On Closing Strong

As we enter the do-or-die stages of a tumultuous season it's worth reaching back to remember the Sounders in 2018.

Five straight wins is what the Sounders need right now to ensure their playoff safety, and while frustratingly 2018 didn't see Sounders get to an MLS Cup final (for reasons we'll discuss in hushed tones later) this Ozzie Alonso-captained team did put together the strongest last half to a season ever in MLS featuring five straight wins to finish it. As of this writing the Philadelphia Union and LAFC, who are both still on a record pace for a full season points total have both dropped enough points already at various times this year to leave this last-half-season record and the overall 17-game straight record respectively unbroken.

Does this 2018 run have kernels of hope to offer us in this moment of adversity? Perhaps. It is a story about Sounders recovering their playoff lives in magnificent fashion.

The start of 2018 wasn't fortuitous for Sounders. Coming off of a resounding 2017 MLS Cup loss that was a re-match of the 2016 MLS Cup Final versus Toronto (one of the most expensive MLS teams ever assembled), Sounders put together their worst MLS start ever scrounging 8 points from the first 11 games. The honeymoon was clearly over for the second coming of head coach Brian Schmetzer.

Jordan Morris was injured in pre-season in the team's first CONCACAF Champions League game in February and would play 0 MLS minutes for Sounders in 2018. Will Bruin had been very good for Sounders in 2017 and was scoring goals in the early 2018 games where he was available, but his absences for a number of March and May games were dearly felt. Magnus Wolff Eikrem was brought in from Europe as a stop-gap winger replacement but never managed to properly bed in.

USMNT legend Clint Dempsey was also struggling with scoring after 4 productive seasons with Sounders. In 2017 it was revealed Dempsey had an irregular heartbeat that had caused him to miss MLS Cup 2016. Even so, Clint still managed a very good 25 starts and 2200+ minutes in 2017. By July 2018 however it was clear Dempsey couldn't repeat such an effort and would have to retire.

The July 7th, 2018 game versus the New England Revolution was the halfway point in the MLS season and we'd later find out it was Clint's second to last game. Dempsey didn't start and played just 30 minutes. An uninspiring 0-0 away draw where Sounders mustered just a single shot on target, this was their 9th scoreless effort in the first 17 games. Sounder at Heart tweeted "Thanks for watching a very boring soccer game with me."

If you'd asked Brian Schmetzer at the end of that July 7th game for positive thoughts for the remaining half season, he probably wouldn't have had many to offer. This game would mark the end of the Magnus Wolff Eikrem experiment that had gone nowhere. Captain Ozzie Alonso had also been struggling with injury and so Schmetzer had been forced to play a different starting lineup in all 17 games and had just 16 points to show for it.

Afterward Schmetzer did have this to say though about that July 7th game with some prescient insight: "It wasn’t, at times, our best soccer of the year, but it’s a point – a point on the road. Probably a lot of people didn’t think we’d get anything out of this game, so it’s another testament to the group that’s in that locker room that they don’t quit. Lots of things have gone against them this year, but we’ve actually, if I looked at the stats, we have done pretty well away from home. Gutty performance by the guys, all the credit to them." [SaH]

Somehow, despite all outward indications otherwise (though Brian might've been telling us in his own way), July 15th would represent a turning point and the start of the most successful final half season ever, and the best 17-game run of any team in MLS ever - 43 points with 14 wins and 1 draw.

Already in the middle of July Sounder at Heart was debating whether Sounders were already in "Must Win" territory. On his appointment in late July 2016 Schmetzer organized Sounders to a strong finish that saw them just reach the playoffs and then stay resilient enough to win a shootout for their first MLS Cup win. He would now have repeat the same feat of recovery once again.

July 15th the team grinded out an away point against a peak Atlanta United team after a 63rd minute second-yellow Card to Jordan McCrary. Chad Marshall went nose-to-nose with eventual golden boot winner and League MVP Josef Martinez in a penalty area dustup and this tenacity to not back down set the tone for the rest of the season.

Eventual MLS Cup winners in 2018, Atlanta were in the midst of their own points-record chasing campaign. The just two shots on target and goal from a penalty decision for the Sounders didn't hint at what was to come, though enduring the pressure of one of MLS's all-time great attacking sides with 69 percent possession was probably an indication of what was possible. It would be the last draw they'd have all year.

LigaMX golden boot chaser Raúl Ruidíaz arrived in summer and was rostered for that July 15th game though he wasn't yet ready to slot in. Ships passing in the night, Dempsey and Ruidíaz never actually saw the MLS field together and sat the bench together for just 3 games. Clint played his final 12 Sounder minutes as a sub on July 25th, the same game that Raúl played his first sixty-odd starting minutes and got his first Sounders goal. (To think that we were all denied Raúl and Clint connecting on the field!)

Román Torres was gone all of June on World Cup duty and had sustained an ankle injury during the final group stage game, but after two months out was back in action for Sounders by that July 25th game. Alonso returned to the starting lineup on the 25th as well and remained a healthy starter for the rest of the year. Brad Smith arrived in August from Bournemouth as fresh legs and almost immediately began slotting in as a starting left back.

Beginning July 29, over seven straight games, the Sounders had a steady starting lineup for the first time all year with Brad Smith sharing a left back role with Nouhou. With finally some continuity they put together nine straight wins.

The Chad Marshall plus somebody pairings had only given up multiple goals five times in that first 17 games but complementary offensive performances hadn't materialized to capitalize on it. Sounders lost 1-0 five times in their first 10 games. New arrival Kim Kee-hee would eventually become his preferred partner and with the addition of Torres and Smith to the back line forces mid-season (if only temporarily in both their cases) this good defensive form continued. An improbable 93rd minute winner by Philly with 10-men was the only further 1-0 defeat they would give up. Zlatan's Galaxy then handed Sounders their only other loss with Chad Marshall out on a double-game week. Chad missed just two games of the last seventeen and overall the committee approach was enough to limit opponents to just two more multi-goal games and set the plate for this record stretch.

Improbably the scoring void left by Clint's fade-to-black was filled by Raúl once he got going, and then some. Logging 10 regular season goals in 14 regular season games, in Raúl Ruidíaz Sounders had somehow found an able replacement for a guy generally viewed as irreplaceable. With now 3 offensive Designated Players in the mix Sounders started finding ways to score again in gobs. Nicolás Lodeiro contributed seven goals and 10 assists in this period and Víctor Rodríguez had four goals and two assists. Cristian Roldan logged three goals and three assists of his own.

To close 2018 Sounders won five straight decisively with Víctor Rodríguez fully available in a steady-ish lineup. Will Bruin slotted in to score a goal when Ruidíaz needed to step out for Peru duty. For the three games games he was available Raúl would score 5 goals and carry that form into the playoffs with three more goals in the two-game series versus Portland.

This run amounted to Ozzie Alonso's denouement for the Sounders in the DM and Captain role. With just 14 goals allowed in 17 games this was truly a defensive feat in a season where 9 teams had 59 or more goals. We'd later find out this period was also Chad Marshall's swan song due to his forced retirement in mid-2019 after struggling with injury. The two greatest Sounders defenders ever being foundational to this best ever closing run couldn't be more appropriate.

In stark contrast to the poor showing of the first half season, Sounders had righted the ship to end on 59 points, second in the West, 4th in the Supporters Shield race. 43 points from 14 wins and 1 draw, and five straight wins to close the season remains the best 17-game run ever and best back half of a 34 game season ever in MLS. The previous record for a back-half was 38 points with 12 wins in 2011 also by the Sounders.

Best Half-Season Closing Runs

Team Name Game 18 Date Game 34 Date Points Win Draw Loss
Seattle 2018-07-15 2018-10-28 43 14 1 2
NY Red Bulls 2018-07-14 2018-10-28 39 12 3 2
Seattle 2011-06-23 2011-10-22 38 12 2 3
New England 2021-08-04 2021-11-07 37 11 4 2
D.C. United 2018-07-28 2018-10-28 37 11 4 2
NY Red Bulls 2015-07-11 2015-10-25 37 12 1 4
LA Galaxy 2011-06-18 2011-10-23 36 11 3 3
Atlanta Utd 2021-08-07 2021-11-07 36 11 3 3
Los Angeles FC 2019-07-03 2019-10-06 35 10 5 2
Atlanta Utd 2018-06-30 2018-10-28 35 11 2 4

Best 17-Game Runs During Any Part of the Season

Team Name First Game Date 17th Game Date Points Win Draw Loss
Seattle 2018-07-15 2018-10-28 43 14 1 2
San Jose 2005-06-12 2005-09-21 42 13 3 1
New England 2021-07-17 2021-10-16 42 13 3 1
D.C. United 2006-04-08 2006-07-08 40 12 4 1
NY Red Bulls 2018-07-14 2018-10-28 39 12 3 2
LA Galaxy 2014-07-12 2014-10-04 39 12 3 2

Infuriatingly the Timbers had the Sounders number in 2018 and this extended to knocking them out of the MLS Cup playoffs at the end of a two-leg series in a shootout. Cristian Roldan and Chad Marshall, the two field players with the most MLS Season minutes for Seattle in 2018, both went down with injuries in the first game of the series. At the time in my mind this amounted to extraordinary circumstances taken to sideline these players from the playoffs with the crime committed by their biggest rival. Felony stuff. It undoubtedly contributed to the loss of that first playoff game leading to an eventual shootout. These same Timbers who would eventually go on to lose to Atlanta in the MLS Cup Final.

With five games to go in the 2022 MLS Season, three of them at home, this season isn't over and a playoff spot is there for the Sounders taking if they are perfect. 2018 shows they can be in these final five and that many in this current group were there to experience it and to know it.

I return to Brian's quote of July 7th 2018, but in reference to last weekend's "must win" home game versus Houston: "It’s another testament to the group that’s in that locker room that they don’t quit." It's as true today as it was when he first said it four years ago. This is the DNA of this team. Think about the grind of the 2016 MLS Cup. And this 2018 Sounders run down the stretch. Leg 1 of the CCL final showed it most acutely. Sunday's come-back win was just the latest example. This last run of games has been so hard to process precisely because of this never-say-die standard that this group has set. A standard they've set and re-set time and again so that we now view it as winning consistency.

As we steel ourselves for what is going to be a down-to-the-wire final month in MLS let's remember this history, a recent history that so many of these current players can claim a key part in. No MLS team can claim more recent must-win game experience or wins in finals than these Sounders. Pundits are already banging in the coffin nails ignoring this history, a history that doesn't support counting the Sounders out just yet. I'm taking my cue from Schmetz: I'm not here to quit on this team because we've seen they aren't going to quit either. I lost my voice for weeks following the CCL Final and expect to do the same at these Austin and Cincinnati games.

To guarantee a spot in the playoffs this team can't rely on anyone else giving them a gift. We really need to do one better than 2018. We need six wins in a row.

No MLS team has ever won six-straight to close a season...

Houston was one. Five to go.

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