the Sounders managed to create chances without leaving themselves exposed. Notably, Rusnák and Lodeiro each had key passes on the attacking sequences that led to both goals.
Atencio and Leyva were solid in their limited roles, as well. They combined to complete 118 of 132 passes, were credited with 14 recoveries, and won 10 of 14 duels. Assuming they get another chance next week, they’ll get a much bigger test when they match up against Austin FC, but there’s at least reason to think this collection of players can work. If it works again, suddenly the playoffs don’t feel nearly as unrealistic.
Given the way the last few months have gone, such limited optimism is about all we can ask. And even if it flames out spectacularly, at least we got a reminder of how much fun it could be to watch a soccer match with 33,000 of our closest friends.