Conversations about Sounders FC's character this season have centered around comeback victories, and rightly so as Seattle has earned 13 points in matches that it trailed.
However, the character shown in Saturday’s 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes came while the team had an entire week to stew about a humiliating 5-0 loss to the New England Revolution. An early goal from Obafemi Martins and a standout defensive performance was just the antidote to any thoughts of that loss becoming a trend.
"We all know how good we are and that didn't show in Boston. We know we can do much better, especially at home. It was a very important game," Sounders FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. "Every loss is three points, but that one particularly hurt because of the way they ran over us. We wanted to come back and make a statement and really take some pride in the clean sheet, especially at home."
When coming back after a defeat like that, teams often turn to their captain to lead the ship back on course. However, Seattle played without two players who had worn the captain's armband most often this season in Brad Evans and Clint Dempsey, so the Sounders needed even more of a team-wide boost. Evans, Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin left last week to join the U.S. National Team in preparation for the FIFA World Cup, leaving opportunities for others to step into greater roles.
That gave Jalil Anibaba his first start at right back this season for Seattle, and he quickly found chemistry with a new backline combination that included Chad Marshall and Zach Scott in the middle and Leo Gonzalez back on the left. Seattle limited San Jose to just one shot on goal Saturday, which came off a free kick in second-half stoppage time, clamping down on a depleted Earthquakes side that traveled just 16 players to Seattle.
Although it wasn't a group that had seen any time together on the field, it was also a veteran group that had Schmid's confidence. With Djimi Traore and Dylan Remick also available, he had some choices for how he was going to adapt.
"Anibaba has played a lot of right back last year for Chicago, so that's why we came with him at right back. Depending on what they were coming with—they like to play long balls and have big target players—so we thought Zach Scott was a good choice because he is one of our better players in the air, along with Chad Marshall," Schmid said. "We felt that was good for us, as well. Leo was healthy enough to come into the team."
On the offensive end, Kenny Cooper started in place of Dempsey, but the real shift came in the role that Martins played. When partnering with Dempsey, Martins had been playing further up the field than Dempsey while the U.S. captain played the role of creator for the Seattle attack. With Dempsey away, Martins assumed that role and did so admirably in the mind of Schmid.
"He knows he's got to drop and find the ball a little bit more, so he drops a little more into that hole that Clint normally plays in. So you saw Oba get more touches," Schmid said after the game Saturday. "I thought Oba was fantastic tonight. He was busy, he was active. He put in a tremendous effort in terms of covering ground tonight."
The U.S. trio will be absent from Seattle's lineup for at least another two matches as it gets ready for the World Cup, but if there was one thing the San Jose match showed it was that Sounders FC is equipped to handle those absences in the short-term.
"I think we have a very good team. Everybody here can play," said midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, who picked up his fourth assist of the season on Martins' goal. "I think we have too much talent, if someone is not on the field then another can come and do great."