As the Sounders prepare for their fourth Western Conference Final in five years, they know the task won’t be an easy one. All they had to do was watch No. 1 seed Sporting Kansas City concede three first-half goals to Minnesota United in the other semifinal match on Thursday. The Sounders know the Loons head to Seattle on Monday (6:30 p.m. PT; FS1, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM) brimming with confidence.
Seattle also knows that that match could have looked entirely different if Sporting KC, who dominated the opening 25 minutes, capitalized on any or all of their three clear-cut chances. Instead, they came up empty-handed, Minnesota United’s Emanuel Reynoso and Kevin Molino took over and the match was all but finished by halftime.
“It just comes down to making plays,” said Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “It’s the playoffs. Every team that has made it this far has had to do something well…Monday, when the game is played, the team that makes the most plays, whether it’s Reynoso, or Nico [Lodeiro], or [Robin] Lod, or Raúl [Ruidíaz], or Jordan [Morris] or Molino — whichever team makes the most plays is going to win.”
The Sounders themselves are no strangers to capitalizing when it matters most. It’s been engrained into their playoff DNA ever since Schmetzer was appointed manager and Lodeiro arrived in summer 2016. Schmetzer owns MLS’ best all-time postseason winning percentage and is a perfect 11-0-0 at home.
“The expectations of this club and the bar that we set are very high,” said Schmetzer. “It’s reality. We don’t sugarcoat it. We don’t beat around the bush. We say, ‘We want to win, we want to be successful.’ That is what drives a lot of our training sessions, drives the next man up. The club just has a long history of being successful. I want to, in my time here, keep that going. Is there pressure? Sure, there is. There’s always pressure.”
That winning culture and ethos extends far beyond the confines of Lumen Field. Players and coaches around the league know what to expect when they take on the Sounders, and even more so as MLS Cup approaches.
“Seattle have been a class side as long as I’ve been in and around the league,” said Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall after the Loons’ win over SKC. “They’re used to the stage.”
The Sounders’ annual hunt for trophies is what attracts so many talents to want to play in the Pacific Northwest. Thus was the case for João Paulo, who signed from Brazilian outfit Botafogo this past offseason and has played a crucial role in the center of Seattle’s midfield, being both an enforcing defensive disruptor and a deep-lying playmaker.
“This was one of my main objectives, to get to a final, to get to the playoffs and be in a position to be chasing a title,” said João Paulo. “This was one of the reasons that made it easy for me to choose to come here, to join a team that was already the champion and known for being very competitive.”
Schmetzer and Minnesota Head Coach Adrian Heath are close friends and have each lauded the other. Heath texted Schmetzer after the Sounders dispatched LAFC in the opening round. Schmetzer returned the congratulations on Thursday night.
“We know where we’re going,” Heath said. “It’s never easy in Seattle. Top team…Brian, I really like him. I think what he’s done is incredible. When you look at the service he’s given to that club, 20-odd years. I couldn’t be more pleased for another coach who is getting the plaudits he’s getting.”
The two managers will have their hands full trying to slow down the other, especially without any prior head-to-head matches this year. Due to COVID-19, Seattle and Minnesota did not meet during the regular season, which makes it all the more difficult to prepare for a game with a trophy on the line.
Schmetzer and his staff are arming their players with tons of videos to try and understand the nuances of the players against whom Seattle will be matching up, in particular Reynoso and Molino. Shutting off Reynoso’s service will be paramount if the Sounders are to return to MLS Cup for the second consecutive season and defend their title. The onus of that falls almost directly onto João Paulo and his midfield partner Cristian Roldan. If they’re able to neutralize the Minnesota attack, it’ll free up the Lodeiro/Ruidíaz/Morris troika to do what they do best.
“We need to pay special attention to [Reynoso and Molino], but we need to stay focused on what we can do and what we can improve,” said João Paulo. “Rather than looking at the competition, we need to look at we can do and recognize our own strengths. We have players in front who can decide a match at any point with any ball, players of great quality.”
The Sounders will be up for the challenge. They have players who have been there, done that and know what it takes to win. And in a match with so much at stake and the margins so slim, this is where Seattle has proven year in and year out that it’s built for championships.
“The mental aspect of playoff games,” said Schmetzer, “is where the games are won or lost.”