It's probably a pretty good bet that the Seattle Sounders will be just fine with the intensity of Saturday's MLS Cup (4 pm ET; ESPN & UniMas in the US | TSN1/4/5 & TVAS in Canada) despite their relatively easy path through the Western Conference bracket. Vancouver never attacked and Houston never defended, and that's how what's supposed to be a playoff grind turns into a comfortable autumn stroll.
They should be fully rested and almost completely healthy. They've been the league's best team (eye test, not numbers) since the start of July, and they've got proven match-winners at every single level. Plus a trip to Toronto with a title on the line... yeah, this team won't exactly be shook by that.
We'll examine the Reds tomorrow. Right now, let's take a quick look at Seattle's path:
How They Got Here
In theory the Sounders were always amongst the favorites to come out of the West, but "theory" didn't start looking like it was going to be put into practice until the start of July, when captain Roman Torres finally got fit and shook off his early-season rust. Add in the arrival of right back Kelvin Leerdam on July 19, and you have the makings of something similar to 2016's Nicolas Lodeiro-inspired mid-season turnaround.
To that point, here are some numbers:
- First 18 games of 2017: 5-7-6, -5 GD
- Last 16 games of 2017: 9-2-5, +18 GD
Seattle conceded 12 goals in those final 16 games and have conceded none in the playoffs. That makes it a stretch of 20 games over five months of action during which the Sounders are giving up .6 goals per game. They've conceded multiple goals just three times in that span. They've posted 12 shutouts in their last 18 outings. They're on a 647-minute postseason shutout streak dating back to last year.
“I think if we’ll have it our way, we’re not going to have it be wide open,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei told reporters on a conference call this week. “I think that would be counterproductive to the way we play and what I think is best for us. When we find ourselves playing good games is when we’re defensively sound, organized, not all over the shop, very disciplined.”
This is a stingy, stingy group, and despite all the marquee names in attack, they win with defense first, last and always. I've heard a rumor that they don't even have to put a shot on target to win a championship.
I largely agree with the notion that the Sounders are going into this game with house money. They've been great in the second half of the season and the playoffs, but 1) they're playing away from home, and 2) doing so against what's perhaps the best single-season team in league history. If they lose, it's because they're supposed to.
Because of that the pressure's not really on anybody or anything in particular in Seattle – this group has, by and large, proved its point over the last 18 months, and the window will be open for one more year of contention before an incoming age-based roster retool heading into 2019.
At the center of that likely will be Clint Dempsey. He missed last year's win with an irregular heartbeat, and everybody keeps telling me that for the sake of his MLS legacy, he needs to be on the field for an MLS Cup victory.
I'm not sure I agree, but everybody keeps saying it and when enough people just keep saying the same thing, that thing has a way of becoming reality. 2017, y'all.
Deuce has already, of course, delivered in big and quantifiable ways this postseason:
I can't imagine that if Seattle lose there will be any Sounders fans thinking, "Well, we won last year without him but we lost this year with him, clearly Dempsey's the problem!" It's not that kind of pressure.
If pressure here does exist, it's of the "My title window's closing and I might never get to lift this damn thing myself" variety. Dempsey will be back in Seattle next season, but there's no guarantee that he'll be back in the final.
One Thing To Be Concerned About
Finishing. I know this is a weird thing to say given what Seattle did to Vancouver and Houston over the last three games, but the Sounders have a knack for going ice cold in front of net, a result of their propensity to be dead slow in the build-up.
Even during their second-half surge, they weren't immune to this kind of dry spell. From August 20 through September 23, a span of six games, they managed just a single goal from open play – and that was late in the game off a desperation hit-and-hope long-ball to Torres, who had pushed up as an auxiliary attacker.
In retrospect it looks more like late-summer doldrums than anything else, and since September 27 the Sounders have outscored opponents 17-2 in eight games (seven shutouts) across all competitions, going 6-1-1 in the process. They're a better team now than they were in August and September.
On Friday, I'll be back with a tactical preview examining just how Seattle can impose their will upon the game, and what TFC can do to stop them.