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Postgame Pontifications: Spoiled for options

In win over St. Louis City SC, Sounders show their personnel and tactical depth.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

SEATTLE — Shortly before Thursday’s training session, Brian Schmetzer took Josh Atencio aside for a tough conversation. The 21-year-old midfielder had played reasonably well in each of the past two games — both Sounders wins in which he started — but was likely going to find himself back on the bench assuming João Paulo was healthy.

Disappointed, Atencio still understood the reasoning. At his best, João Paulo is a borderline MVP candidate and while he might not yet be quite at that level while returning from an ACL injury, he’s still one of the Sounders’ most influential players. Atencio simply hadn’t played up to that level.

Following that same training session, though, Schmetzer somewhat sternly called Atencio over. Atencio was a little worried he’d done something wrong.

“You’re starting,” Schmetzer said.

Atencio responded with a performance that surely made Schmetzer feel good about his decision to be cautious with João Paulo’s injury despite first-place in the Western Conference being on the line against St. Louis City. Atencio was the game’s most active defender and passer, while also delivering what proved to be the winning goal in the Sounders’ 3-0 win on Saturday.

Atencio’s 25-yard strike in the 65th minute was about as pure as it was clutch, rocketing just under the crossbar and slamming into the back of the net to give the Sounders a well-deserved lead. As the ball soared past a rooted Roman Bürki, Jordan Morris was the first to embrace Atencio before he was mobbed by the rest of his teammates.

“I definitely blacked out there a little bit,” Atencio said, casually leaning against his locker. “It took Jordan coming over to celebrate to make me realize it went in.”

During this blazing 5-1-1 start, performances like Atencio’s are starting to become almost commonplace. If it’s not Morris rebounding from a disappointing year to shoot to the top of the Golden Boot standings, it’s Léo Chú coming off the bench to lead the league in assists.

Xavier Arreaga started 26 of the 27 games he played last year, made Ecuador’s World Cup roster and has only logged 37 minutes all year. Héber was arguably the Sounders’ most dangerous attacker during the first two games, but has barely been able to get back on the field since returning from injury two weeks ago. Even Raúl Ruidíaz, the Sounders’ leading goalscorer in each of his five seasons here, is having to fight for his starting spot.

Now, a midfield full of veteran talents could be competing for playing time with youngsters like Atencio, Obed Vargas and Danny Leyva.

Balancing playing time when so many players are making compelling cases for themselves is something Schmetzer has repeatedly said is causing him some consternation but is also a major part of what’s driving the team forward.

“That group is fully committed to each and every player trying to do whatever they can do to help drive the performance of the team,” Schmetzer said. “I think that’s a very, very distinct calling card for this group.

“They’re not trying to prove to me that they deserve to play. They’re trying to prove to themselves and their teammates that they can help the group win games. That’s why I’m so positive about this group.”

A year ago, one of the problems the Sounders faced was how rarely they were able to get their theoretical “ideal XI” onto the field together. Maybe part of the problem was that there seemed to be little debate about who was part of that ideal group. The strength and beauty of this roster could well be that the ideal starters might change from week to week based on matchups, form or health.

If an MVP candidate isn’t fully fit, there’s no reason to put him on the pitch, especially if there’s someone ready to step in without missing a beat. When they were finding chances hard to come by, they made tactical adjustments that allowed for Atencio and Albert Rusnák to get more freedom and open the field. Need a little extra spark? Just bring one of the league’s most prolific strikers off the bench.

For maybe the first time in Sounders history, the coaches can toy with different personnel, formations and tactics not in the pursuit of grinding out results, but in seeking higher levels of excellence.

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