The long climb to first place for the Sounders

It's been a winding road but the Sounders have finally reached the summit of the MLS table - and have no intention of coming down.

It’s been a long climb to the top for Sounders FC, but the club is finally atop the Major League Soccer standings, leading the chase to the Supporters’ Shield after a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake last week.

And while a tough task still lies ahead, the record-tying 15-point deficit that Seattle overcame has been a sensational run that has included an incredible surge over the last six weeks to elevate Sounders FC to the top of the league later than it has ever held that spot. However, the toughest task may still be ahead in the final seven matches of the season.

“It’s a lot of work to get there, but the harder part of the job is to stay there,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said.

Prior to Seattle’s May 4 draw with the Philadelphia Union, Sounders FC trailed league-leading FC Dallas by 15 points, posting a 1-3-2 record while Dallas raced to an early lead at 6-1-2. The final stages of that climb have been even more dramatic, though, as Sounders FC jumped six spots in the standings in six weeks.

Since July 28, Seattle has climbed from seventh in the West to first by going 8-1-0, getting goals or assists from nine different players in those nine matches.

Along the way, Lamar Neagle scored four goals to share the team-lead in scoring with Obafemi Martins at eight goals. Eddie Johnson has also kept pace with three goals to reach seven for the season. Mauro Rosales also had four of his team-high seven assists in that stretch.

All told, Seattle posted five clean sheets while outscoring its opposition 13-5 in the nine games that saw it reach the league summit.

While only three of the eight victories came against teams that are currently in playoff positions, that doesn’t deteriorate any of the luster from the streak, particularly when other recent results from the opponents are taken into account.

“It’s a league that’s very close. There’s not a heck of a lot of difference sometimes between the top teams and the bottom teams,” Schmid said. “You’ve got to be on your game. The moment you relax a little bit or take the time to pat yourself on the back, somebody is flying past you. It’s really important to stay motivated and stay focused all the time.”

That focus and determination has allowed Seattle to twice top Chivas USA in the last nine matches, while Chivas has gone 3-2-3 in its last eight matches against opponents other than Seattle, including a win over the Eastern Conference leading New York Red Bulls.

The other wins have come against Toronto FC, the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas, along with current playoff teams the Portland Timbers, Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake. With Columbus and Dallas fighting for playoff contention, all of Seattle’s opponents have had something to play for.

“You’re always playing for something,” Schmid said. “Even a team that’s not going to make the playoffs, those players are playing for a lot. They’re playing for their livelihood. They’re playing for their spot on the roster. Those teams, sometimes, are a little more dangerous because the guys are really motivated. It’s never easy because everybody is always playing for something.”

Now that they are at the top of the standings, the Sounders become a target for their opponents.

“We’re in a good spot right now, but it’s all about not getting complacent,” said midfielder Brad Evans. “Just because we’re in a good run of form doesn’t mean victories are going to come easy.”

The schedule ahead is far from kind. Seattle will play four of its final seven matches away from CenturyLink Field, where it has rolled to a 13-match home unbeaten streak.

The final stretch of matches starts on Saturday against the fourth-place LA Galaxy at the StubHub Center and also includes road matches against the third-place Colorado Rapids, fifth-place Timbers and sixth-place FC Dallas. At home, Seattle will host the Red Bulls and seventh-place Vancouver Whitecaps FC before the season finale against the Galaxy.

In those games, Schmid will be looking to collect as many points as possible while also keeping the team poised for a deep playoff run, vying for the club’s first MLS Cup trophy.

“We still have tough games left. We have to be ready to play every game,” Schmid said. “The better we play, the more we can stay in a rhythm and the better it is for us.”

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