Through 25 matches in the MLS season, the Sounders FC’s second campaign can thus far be broken down into three segments.
The first five matches, the next ten and the most recent ten.
Through five matches the theme had been last-minute heroics. After a 2-0 win over the expansion Philadelphia Union and a 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, three straight matches were decided by stoppage time goals. First, it was a late goal that turned a 2-1 road win for Seattle into a 2-2 draw with defending MLS Cup champions Real Salt Lake. Then it was Mike Fucito with the difference-maker against the Kansas City Wizards in a 1-0 win at home. Finally, a controversial stoppage-time penalty gifted FC Dallas a 2-2 draw at Pizza Hut Park.
5 matches, 8 points. The team felt like they could have easily been 4-0-1, but settled for 2-2-1 knowing that they were moments away from a remarkable start.
Then a 2-0 loss in Toronto started a string of ten matches that Seattle would like to forget. There were certainly highlights over the next ten games. A 1-1 draw with the Columbus Crew to remain unbeaten against the two-time defending Supporters’ Shield winners and Fredy Montero’s 85th minute winner off the bench at Red Bull Arena just to name a few. And it looked like early goal-scoring woes were thwarted with a 3-0 win over the New England Revolution. However, nine goals allowed over the next three matches said otherwise. In the end, it was a ten-game stretch that saw the Sounders earn just seven points by going 2-7-1, allowing 18 goals in the process. That stretch culminated with a 3-1 loss to the Union in PPL Park and a 3-1 loss at the Home Depot Center to the LA Galaxy.
A couple of US Open Cup victories later and the Sounders were back to their winning ways.
The next ten matches saw Seattle burst into the playoff hunt, the only hiccup coming in a 3-1 road loss to the Revolution. The stretch included wins over Colorado, San Jose and Chicago, who all fancy themselves playoff contenders.
“We’ve had a roller coaster year. It’s been up and down. But the last half of the season, with CONCACAF and Open Cup, we’ve learned a bit that we’ve been able to transfer to MLS games,” defender James Riley said.
Saturday night in Columbus was the apex of that improved play as the Sounders pounded the Crew 4-0 at Crew Stadium. Blaise Nkufo scored his first goal of the MLS season, but didn’t stop there, netting the club’s first hat-trick. Nathan Sturgis also added the club’s first penalty kick goal in MLS play.
Meanwhile, the Sounders went 6-1-3 for 21 points and Montero rocketed himself into MVP candidacy with his ten goals and nine assists in MLS play. Not only had the goal-scoring rocketed up from 0.9 during their poor stretch to 1.4 over the last ten matches, but Kasey Keller backed a defense that allowed just six goals while posting six clean sheets in that span.
“I think in the last ten we’ve been pretty good. We need to continue to play at that level,” head coach Sigi Schmid said.
They also find themselves in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. With five matches remaining - all against teams that are outside of the top 8 in the league - Seattle can determine their own fate without relying on assistance from other clubs in their path to reaching the MLS Cup playoffs.
“Our goal is to get into the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if we get into the playoffs as an eight seed, or a seven seed or a six seed. That doesn’t matter. It’s just to get into the playoffs and then make things happen from there,” Schmid said. “We’re confident in our abilities on the road. We’re confident in our abilities at home. We just need to throw that into the mix every time we play.”
They start their final stretch of games Saturday night against the Chicago Fire from Toyota Park. From there, they will host Toronto FC and Chivas USA and play Kansas City and Houston on the road.
“Every point is crucial now at this stage in the season. Kansas City is making a great run behind us. San Jose is staying right there with us. We’ve really got to concentrate on getting as many points as we can and that’s really important,” Keller said. “A couple of teams have games in hand on us, so a game like this is huge.”
While Kansas City and Colorado both have played one fewer match than Seattle and Chicago and San Jose have both played two few, Steve Zakuani prefers Seattle’s position.
“I’d rather be where the are than be Toronto or Chicago chasing us,” he said. “It’s in our hands.”