MLS fans are familiar with the narrative attributed to the Seattle Sounders in recent seasons. And it seemed to come to pass every year since 2016. It goes something like this: They save their best for the regular season stretch run and the playoffs and somehow make it to MLS Cup against all prognostications.
Yeah, well it may no longer apply to the defending MLS Cup champs.
If you haven’t been watching, there’s a fresh swagger and a real edge to the 2020 Sounders in recent weeks that we’ve typically had to wait until the fall to witness over any extended stretch of games. Whether it was on the road in Portland (3-0 win) or at home against LAFC (3-1 win), Seattle has had the air of a team that’s unfazed and unbothered by whichever opponent happens to be on the other side of the field. And then before you know it, Seattle’s up 3-0 and the opposition doesn’t know what hit them.
That script was close to playing out again at Real Salt Lake in midweek, where another professional win was foiled with five minutes left in the game. But irrespective of that final 2-2 result, the Sounders still showed the same general qualities that have appeared as the common thread of their current run: poise, intelligence and opportunism in front of goal.
Maybe this 2020 development isn’t something we should be all that surprised to see. After all, it’s the fifth year under head coach Brian Schmetzer with a consolidated group of players and coaches. It’s probably an evolution that was always due to occur with time. The Sounders are playing like winners and others around the league have picked up on it. San Jose’s Matias Almeyda, who faces Seattle on September 10, called them the best team in the league.
What's fueling the 2020 Sounders
Schmetzer attributes this new attitude to a proud and experienced core, the addition of even more experience and expertise in Brazilian center mid Joao Paulo and Colombian center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade and “the best coaching staff in the league” that he says keeps things fresh with new ideas (the Sounders even rolled out a 5-back system against RSL).
“A lot of that comes from within,” Schmetzer said about the vibe around the Sounders these days. “We’ve made sure that we make it a source of pride that the Seattle Sounders are not just a team that we win a championship and rest on our laurels. That’s not how we operate. We are competitive. Winning matters. It’s important for this franchise to remain on the top of MLS. It’s getting harder every single year.
“Between the veteran team we have, the couple of new guys that we have, the coaches always trying to do better, the overall culture of our club, I think we’ve learned from 2016 to 2017 and we’re trying to take those lessons to heart and make sure it doesn’t happen to us and we don’t let our foot off the gas.”
Champs’ latest addition
Let your foot off the gas? Seattle are adding to that veteran group that Schmetzer references, even though this player never actually left to begin with.
Forward Will Bruin has recently returned from the torn ACL he suffered in June 2019 and the 30-year-old embodies the demeanor of a Sounders team that is playing with confidence and joy.
Over a year away from the game will do that in the case of Bruin. In his mere 60 minutes of action this year he’s brought an injection of youthful energy to the side and what’s also been evident is the chemistry he’s shown with star forward Raul Ruidiaz – “that chemistry is there … we have it,” says Bruin. It has been evident enough that Schmetzer said his staff is thinking about ways to pair them up more often, not only when the Sounders are trailing.
“I’m just playing free. It’s like I’m getting my feet wet again after being out for a little over a year. I’m having fun playing,” said Bruin, who’s in his 10th MLS season.
“Now I have a different mentality where it’s like ‘I’m going to go out and play. I’m going to do me. I’m going to go out and enjoy the game and get on the ball, get my touches,’” Bruin continued. “I really do think it is true. I’m just playing looser, playing freer and I’m not really putting super high expectations on myself where I have to be here at this time or be very robotic, per se. I’m just going out and enjoying the game.”
When asked to put his finger on the ways the Sounders are different this year, Bruin pointed out what he felt have been the differences compared to regular seasons past.
“We’re playing really well. We’ve got a really good team, a really deep team. We have a lot of threats going forward and we’re scoring a lot of goals,” Bruin said. “We have a really explosive attack and we’re defending well, as well. I don’t think much has changed. We’re just believing more. We’re playing well. We’re being more aggressive and when we have our foot on the pedal and we’re pushing forward, we can score any second of the game and it’s showing right now.”
How good are they? Rivalry test looms
So is all this talk of a new-look Sounders actually real or is it an illusion created by a few emphatic results? We’ll see if it holds for the rest of the season and we’re about to see it pressure-tested in a Cascadia derby against a Portland Timbers team that must be seething after their recent stretch of results: a 4-4 home draw, a loss to the LA Galaxy and that 3-0 thumping at the hands of the Sounders.
Portland rested practically their entire starting lineup during their midweek loss to the Galaxy – the Sounders also rotated a handful of players – ahead of the Sunday night matchup (10 pm ET on ESPN+, TSN3 in Canada).
“That just tells us that they’ve got eyes on us,” Bruin said. “We went three and won 3-0 and I’m sure that left a sour taste in their mouth. I’m sure they’re going to come out and try to get some revenge in our place. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, we’re the best team in the league going forward and defending. I think it’s going to be a different team than we saw last week. They’re going to be more aggressive and up for the game a little bit more.”
A Timbers team with a chip on their shoulder heading to Seattle to play a Sounders team that looks stronger than ever? It’s a recipe for a great matchup on its own. Add the urgency that comes with the fact that we’re in the midst of a pandemic-shortened season and it’s a mix for a tasty Labor Day weekend showdown.
“There are not enough games this year,” Schmetzer said. “This year is so disjointed that we’ve been messaging pretty heavily that ‘Look guys – there is no 12 games in August, September, October where you can get your feet wet. We’ve got to do this now. We are the defending champs and if you guys want to make a statement going into the playoffs with good seeding, we need to start doing it now.’”