TUKWILA, Wash. — “We know Kansas City, we know [head coach Peter Vermes], we kinda know what to expect.”
That was Sounders interim head coach Brian Schmetzer on Tuesday ahead of Seattle’s Western Conference Knockout Round home match against Sporting Kansas City on Thursday (7 p.m. PT; FS1, UniMas, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM). While the Sounders may know what to expect, the same can’t be said for Sporting.
The last time the two teams met was in late July, a 3-0 lifeless Seattle loss in high Kansas heat. Schmetzer and several players stressed that it’s an entirely different group than a few months ago, and on paper it’s almost unrecognizable.
Following that loss, the club parted ways with longtime boss Sigi Schmid and gave assistant Schmetzer the reins. Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro arrived and is in the running for Newcomer of the Year. Clint Dempsey has been sidelined indefinitely with an irregular heartbeat. Roman Torres returned from a year-long injury. Alvaro Fernandez re-signed with the club.
The list goes on. The question then becomes: How do the Sounders put that SKC game behind them?
“That’s the regular season and this is a whole different season,” said forward Herculez Gomez. “If there’s anything I’ve learned playing in MLS and in playoffs is that our season starts now. It doesn’t matter who you were before Thursday night.”
Said goalkeeper Stefan Frei: “The playoffs are their own beast…We have to focus on ourselves and believe in ourselves and make sure we’re at our best. When we’re at our best, we’re hard to beat.”
Seattle has been at its best since that embarrassing performance in late July in which it was outshot 19-1. The team has gone 8-2-4 under Schmetzer and vaulted to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference standings after flying home from Kansas City in ninth place. The return of Torres has shored up the defense, and the addition of Lodeiro has made the offense an efficient and tactical force.
MLS matches are as unpredictable as any league in the world, though, and that parity is only exacerbated come playoff time.
“This league is a funny league,” said Gomez. “Tell me, how many Supporters’ Shield winners actually won the Cup in the last 10 years?...Being a Supporters’ Shield winner is awesome. It shows how consistent your team is or has been. But in no way or by any means is it more important than MLS Cup.”
After their stunning turnaround to make the playoffs, ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said the Sounders are “playing with house money.” It doesn’t matter how Seattle qualified. It only matters that it’s here.
“People that have followed the league before know that anything can happen,” said Frei. “We’ve got confidence, we’ve got healthy people, hopefully that will give us the edge.”