With a win or a draw when hosting Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday evening (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), the Seattle Sounders will officially clinch a spot in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for a 13th consecutive season since the club's expansion launch in 2009.
Sounders forward Fredy Montero was part of Seattle's 2009 team that started the streak, during his first stint with the club that lasted from 2009-13, before returning to Lumen Field last offseason. With a chance to clinch against the club that he also competed for in 2017 and from 2019-20, Montero said there's added significance as they simultaneously battle for the Western Conference's No. 1 seed.
"It's been a while since I've played in the playoffs, so I'm really excited to win this game and finally be back in the playoffs," Montero said after training Friday. "But collectively it's something that Seattle has to do every year and thank God we are close this year. But the job is not done yet. We want to play for first place and that's what we are going to look for."
Head coach Brian Schmetzer echoed that sentiment, noting his goal during the club's stretch run is ensuring that no level of complacency surfaces. But given how tight the table is atop the standings, with Sporting Kansas City and the Colorado Rapids still very much within striking distance, Schmetzer doesn't feel that "human nature" element will be an issue.
"If you get there early then sometimes you worry about complacency in your team, about you've made it in the playoffs and kind of let your foot off the gas," Schmetzer said. "It's different every year for sure, but we're just going to keep it going. Every game's important, every game's a playoff game. Sporting Kansas City and Colorado are nipping at our heels. We want to be first in the West."
Exactly how full-strength the Sounders will be come playoff time remains an open question, with star playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro sidelined by a knee injury that has forced him out of action for most of 2021. Winger Jordan Morris, meanwhile, has been making swift progress in his recovery from a torn ACL he suffered while on loan with Swansea City, but an exact return date is yet to be established.
As Schmetzer pointed out, Seattle have remained as pace-setters while weathering a slew of key absences. They also embarked on a 2021 Leagues Cup Final run and competed in a 2-1 road win at Sporting KC that had playoff vibes.
"We're in first place, I think we've demonstrated fairly well pretty much all year," Schmetzer said. "You have to know Jordan Morris, Stef Frei wasn't here for an extended period of time. Missing depth players like Jordy Delem and other guys along the way, we've come through a lot of adversity this year and we still managed to keep on top.
"I think this team has shown, we talk about the Leagues Cup performance by our team – Tigres spends $80 million on payroll, they've got an expensive team. Santos is near the top, Leon is near the top, we showed we could play with all of them. This team has performed well against quality opposition, minus Jordan, minus Nico, minus Stef, minus Delem – it's shown we can do it."
As for the latest on Morris, Schmetzer continued to indicate that the 26-year-old could be nearing a return in the not-so-distant future, although Lodeiro's timeline still remains murky.
"[Morris'] wedding gift is a kick in the rear and hurry up and get out on the field," Schmetzer joked of his recently-married winger. "That's his wedding gift."