After the leg-two final whistle sounded, clinching that 5-2 aggregate victory and a FIFA Club World Cup spot, the Sounders immediately found themselves in uncharted waters, with precious little time to bask in the regional accomplishment. The Rave Green's MLS regular season resumed with an away matchup at FC Dallas just four days later, forcing Seattle to flip a switch that veteran goalkeeper Stefan Frei admits has been a bit bizarre to handle.
No MLS club has ever been here before. So, how do you navigate the unprecedented territory?
"It's definitely been a challenge," Frei told MLSsoccer.com Friday as Heineken Rivalry Week gets underway. "It's a challenge in that it almost tries to tell you that this is not as big of a deal as it is, because you're just getting thrown right into other games. It's usually a big deal – it's something at the end of the season and you're done. You get to let it sink in and all your friends and family tell you how big of a deal it is. This is different because, boom, you're back on the practice field and four days later you have Dallas.
"It was strange, that was definitely a strange one. But I think we've handled it quite well, to be fair. We've allowed it to be recognized as the historic event that it was, and will be forever. We've enjoyed it for a second. But then we decided that if we were going to put in all this extra work now after such a momentous occasion, let's make that worth it too. Because otherwise, what are we here for?"
"That, to me, is what makes a dynasty"
Some would argue Seattle have already played their biggest matches of the season and won the biggest trophy they'll play for, even as MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield chases continue.
Asked what he believes is driving the group for the rest of the season with an eye toward a 14th straight Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance, Frei said the motivation stems from simply continuing to uphold the standards the club has always set.
"For me, a big one is still the fact that the Sounders have never missed the playoffs," Frei said, with Seattle winning MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019. "I think, speaking of a dynasty, it's someone that's consistently putting themselves in a position to win trophies. We've been in finals almost every year. That, to me, is what makes a dynasty. Obviously, you need to win some games too, you need to win some trophies. But for me, that's a big one.
"I don't want it to appear that we've won something at the beginning of the season and then we were satisfied and we shut it down, and that was it. So the motivation for me there is the standard that we've set for ourselves and all the players that have come before us in this franchise. And that is that we make the playoffs and you go there as far as you can and you try and win trophies."
Seattle's MLS form has improved after their CCL obligations contributed to a slow start in league play, climbing up into the Western Conference's playoff territory. Since mid-May, they're 6W-2L-1D in league play.
But the second half of the season presents some built-in challenges, most notably an array of injuries to key contributors. Star midfielder Joao Paulo suffered a torn ACL in the CCL Final and is out long-term, while multiple other regular starters – including striker Raul Ruidiaz and center back Xavier Arreaga – have missed time.
How the rest of the roster assembled by general manager Garth Lagerwey and technical director Craig Waibel weathers those absences might well determine Seattle's 2022 postseason dreams, and Frei said his team's performances thus far leave him confident the Sounders can do just that.
"Everybody wants a deep roster, but I think you have to have smart rosters too," Frei said. "I think we've always been able to do that and that's a testament to their work. I think another thing that roster construction allows is to consistently have a good backbone, a good veteran-led team, where we sprinkle in some young guys that are hungry and wanting to start making a name for themselves. It keeps the ship even-keeled, through the highs, but also through the lows, where people know that this is a long season.
"I remember the media asking about two months ago almost at this point if the league game was a do-or-die game. For guys who have been there a long time it was a bit of a joke, almost. Because here we are, beginning of July and we still have half the season in front of us. So, it requires that veteran leadership in the team and we have quite a few players that provide that."
"A little more fuel"
On Saturday (4:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), Seattle will play their biggest match yet since the CCL Final, as they welcome the Portland Timbers to Lumen Field for the first Cascadia derby of the 2022 season between the sides.
If there was ever a chance to make a statement of intent in regards to the second half of the league campaign, this rivalry fixture would be it. Seattle's club brass has also made the strategic decision to officially unveil their CCL championship banner in a not-so-subtle needling of their arch-rivals, who have combined to reach every MLS Cup Final since 2015.
"That's everybody else creating that. I don't know if we need that extra pressure, because it's a rivalry," Frei said. "We're finding ourselves in a good position, comparatively speaking to them, in the table, so I don't think it really needs any more fuel. Our front office decided to dump a little more fuel on top of it, so appreciate that, but regardless I think they would've come out [motivated].
"For some weird reason, this rivalry has flipped in that they've been able to find joy up here and we've been able to get results down there, which historically speaking has been very, very difficult. So, we want to change that tomorrow for sure."