One of the Seattle Sounders’ guiding principles while Garth Lagerwey was in charge was that the primary goal should be to have the team at its best when the stakes were at their highest.
That didn’t always lead to super impressive regular seasons – the Sounders never grabbed the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed during the Lagerwey era – but it did traditionally see strong finishes that bled into lengthy playoff runs.
After arguably their most comprehensive performance of the season – a 2-0 road win over conference leaders St. Louis City on Saturday – it appears as though the Sounders are rounding into form at the ideal time.
"It was a big test, maybe the biggest test, and maybe our best response," said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who made five saves to register his franchise-record 14th shutout of the season. "It comes at a perfect time for us. We’re taking all the confidence we can get."
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It was not lost on anyone that this win extended the Sounders' unbeaten streak to nine games, a stretch only one team has topped this year. There are, admittedly, a bunch of ties in there, but only Orlando City (19) heads into the playoffs having claimed more points than the Sounders (16) in their past eight games.
The defense that was starting to show signs of wear and tear has now picked up three shutouts in the past five games, while an offense that has often struggled is consistently finding goals again (this was their third multi-goal game in their last five matches).
No one seemed to want to call this a statement win, but it definitely felt like one. For all the struggles the Sounders endured at various points in the season, this was a pretty clear reminder that they're still the most experienced team in the Western Conference and perfectly capable of raising their level when it's needed.
St. Louis came into this game looking to head into their first-ever postseason on a high note. The crowd was energized and the stadium was rocking through the first five minutes. But Frei made a couple of good saves, the Sounders weathered the storm and then got onto the front foot by sending runners through the St. Louis lines. By the time Cristian Roldan broke in off the right wing and put in a cutback cross that Albert Rusnák stroked into the side netting for a 1-0 lead, the Sounders had been in control for nearly 20 minutes.
About 15 minutes later the Sounders added another goal, this one created when Reed Baker-Whiting made an interception at midfield and pushed into the attack. Even if Tim Parker hadn't deflected the cross into the net, there's a good chance it would have found Jordan Morris for an open header at the back post.
At that point, the Sounders mostly needed to just control the match, although they did create a few more good scoring opportunities. It wasn't that they completely took St. Louis out of their game – City still outdueled the Sounders 80-47 – but they were unable to ever gain control of the match in the areas of the pitch where it mattered. The Sounders rarely had to defend on their back foot, were able to move out of their own end with through balls, and made sure St. Louis were never able to dictate the tempo after the first five minutes or so. In short, the Sounders looked like the more composed team.
"Every game won’t be like this, but this was a test and we treated it like a playoff game," Rusnák said. "This is the type of environment you have to be able to win in. We’re happy with the performance."
The next big test will be, somewhat counter-intuitively, if the Sounders can bring this form back to Lumen Field. During this unbeaten stretch, the Sounders have gone 3-0-3 on the road, but just 1-0-2 at home. The last time they beat a playoff-quality opponent at Lumen Field was way back on July 1 (a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo).
Rusnák spoke about all the missed opportunities, the home ties that could have been wins, and how those probably cost the Sounders the No. 1 seed. To put a positive spin on it, though, maybe those have been good lessons about taking nothing for granted. Maybe the Sounders are a stronger team having struggled the way they have. Maybe finding out what doesn't work was almost as important as discovering what does.
"This is now playoff time and anything can happen," Rusnák said. "There’s always upsets. We’re going to make sure to prepare and not be one of those teams who’s upset by a lower seed. ... We have to be really aware and give the other team credit, but we want to bring these performances back to Lumen Field."