SEATTLE – During the course of their 34-game regular season, the Seattle Sounders used 30 different starting lineups. Since coming out of the Leagues Cup break, they didn’t use the same lineup twice.
To some degree, that’s been forced. Whether through fixture congestion, health or other availability issues, head coach Brian Schmetzer hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to keep a consistent starting lineup. But somewhat against his natural instincts, he has shown a willingness to try different combinations. Prior to the start of the playoffs, though, he admitted that he may have to find a starting XI and stick with it.
It appears the Sounders may have found their ideal lineup just in time.
In Monday’s 2-0 win over FC Dallas, the Sounders repeated a starting lineup for the first time in over three months. Although it was not exactly the same as the one who beat St. Louis City 2-0 in the regular-season finale – Nouhou started in Reed Baker-Whiting’s place – it was identical to the one that beat the Colorado Rapids on Sept. 20.
“That group that I started is sort of coming together,” Schmetzer said during the postgame press conference. “The guys who started tonight are the ones who have been scoring some goals. Let’s see how that goes.”
More important than this being an exactly replicated lineup was that the Sounders seem to have found a core group that can be relied upon to provide consistent performances. This was the third straight game and sixth time in nine matches that Josh Atencio has been given the start alongside João Paulo in the Sounders midfield. The Sounders have gone 4-0-2 and outscored their opponents 8-2 in those matches. This was also the Sounders’ third consecutive shutout, all Atencio starts.
Atencio’s contributions were particularly notable in this one. The 21-year-old was flying all over the field and made positive contributions on the defensive side, in possession and even in the attack, where he led the Sounders with five shots. He was a little unlucky not to end up with a goal or an assist.
“What I’m seeing on the pitch is he’s got a good frame on him, he uses his frame well when he’s under pressure, he can shake off tackles quite well and maintain possession in a cool and collected matter,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said about Atencio. “That can be sort of a chain reaction where someone passes the ball and you sense some discomfort or giddiness. He’s got the opposite effect and it exudes that calmness.
“His understanding of the game is quite good.”
Atencio’s journey has been somewhat indicative of his season. He opened the season by starting in the Club World Cup match and was getting regular minutes during the Sounders’ hot start, turning in a Man of the Match performance in that 3-0 win over St. Louis City that seemed to be a statement by both he and the team. But he suffered an injury the next week in training and struggled to get back into the regular rotation until after Leagues Cup. Atencio only got two starts during a nearly five-month stretch from early April to late August.
"When someone doesn’t see minutes and they feel they deserve to see more, that’s when the character comes out," Frei continued. "What do you do? Do you start pouting? Start showing up late for training? Not putting in 100%? Or do you go the opposite way? Do you do more? Are you asking the gaffer, 'Why am I not playing? What do you want to see more from me? Where can I get better?' That’s what I see from him. That’s what separates professionals from good professionals."
Atencio's rise is a big reason why Schmetzer has been able to keep Nicolás Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz on the bench. Yes, the return of Cristian Roldan, as well as the play of Albert Rusnák and Jordan Morris, have also been big parts of that, but it's not hard to imagine Schmetzer shoehorning at least one of his playoff-tested veterans onto the field if Atencio weren't taking such a stronghold of his spot.
Instead, Schmetzer has the luxury of bringing two of the highest-scoring players in MLS playoff history off the bench. Lodeiro even found a way to contribute to the second goal, setting up Nouhou for the result-clinching cross.
This is probably not the lineup Schmetzer envisioned for the Sounders at the start of the year, but it's hard to argue with the results.