Celebration Photo

Sounders FC is about to enter perhaps its most crucial stretch of the 2014 season. With five matches in a 16-day period, Seattle will meet Western Conference contenders Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, face the Philadelphia Union for the U.S. Open Cup title and square off with the New York Red Bulls in a heavyweight battle at Red Bull Arena before closing the busy run at home against Chivas USA.

There are 12 pivotal points, a fourth U.S. Open Cup championship and a spot in CONCACAF Champions League on the line, putting Seattle’s depth and fitness to the test with the tight schedule. Lucky for Head Coach Sigi Schmid, that club has passed repeated tests throughout the year and is ready to embark upon the gauntlet laid in front of it.

“Fitness is always important. Our mental approach is an important thing as well,” Schmid said. “Sometimes you get through it mentally as much as you get through it physically.”

A 4-2 win over Chivas USA last week provided another jolt of confidence for the Sounders, both in the club’s top players and its depth. With Djimi Traore out injured, Gonzalo Pineda earning a rest and Marco Pappa away on international duty, Zach Scott, Andy Rose and Lamar Neagle all played key roles in the victory.

Rose finished the match with two goals, giving him four across all competitions in the last calendar month after also posting a double against the Chicago Fire in the Open Cup semifinal. Scott continued to be a workhorse at center back. And Neagle tallied his sixth assist of the season on a goal from Obafemi Martins, marking his first goal or assist since July 13 after starting the season on a rampage.

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Keeping those players, and others like Chad Barrett and Kenny Cooper, involved in the rotation keeps them in rhythm for instances when they are called upon.

“I’m trying to get back into it and gearing up toward the end of the season. This stretch is going to mean a lot to us,” Neagle said. “Getting more minutes is definitely good for me and as long as I can contribute, I’m happy.”

Schmid will have options aplenty, both in starting and reserve roles, as Seattle enters this key run of matches. Having the luxury of spelling veteran players over that stretch when necessary allows Schmid and the Sounders the chance to further strengthen that depth, too.

“I think having Rose back into the mix is a big thing. Micheal Azira is starting to play sharp again at training which is also a big thing. (Dylan) Remick may be back into the mix as well,” Schmid said. “Having those options makes things a little bit easier as you go into it.”

Sounders FC kicks off its tough stretch against Real Salt Lake on Friday night at CenturyLink Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 pm PT on NBC Sports Network.