The history of Sounders FC has seen some up and down starts, but none have been as successful as Seattle has been through the first 15 matches of the 2014 season. After a 3-2 win against the Chicago Fire on Saturday, the Sounders head into the World Cup break atop the MLS Supporters' Shield standings with a seven-point cushion on second-place Real Salt Lake, boasting a 10-3-2 record.
"We went into the game saying we wanted to get 32 points after 15 games and that means that we've had a really good run," Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. "We wanted to keep pushing our advantage and stay at the top of the table. We like it up there and wanted to continue to stay there, so it was important for us to come with a good result."
The first part of the season hasn't come without adversity, and Seattle has shown its character throughout those 15 games by not letting challenges interrupt the success of the club.
Clint Dempsey didn't join the team until the week of the opening match after going on loan to Fulham in January and February, then played in a friendly for the U.S. National Team on the week of the season-opener. Additionally, he has missed the last four matches while prepping for the World Cup and missed two more games due to suspension.
In the nine matches that he did appear, Dempsey had eight goals and three assists, leading the lead in scoring before he left to join U.S. camp.
Right back DeAndre Yedlin has also been out of action for the last four matches while on international duty, and the team has played in spurts without captain Brad Evans, veteran defenders Djimi Traore and Leo Gonzalez. When those absences have piled up in certain positions, Schmid has needed to adjust his lineups and start players in position that may be outside of their comfort zones.
Yet the success has persisted.
"What's been good about the group is we've found ways to win games. That's something that is a good hallmark of the group," Schmid said. "We've asked different people to play different roles and everybody comes through when they need to."
Seattle has also shown character in scoring late goals to earn results. Six times this year the Sounders have scored goals after the 80th minute to earn points, collecting 14 points in those six matches.
"I think we show every game that we play with heart and play with intensity. We play hard for each other and the most important thing is to do what we can to win games," midfielder Osvaldo Alonso said. "We have to play the same when we come back. We gave everything we had to win the game and we're keeping our spot at the top of the league."
Along with Dempsey, Seattle has seen several other players with offensive success. Obafemi Martins is second in the league with six assists and equaled Dempsey's team-leading total with his eighth goal on Saturday. Lamar Neagle notched his fifth goal against the Fire to go with four assists, while Kenny Cooper (three goals and four assists), Chad Barrett (three goals and one assist), Gonzalo Pineda (two goals and four assists) and Marco Pappa (one goal and three assists) have all made major offensive contributions.
Now with a break, Seattle is looking to take advantage of some time off to recover from injuries and get ready for what will be a difficult final 19 games.
"Some nicks and bruises can heal and guys who don't have any injuries can make sure they are 100-percent fit to make sure that we can last in the long season that's ahead of us," goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. "Mentally it can be good to just get away from soccer."
However, with all of the early-season success comes a price tag. With 19 matches left to play when Seattle gets back on June 28 against D.C. United, the club will be playing with a target on its back as teams try to show that they are capable of playing with and defeating the best in the league.
Sounders FC isn't content in its position, either, knowing that first place only matters after the 34th game of the season has, not the 15th.
"We're really happy to be in first place, but it means nothing," midfielder Marco Pappa said. "Now each game is going to be harder because everybody wants to play the team in first place and we have to find a way to keep playing the same way until the end of the season. We can be happy now, but we still have a long way to go."