After playing six games in an 18-day stretch, the Sounders find themselves within three points of the LA Galaxy for the top record in Major League Soccer, they are one win away from their third straight Lamar Hunt US Open Cup trophy and they are in the driver’s seat in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. This after going 5-0-1 in that six-game stretch that included dramatic road wins over FC Dallas in MLS play and Monterrey in the Champions League.
After the Sounders topped Dallas for a second time to advance to the Open Cup final, I spoke with Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson about the state of the Sounders FC.
Q: With six matches in 18 days, you won 5 and tied the other. Did you think that would be the case when you saw that schedule?
Henderson: Seasons go that way where you get on a streak and you get on a roll and guys start believing in the system, they start believing in the staff. Everyone’s feeling confident. I think we have a good rotation of players. Everybody’s in a good spot right now and we want to continue that going forward. You know you’re going to have winning streaks and losing streaks. You just hope to make the losing streaks as short as possible and stretch out your winning streaks.
Q: Is it more encouraging though, for a club that is still looking for their first playoff win, that all of these games have such high importance?
Henderson: I think right now, the last Champions League run we went through when we didn’t do as well as we wished, we’ve learned from that experience. I think all these big games where you put guys in pressure situations we hope will payoff in the playoffs. Guys have gone through it with other teams and now they’ve gone through it with this club. They know what the expectations are of the club and I think they are living up to those expectations now.
Q: Now in your third straight Open Cup final, I imagine you didn’t envision this when the team first took the field in 2009.
Henderson: We set goals really high and we felt really good about the roster from the very beginning. When you get to situations like this, you always look back to see how we got to this point. Whether that’s just during this season or for the history of the club. It’s really rewarding to get to another final and have a chance to do what no team has done in a really long time.
Q: This is Osvaldo Alonso’s fourth straight Open Cup final. What does that say about a player like that who has been such a key component to teams that have reached the final in four straight years?
Henderson: Ozzie’s a winner. He’s a guy that competes every single day in everything he does. As a club, we want to look for guys like Ozzie who are used to winning and used to fighting for championships every year. And if you get enough of those guys, it’s contagious throughout the group and you can build a team that expects to win every game.
Q: When we choose Man of the Match after each game, it’s easy to default to Ozzie. Now Mauro Rosales seems to be in the conversation every match. What has he added to this team and can you look at him as an MVP candidate at this point?
Henderson: Mauro is another winner. I think he’s a leader on and off the field. He adjusted to coming to this league really quick. A lot of times with players from other leagues you never know how they’re going to adjust. He’s done a really good job. He’s a guy we count on every game. In big games, you have to rely on certain players and Mauro is one of the guys who steps up in big games. When you have a chance to get ahold of one of those guys, you want to keep him.
Q: You’ve added Amadou Sanyang and Sammy Ochoa. What have you seen so far from them and what are your expectations for them?
Henderson: Amadou is a guy that when we played Toronto he played really well against us. Preki and I were roommates and know each other really well and Brian Schmetzer and Preki are good friends. Preki has had success coaching in the league and we respect him. He said Sanyang was a key player for him. When we did our scouting of him, we liked what we saw. He’s young, he has good feet, he wins a lot of balls. He just adds to the depth and we hope he can keep progressing. Sammy is a player for the future, I think. He’s a good player in the box. He’s got a quick release. He can turn and shoot. He’s working on his fitness and he’s a guy we hope can contribute to depth up top.
Q: Fans want to know about the transfer window. Do you think the team can still make improvements between now and the trading deadline?
Henderson: We are always looking to improve the team. We had some targets that we were looking at. We were very close on one and sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve had players like that in the past where it did work for us. In this situation it just didn’t work out. I think there are many more of those that you put a lot of time and effort in that fall through that people never know about. Then there’s also situations where you can make it work. If the right guy comes along, sometimes you have to wait a window to get that guy. It’s easier to wait when you’re team is winning. And if you’re going to spend money, you want to make sure you’re getting the right guy.
Q: Miguel Montano is on loan with Montreal. What would you like to get out of that loan?
Henderson: We’re hoping to have a Lamar Neagle situation. It didn’t work for him in the beginning here. He went to the USL and went to Finland and came back and he’s a different guy. Sometimes it’s a new environment. The talent that Miguel has, maybe if you put him in a new environment he can get some confidence and changes his game a little bit and he comes back a different player. We’ve had some progress with him, but he’s a young player and many times a young player is inconsistent. The consistency is what we’re looking for in him.
Q: Adrian Hanauer has said that he doesn’t want to have his hand over the panic button. How much have these last six games helped to make sure that you don’t find yourself in a situation where you have to do something rash?
Henderson: It helps to have the committee of people that we have working. We get five or six different views of things. We get opinions. We weigh everything. We discuss and debate and I think that is really important. When you’re making a big decision, you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing. We have a lot of experienced people, whether it’s soccer or business, and those people weigh in. When you make panicked decisions, you can easily change the chemistry of your team. You can change the way the club is going long-term for a short-term fix. We only have a certain amount of money to work with and you have to be really smart in how you spend it.
Q: What do you need to see over the next 6-8 weeks that will have you encouraged going into the playoffs?
Henderson: If you look at where we are now, we’re pretty excited. I’ve been through it so many times as a player. The playoffs are a whole other animal. What you’re doing right now is no direct indication of what you’re going to do in the playoffs. For us to be able to build on these experiences that we have, gain the confidence to know that in a big game we can come through and find the right chemistry and mix of guys. Right now, there’s a group of guys that are doing it, but there may be a different group in a month. You have to have the guys that are performing well and playing well together at the moment. We can learn from the past failures in the playoffs and hopefully we can go on and try and win a cup then.