When you're taking on a team that's at less than full strength, guarding against complacency becomes key.
Heading into his team's Round One matchup in the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs against LAFC on Tuesday (TV & streaming info), Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said he doesn't see any chance at all his group will be overlooking an opponent that, while shorthanded, remains plenty talented and capable of giving the Sounders a run for their money.
"That is one of the questions that we've asked ourselves and I believe we settled it fairly quickly," Schmetzer told reporters on a Monday video call. "None of these guys are going to take LAFC for granted. Jordan [Morris] brought it up, he referenced the game where we went down there and they didn't have a bunch of players and we lost 3-1. This is MLS. This is crazy, anything can happen. There have been playoff upsets, playoff drama in the Eastern Conference, Western Conference throughout the years. It's never, ever, ever easy. I think our team is too smart to let their guard down."
Seattle's veteran savvy is one factor that plays into making sure no opponent is overlooked come playoff time. But there's also the reality that this LAFC roster remains formidable even taking into account their key absences.
Bob Bradley's group will be missing the league's 2020 Golden Boot winner in Diego Rossi, along with defender Diego Palacios and midfielder Jose Cifuentes. Brian Rodriguez, another key cog in the club's attack, isn't expected to be available either. But one player LAFC will have is the reigning MVP and one of the league's preeminent superstars in Carlos Vela, who is back in action after missing much of the season with an MCL injury. There are few, if any, players in the league that can single-handedly dominate a game the way Vela can when he's healthy and in form.
Then there's the revenge factor. It was just last season that Seattle traveled to Banc of California Stadium and knocked LAFC out 3-1 in the Western Conference Championship, and the Black & Gold are no doubt champing at the bit for an opportunity to return the favor at Seattle's newly-named Lumen Field this time around.
Full highlights: 2019 Western Conference Championship
"Carlos is back. I mean, Carlos can carry a team on his back," Schmetzer said. "And we're going to have a motivated LAFC team come up here and try and do what we did to them down there. Last year we could play a little bit of the underdog card, everybody expects LAFC to win. I'm sure Bob is going to get his guys to believe it doesn't matter who's on the field, they can come up here and win. He's a great coach. He'll have his team ready, we need to make sure we're ready for everything.
"Look, they have a talented team. We are going to try and play the way we try and play, we're going to try and impart our tactics on them. Of course we're going to be aware of Carlos, where he is on the field, wherever they line up him and try and negate him as much as possible. But he is a tremendous player and sometimes you can't always prepare for everything, but we will do our best."
While Schmetzer emphasized the importance of not thinking beyond the upcoming game, there's undeniable historical implications riding on this year's playoffs for Seattle.
With two MLS Cups in the last four years already pocketed, a third would cement this era of the team with dynasty status. With three of their star contributors named to this year's MLS Best XI in Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz, a title run this year would also surely spark some debate as to where this Sounders group stacks up among some of the club's greatest teams.
None of that can happen without a victory on Tuesday though, which is why Schmetzer said he's not reflecting on those broader implications just yet.
"It's freakin' awesome, I think it's well-deserved," Schmetzer said of his trio of Best XI honorees. "All three are tremendous players, they're excellent players. We're lucky, I'm lucky to have players of this caliber on the squad. I loved Jordan's answer about it being a team award. You heard Nico, the captain, speaking about what it means to him, but it's an add-on, it's in addition to, that the goal is always for the team. I'm sure all three of those guys would trade that individual award for them to get back to MLS Cup. As a matter of fact, I know it. They're all humble, nice human beings.
"I haven't had a chance to reflect on how good this team is because we're still right in the thick of it," he continued. "I don't think the story of this team is written yet. If we fail on Tuesday then it's, 'Well, it's a Covid year, unbalanced [schedule], but we had some individual awards', we'll probably draw up some conclusions. But if the team does well, and we beat LAFC, which will be a tough task, then we go onto our next opponent, we're the No. 2 seed, if Sporting KC goes through, our road is a tough one. If this team is able to accomplish three very challenging playoff games and get back to MLS Cup, I might entertain having that discussion about what this roster looks like compared to some of the other teams. But right now, I don't know if it's a fair question, or if I just haven't done it yet."