For weeks, the Seattle Sounders have been saying they just need a few breaks to go their way. Yes, they needed to do the work to put themselves in a position to take advantage, but there was an underlying belief that the gap between their level of play and their results was not as wide as it might seem.
On Wednesday, they got their breaks. Make no mistake, the Sounders worked their collective butts off in the 2-1 win over Austin FC. But the soccer gods were also looking kindly on them.
First it was Jordan Morris’ opening goal being allowed to stand despite replays suggesting he might have been offside. Then it was Emiliano Rigoni’s header being ruled a good save even though video evidence strongly suggested it had crossed the line. Finally, the game-winner came on a play where two deflections fell kindly to Sounders attackers, the second of which Albert Rusnák laced into the back of the net.
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Collectively, it felt like maybe, just maybe, this could be the turning point the Sounders have long suggested was coming.
“It’s just confidence,” Frei said when asked what this win means in the larger context of the season. “It’s difficult when you try and try and try and you don’t get wins. That’s why today was so important. It wasn’t an easy victory. That’s what we’ve been doing all year. To finally reward ourselves felt really good. Now we have to build on it.”
That the Sounders were in position take advantage of these moments was, of course, no accident. Even ignoring these pivotal moments, the Sounders were consistently putting themselves in position to make them possible. Prior to Morris’ goal, they had already hit the post once and were a bit unlucky not to have scored another goal when Morris put a shot through Brad Stuver’s legs, only for it to deflect slightly wide.
Even if the Sounders weren’t the dominant team throughout this match, they were consistently applying pressure on Austin’s defense and stringing enough passes together to keep themselves from getting stuck in their own end. Even on the Rigoni-non goal Frei deserves a ton of credit for creating enough doubt for it to go the Sounders’ way, forcefully pawing the ball clear in a way that at least gave the impression that it was a good save. He nearly pulled off the feat again on Austin’s actual goal, but replays were a bit more clear on that one.
“We earned every ounce of that win today,” Frei said, alluding to the kickoff temperatures hovering in the mid-90s. “It was hard work, hot, tough conditions. We had to fight, fight, fight. There was a little bit of quality on the other end. Three huge points, I’m super happy about it.”
What made the performance all the more satisfying was that Seattle managed it while rotating pretty heavily. One of the regular frustrations many of us have had with the Sounders is how reluctant they seem to be to break from their established usage patterns. But Schmetzer opted to switch it up in this one, swapping out half of his starters from Sunday’s game. Just about all of those replacements performed admirably.
Josh Atencio was particularly effective as more of a No. 8, constantly pressing the attack and providing some much-needed energy. Much of the same could be said for Reed Baker-Whiting, who won all four of his tackles and was 9 of 14 on his duels while also getting forward enough to at least be a useful outlet. Both, I think, have earned consideration for bigger and more consistent roles going forward.
But no one exemplified the Sounders’ performance more than Nicolás Lodeiro, who has come under some deserved and undeserved fire during this long stretch of collective under-performance. Lodeiro recently stepped down as team captain, but was at his lead-by-example best against Austin. Even after playing about 70 minutes three days earlier, Lodeiro was among the most energetic Sounders down the stretch, both haranguing opposing attackers to keep them from settling into possession and pressing forward. It was his initial shot that created the scramble that led to Rusnák’s goal.
“It was a great game for Nico,” Rusnák said. “It’s only good for the team when Nico plays well. We know what he can do. He’s one of the fittest guys on the team. He works hard. That’s his reward. He can play 90 minutes and even at the end he was sprinting.”
Of course, all of this is only as meaningful as it is transferable. The Sounders have had false dawns before. After winning two straight games, including a win at Vancouver that frankly felt like a lot like this one, they followed it up with one of their worst performances to date. They simply can’t afford a repeat when they host the Portland Timbers.
“Two road games in three days and four points is pretty good,” Rusnák said. “We’d like six, but now we need to start winning games at Lumen Field. There’s no better game than the one that’s coming on Saturday.”