Voices: Steve Zakuani

Seattle Sounders team to beat in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs?

Are the Seattle Sounders the team to beat in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs? There are two very different, yet equally valid, answers to the question.

The first is a resounding “yes” based on how they’ve reached four of the past five MLS Cups, winning in 2016 and 2019, and the potential of what they can do if they ever get fully fit.

While missing some of their best players for long stretches of 2021, they broke an MLS record for the longest unbeaten start to a season (13 games), had the best away record in club history (9W-4L-4D) and came within a win of notching the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. It’s logical to conclude if Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Raul Ruidiaz and Joao Paulo (towards the end) had not missed as many games as they did, the Sounders would have finished above the Colorado Rapids, even if both teams earned 2022 Concacaf Champions League spots.

The second answer, which is the more honest and relevant one, is that because of the missing players factor mentioned above, they’re not the team to beat in the playoffs. There are simply too many question marks and unknowns. Even if they get Morris, Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo and Lodeiro back, we have to wonder if they’ll have enough time to jell and find the rhythm and consistency needed to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 11 and win it.

As someone who had to do this a couple of times, I know it normally takes a few games at a high level to feel like you’ve got your feet under you and your touch back to normal after a long layoff. The Sounders won’t have the luxury of putting their best group together in a few regular-season games to see what works and what doesn’t. They’ll have only a handful of training sessions before they go under the bright lights when No. 7 Real Salt Lake comes to Lumen Field for Tuesday night’s Round One game, trying to upset the No. 2 seed (10:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

Poor form?

To be clear: I have zero concerns about how the Sounders ended the season. I never got too high when they got off to that historic start, and so I won’t get too low now that they hit some expected bumps on their journey, going winless in six games (0W-3L-3D).

This is MLS and even the very best teams – apparently except the 2021 New England Revolution – will have winless streaks and moments where they look bang average. In saying that, the Sounders are just too well-coached, too well-seasoned and too built for the big playoff moments for us to worry about a few bad results.

The only thing preventing me from crowning them favorites is how they may have to play without a couple of their best players, and even if they do field those players, the lack of rhythm, match fitness and group cohesiveness may be as big of an obstacle as Pablo Mastroeni’s men. I’m convinced they’ll prevail against RSL on Tuesday, but even tougher tests await around the corner – the winner will encounter No. 3 Sporting Kansas City on Nov. 28 in a Western Conference Semifinal (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).

It’s quite possible the players we’re talking about will bend convention, dig deep and turn on their very best versions for the next few weeks despite lacking match fitness and reps together as a group.

Stars return?

If Morris can give you 60 good minutes of in-behind running and facing up 1-v-1, which team wouldn’t take that? If Joao Paulo can give you anything close to what he gave this season – the tackles, the passes, the passion – even as a slightly limited version of himself, he’ll walk into most teams. Lodeiro is the most important player in Sounders history alongside Osvaldo Alonso, and if he can return at any point, he alone may be enough to carry this team all the way.

As for Ruidiaz, I am on record about how much I love this player. Even when I tell my friends back home, “you have to watch this guy, he’s so good,” it still feels like I’m selling him short. To be fair, he’s the one player who doesn’t need five or six games to get his match fitness, he sometimes doesn’t even need five or six touches to score two goals. Simply put, he’s a big-game player and they don’t get much bigger than the playoffs in the Pacific Northwest. If he can be out there, he will. And even if it’s only 30 mins, that’s more than enough time for Ruidiaz to alter the course of any game.

The above is the absolute best-case scenario where each key individual defies logic and hits the ground running individually and as a collective without much training or match practice. The chances of that happening are limited, which is why, despite the history, the quality of the players and coaches, and of course the incredible fanbase, the Sounders are not the team to beat in these playoffs.

They’re still a formidable team nobody wants to face, but everyone would rather face this version of them – slightly banged up, and maybe lacking a little form and rhythm – than the one where all of their top players have already played 30 games this season.

Brian Schmetzer won’t make any excuses. Whether it’s Joao Paulo or Josh Atencio anchoring the midfield, he expects his team to play to win. Steve Zakuani saying the Sounders are not the team to beat won’t bother him, he knows what they’re about.

But in a sport where you have to consistently look for sources of motivation, I wouldn’t be surprised if he and his team make it a mission to prove once again that no matter what is thrown at them, when it comes to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, they are always the team to beat.