Starting XI

Sounders overcome adversity to earn league-best 35 points in first half of season

Sounders FC closed the first half of the season on Saturday against Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and will open the second half of the campaign on Sunday against its other fiercest foe in the Portland Timbers. If Seattle can match its first-half success, the club has a bright future ahead as it sits first in Major League Soccer with an 11-4-2 record after 17 matches.

With the mountains the Sounders have needed to scale in the first half of the season, Head Coach Sigi Schmid is understandably optimistic about what is to come for Seattle in the final months of the 2014 campaign.

“I think we’re in a good place right now. If you can average more than two points per game, that’s always a very good thing for your team,” Schmid said. “Now we have to continue. We can’t let down. We can’t ease off. We just have to continue and play well with our rhythm.”

Some of the first-half adversity has been self-inflicted. Seattle has earned comeback results in six matches this season, picking up 14 points after trailing at different points in those contests. It has also dealt with suspensions to Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda.

Dealing with those obstacles has become a hallmark of the team, though. Scoring late goals has almost become a point of pride, as Seattle has earned 20 points by scoring decisive goals after the 75th minute.

“Our resiliency, our ability to come back has been very good,” Schmid said. “Our fighting spirit has been excellent. I have been pleased by that.”

On the stat sheet, Seattle has proven to be among the deepest teams in MLS over the first 17 matches while also boasting some remarkable talent at the top end.

Dempsey raced to the league scoring lead with eight goals in just nine matches before leaving for World Cup duty. He has since been surpassed on the leader board, but is now joined in fourth place in goals on the league charts by Obafemi Martins. In addition to his eight goals, Martins also ranks fourth in MLS with six assists at the halfway point.

Dempsey and Martins aren’t alone, though, as Schmid has a wealth of scoring options that includes Lamar Neagle notching five goals and four assists to rank in the top 20 in the league in both categories. Kenny Cooper (three goals and four assists), Chad Barrett (four goals and one assist) and Gonzalo Pineda (two goals and five assists) have also added to a dynamic offense that leads MLS in scoring.

On the defensive side, Chad Marshall has been a force at center back, performing like the player who earned back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year honors in 2008 and 2009. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, meanwhile, ranks third in the league with five shutouts.

All the while, Alonso has been a steadying presence in the midfield, but has had help because of the emergence of Pineda as a tremendous central partner.

Now with DeAndre Yedlin and Dempsey coming back from the World Cup and others working back from injuries, Seattle is looking to get a boost as it starts the second half of the season on Sunday against the Timbers.

“We’ve got to get through this little bit of an injury phase that we’ve had, but we’re getting DeAndre back now. We’re getting Dempsey back,” Schmid said. “Hopefully everyone can get back and we’ll get back into our rhythm of playing again.”

A rigorous travel schedule has also seen Sounders FC log some of the longest road trips in the league with away matches against the Montreal Impact (which was delayed one day because of snow), New England Revolution, Chicago Fire and D.C. United. With just one more Eastern Conference road match remaining against the New York Red Bulls in September, Seattle won’t log as many air miles. However, with a schedule heavy on Western Conference rivals, Schmid anticipates a grueling haul in the second half.

“It helps not to have to travel quite as much, but the games are a little more intense. Those teams are battling to get into the playoffs,” Schmid said. “Teams will take points off of each other. We just have to make sure that when we’re playing that we try to maximize what we do on points.”

In the second half of the season, Seattle will host three matches with expanded capacity at CenturyLink Field. Other second-half highlights on the regular season schedule include 11 matches on national television, the grand opening of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara against the San Jose Earthquakes and back-to-back matches against the LA Galaxy to close out the season.