Like a curtain of refreshing rain falling on parched earth, Sounders FC is torching the July page of its calendar and turning it over to August. And not a moment too soon.
With the rival Vancouver Whitecaps FC paying Seattle a visit this weekend, three points have never been more critical for Sounders FC this season.
“Once we get all the pieces of our puzzle back and we’ve got our whole team here, we can really sit down and be like, hey, we screwed up,” forward Chad Barrett said. “But now we can turn it around.”
Since a now fateful Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the Portland Timbers on June 16, injury and national team duty triggered a diaspora of its best players and forced a series of roster and formation shuffles to find an attacking spark. Thomàs and Erik Friberg were added to the roster, Seattle Head Coach Sigi Schmid moved from his favored 4-4-2 to a one-man front and a number of players shuffled through an attacking front vacated by nearly every one of its normal starters.
While the backline largely held its ground despite missing defensive talisman Brad Evans and ascendant goalkeeper Stefan Frei for most of July, the attack has produced just two goals in its last seven games without Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. Both of those were delivered off the foot of resplendent right back Tyrone Mears, one off a service and the other on a goal of the year candidate to beat Supporters’ Shield leader D.C. United.
But those rejuvenating rains aren’t far off. After missing all of June, Osvaldo Alonso is hitting peak form in the defensive midfield. Evans is back. Done with Gold Cup duty, Dempsey’s final hurdle before rejoining the team was a quick jaunt with the MLS All-Star team in Denver this week. Frei is nearing full fitness after a shoulder injury. And Martins has returned to full-sided team training, meaning his nearing return is triggering red warning lights in opposing locker rooms.
After playing without each of its three Designated Players for a large swath of time this summer, Sounders FC is nearly back to full strength. August can’t get here soon enough.
“The healthier we are, the more rotation we can put into the team,” Schmid said. “We’ve got to get some guys back on the field right now, and we’ve got to get some results in the league.”
August is a congested time, making that depth even more paramount. Seattle has a staggering eight games on the docket over the course of 30 days, including a road trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to face C.D. Olimpia in Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League action on August 26. It all starts, though, with a home date this weekend against the Whitecaps, who Sounders FC face twice in four days in both August and September thanks to the fact that they were improbably matched together in the same Champions League group.
This time around, Sounders FC gets to feed off positive memories. The last time these bitter Cascadia Cup rivals faced off on May 16, Seattle put in arguably its most dominant 90 minutes over a playoff team all season in a comprehensive 2-0 victory at BC Place. With Dempsey dropping into his typical role as a phantom striker, Barrett scored two magnificent goals in Martins’ absence, and Frei was hardly troubled.
“We went up to their house earlier this year when they were kind of coming off a hot streak and we thumped them pretty good,” said Barrett, who scored one of his goals on the business end of a consecutive 25-pass build-up. “It was 2-0 but it was a solid victory, we never felt in danger. I think they were a little embarrassed. Like when LA Galaxy came down here and beat us 3-0, that was embarrassing. So I’m sure they want to come back up and they want to force a result here.”
Further good news this weekend is that Seattle can clinch the Cascadia Cup with a victory over Vancouver in front of the home fans. A win would give Sounders FC nine points from its first four Cascadia matches, making the team uncatchable by either Portland or Vancouver. After the Whitecaps clinched last year’s trophy at CenturyLink Field, Seattle has even more motivation for a game that already features plenty of it.
“Right now I don’t think our players should have any trouble getting up for any matches,” Schmid said. “I think they all know what’s at stake and what the results mean for us right now. Certainly rivalry matches are always a little bit easier for teams to get motivated and to look forward to. Our rivalry with Vancouver definitely exists. It’s probably a lot more pleasant than our rivalry with Portland.”
At the time of the first meeting between these teams this season, the Sounders FC attack was at its aesthetic zenith. Seattle owned the highest possession percentage in the league by some margin, and it was busy stringing together a three-month run during which it scored three goals after sequences of at least 17 consecutive passes. Road or home, it didn’t matter. Every team Seattle faced was rocked back on its heels.
That’s what awaits this Sounders FC team once it heals from dog days of summer that’ve plagued it. And for a team with this many practiced veterans, they know that to peak now, nearly three months shy of the postseason, is to miss the ultimate point.
“I think we should take it straight out of LA (Galaxy’s) book, to tell you the truth,” Barrett said. “Every championship season they had, they struggled at one point or another, except maybe in 2011 when I was there. But the other championships they had some real struggles at the beginning of the seasons. It’s not really important to be playing really well right now, it’s important to be playing really well at the end of the season. If we can take that and see LA went through its struggles and still won championship after championship, that’s our end goal.”