From "sinking ship" to playoff yacht: Sounders savor 2016 turnaround

SEATTLE – Like much of their 2016 season, the Seattle Sounders didn’t make things easy on themselves in their MLS Decision Day showdown against Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.

Needing a victory to guarantee a playoff spot, the Sounders grabbed a lead in just the third minute off a goal from midfielder Alvaro Fernandez – but conceded an equalizer just one minute later off a deflection tally from RSL’s Luke Mulholland.

“I mean, that’s soccer 101,” Sounders interim head coach Brian Schmetzer said after the game. “After you score a goal, the next five minutes are critical.”

In the end, however, that early lapse would prove to be inconsequential.

Second-year midfielder Cristian Roldan bagged what turned out to be the game-winning tally in the 31st minute, giving Seattle the 2-1 victory that clinched the franchise’s eighth consecutive playoff appearance, dating back to the Sounders' MLS expansion season in 2009.

After being widely counted out of the playoff race following a brutal start to the season – in which they lost 12 out of their first 20 matches – the Sounders locked up the Western Conference’s No. 4 seed with Sunday’s victory. They will host Sporting Kansas City in a knockout round match at CenturyLink Field on Thursday (10 pm ET; FS1, UniMás in US, MLS LIVE in Canada).

“I personally think that the guys in that locker room deserved more than just us to fail this year,” Schmetzer said. “I think the fans deserved more. You add to that the expectations of this club are to make the playoffs, to win games, to win championships. Those are the expectations and we live with those. That’s the message those guys have heard from day one.”

With their ticket to the playoffs officially punched, the Sounders can now turn their focus to trying to kick-start a postseason run on Thursday – one that they hope will end in their first-ever MLS Cup.

While his team still has that ultimate objective on the horizon, captain Brad Evans said the Sounders do take a measure of satisfaction in clinching a playoff spot that few thought they would obtain earlier in the season.

“We expect to make the playoffs no matter what,” Evans said. “It feels good to overcome certain odds, of course. It feels good to silence those who left what they would have called a sinking ship midway through the season.

“We’ll happy have them at the stadium [on Thursday] to root us on. But every season has a different story. You can’t jump off the ship when things aren’t going your way. It’s a family and we don’t leave family behind.”