It is now crunch time on the 2012 MLS regular season.
With five matches left on the schedule, the Sounders are primed for things to get heated as they battle for playoff position in the Western Conference standings.
Their gauntlet of opponents includes two teams that already clinched playoff spots in Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy, as well as two teams fighting to punch their post-season ticket in the Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas. The Portland Timbers, meanwhile, are fighting to earn their first Cascadia Cup when all three Northwest clubs compete for the trophy.
That run starts on Saturday with a road match against the Whitecaps. A win or draw will clinch a playoff berth for the Sounders as they look to earn their fourth consecutive spot in the post-season.
"This is the playoffs right here. If we win, we go in the playoffs. If we lose, we’re still on the outside," defender Jeff Parke said. "It’s very important that we get a result."
Historically, the Sounders have had a lot of success in the final five matches of the season. In each of the past two seasons, they have gone 4-1-0 in that stretch and in 2009, they finished on a 3-1-1 run.
However, they are coming off of their third loss of the season to the San Jose Earthquakes, who are atop the MLS standings and in pole position for the Supporters’ Shield. The 2-1 defeat at CenturyLink Field on Saturday may actually rejuvenate the Sounders amidst a stretch that has seen them lose just twice in the last three months.
"It’s intense. Guys are flying and a little bit chippy," Parke said. "You feel the effects of a loss. Maybe it lights a little bit of a spark and guys get back on the right path and get the intensity back in training. This week’s a good week for it."
They may be facing the Whitecaps with Mauro Rosales back in the lineup after a three-match absence with a quad strain. After last week getting Christian Tiffert back from an ankle sprain, the return of Rosales, who is third in the league with 13 assists, will go a long way toward solidifying Seattle’s attack.
While the opposition may be rigorous, the remaining calendar is much more forgiving than the congested weeks the Sounders faced throughout the season.
"It’s good that we have two regular weeks of training and a third week after that so I think we can really get some things accomplished and establish how we want to play and work on the things that we need to sharpen up going into the playoffs," Schmid said.
The Sounders are one of just four teams that have reached the playoffs in each year since they joined the league in 2009, joining the Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew. They will look to continue that streak with a win or draw on Saturday. The match at BC Place in Vancouver will be televised nationally on NBC Sports with local radio coverage on 97.3 KIRO FM.