Seattle – For most of the past couple of months, find reasons to be optimistic about Seattle Sounders‘The chances of not just making the playoffs but doing something about it seemed a bit compelling. It was way back in June when the Sounders accomplished something as basic as winning streak and you have to go back to July 2nd to find the last game they won by multiple goals.
It still takes some optimistic thinking, but Saturday’s 3-0 win over Austin FC – the current No. 2 team in the Western Conference, no less – gives at least a legitimate reason to believe this team might still be running in it. To say the least, it was a reminder of what Seattle can do, even when they’re missing several key pieces.
“Today I saw the real Sounders,” midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro said during the match broadcast. “It was a good match to show that we can do better. We have to repeat, repeat, repeat and win a place in the playoffs. Vancouver is our final match now.”
On paper, at least, the Austin club posed the Sounders’ biggest challenge. Team of the Year has played at times like any team in the MLS this year, combining attractive offensive football with proactive pressing defense. Austin came into the game having scored the second most goals in MLS and was actually better on the road than at home.
On Saturday they never looked better than the Sounders. The Sounders played through the Austin press with remarkable ease, and went into the first half with a 2-0 lead after taking advantage of two good goal-scoring opportunities, and they managed to get through most of the second half. The stats weren’t as good as they were a week ago against Houston Dynamobut this was clearly a much better opponent and those two goals in the first half greatly affected the state of the game.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the performance was the playing of midfielders Josh Atencio and Dani Leiva. The domestic pair looked very competent a week ago against Dynamo, and this was expected to be a much bigger test. Unlike Dynamo, Austin was forcing them to make tough decisions in their defensive half, both with and without the ball.
To say they passed the test seems like an understatement. They combined to complete 98 of 111 passes, never been knocked out, winning 11 of 17 duels and reclaiming 13 between them. They did so while facing what many consider to be among the best midfielders in MLS – although he was missing MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi for most of the match. Once again, their positional discipline also allowed the Sounders attacking players to stay up the field and give a balance that had been missing all summer.
“Danny and I have been together for four or five years, and we’ve played a lot of games,” Atensio told reporters after the match. “We’ve taken a while to get along at this level, but in the last few games we’ve done really well together and ramped up when we needed to.
“We spent a lot of time reviewing the film and reviewing how to put pressure on it. The coaches did a great job preparing us for what we were going to face and they played exactly as we thought. We did a very good job getting through those intro four.”
It wasn’t hard to appreciate the dirty work either. Atencio and Leyva came close to merging in what could have been a special moment. Near the end of the first half, Atencio did some strong defensive work to create an opportunity to counterattack and push the ball forward to Leyva, who showed the seasoned masterful to clear the field before receiving the ball. As a result, Leva knew Jordan Morris was making the run down the right wing and prepared to make a first touch pass into space. His ball didn’t hit Morris too much, but it still allowed the counterattack to develop. Atencio hasn’t broken a step since the moment he passed to Leiva and found himself alone on the weak side of the penalty area. Unfortunately, Morris could not get a full pass, but the sequence showed great awareness and instinct.
These were two homegrown players who started playing together at the Sounders Academy when they were 14 or 15, and no one should get lost in one of the most important games of the season.
The Sounders have always preached to their academy players that they are the future of the organization and have built between themselves a healthy competitive edge that leads directly to shows like this.
“It’s very interesting when you and one of your good friends are fighting for a place,” Atensio said. “I don’t think I ever had moments where I would tempt him to play badly, which I think is a good thing and I really appreciate having a man like that to challenge me. I think we make each other better. He’s one of my best friends, so I always support him and he’s played these last two games.” really well.”
The Sounders still have a lot of work cut out for themselves. By most estimates, they will need at least nine points from their last four games and may need a win in order to qualify for their 14th consecutive MLS Championship. But shows like this suggest better days are coming.
“A good performance can fuel many, many other good performances,” Atensio said. “In the last few weeks we have shown really well, we have shown some flexibility, we have shown that we can beat any team we come across. We will feel confident against Vancouver.”