VANCOUVER, B.C. — In the magnificent blink of an eye on Saturday, Andreas Ivanschitz took nearly a month’s worth of stored frustration and smashed it under the closed roof at BC Place.
Ivanschitz’s first goal in his first start as a Sounder kicked off the scoring party in a 3-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the rubber match of the Cascadia Cup. All Seattle needed to bring home the trophy for the first time since 2011 was a draw, but the Sounders didn’t settle there. After Ivanschitz’s goal seconds before halftime, Gonzalo Pineda doubled the lead in the 71st, and Obafemi Martins brought it home in the 87th off a feed from Clint Dempsey.
It was a huge day for the Sounders, who reclaimed the Cascadia Cup and simultaneously moved five points clear of the postseason cutoff with a month left in the regular season. Coupled with San Jose’s loss to NYCFC, Seattle padded its cushion at the expense of a Whitecaps team that led all of MLS in points entering Saturday.
So while the points were paramount, wresting the Cascadia Cup from the two-time defending holders in their own house felt good.
“We’ll enjoy that,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “Obviously the fans will enjoy that. I’m sure they’ll be filling (the cup) on their way home. I read an article today to make sure they clean it before they drink out of it.”
But the night tasted especially sweet for Ivanschitz, who endured a tough start on the field to life in Seattle. The Austrian dead ball specialist had barely arrived in early August before he strained his quad, which pushed back his debut to a late cameo in a 1-1 draw against San Jose on Sept. 12, more than five weeks after he held up a Sounders jersey at his introductory announcement.
All that pain melted away on Saturday. With halftime imminent and Vancouver pressing but failing to control possession, Ivanschitz scored off a Martins cross, which found him at the far post one on one with keeper David Ousted. Ivanschitz took a brilliant settling touch and buried it, sloughing off a slow start on the way to a vital three points. It was his first start in more than three months.
“That was a pretty tough time,” Ivanschitz said. “But you have to fight back, you have to come back strong, and it was not too long a time. In the end, I’m happy to be out on the pitch, to help the team. That makes me happy.”
What should make Schmid happy was the impact not only Ivanschitz had - he went 65 quality minutes - but also that of another newcomer: Nelson Valdez. The Paraguayan international came on for Ivanschitz on the left wing for the final 25 minutes, a ceremonial baton handoff between two of Seattle’s anticipated new faces in the late summer transfer flurry. Both enjoyed tremendously productive games, and Valdez got in on the action in a hurry.
His biggest contribution came during Pineda’s well-struck goal just six minutes after Valdez joined the game. Valdez is almost always a dervish of motion, blurring in and out of frame to find empty pockets of space, and it isn’t uncommon to see him overlap in the middle to help with the build-ups between Martins and Dempsey. So when a ball was pushed in to Valdez at the top of the box in the 71st, his casual back heel to Dempsey was brilliantly routine.
That flick opened the entire side of the field for Dempsey, who only had to lay back a pass to Pineda for the decider, which glanced off the inside of the post before settling in. It was Pineda’s first goal in more than a year.
That was an encouraging sign for Schmid, who watched two of his ballyhooed new signings enjoy a major impact on the biggest stage of the season so far. And here’s a fun fact: both scored on their first starts with Seattle.
“I think you can see with Andreas on the field, our set pieces become a lot more dangerous, the balls he serves in,” Schmid said. “It was great to see him get that goal slipped into the space behind. Great ball by Oba to put him in. And Nelson gives you everything he has every minute he’s on the field. We’ve asked him to play left midfield, we’ve asked him to play right midfield. He gets himself involved in the (Pineda) goal, a great little back-heel touch. It’s great to see that involvement.”
For Ivanschitz, the ease of transition makes sense, not just for him and Valdez but for Román Torres, Erik Friberg and all the rest of the team’s new signings. In a show of solidarity before the game, Seattle’s starting XI held up a sign that read “Fuerza Román,” a nod to Torres’ impending surgery and recovery from a devastating ACL tear that ended his season earlier this month. Torres had only played four games with Seattle since joining the team in August, but that kind of bond made sense to Ivanschitz.
“The spirit in the team and how they help new players, I can tell you that’s fantastic,” Ivanschitz said. “That makes it a lot easier for new players. Of course I’m still new, but to be honest I don’t feel like a new player.”
Going forward, the Sounders will deal with a return battle against Vancouver at home in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday before trekking down the home stretch of the regular season, now down to just four games remaining. Saturday’s win will go a long way toward not only securing a postseason spot, but also lending some serious confidence to two of Seattle’s most impressive newcomers.
“I’ve seen them now for quite a while in training, and we know the quality that they bring to the team,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who picked up a shutout for the first time in more than a month. “That’s why they’re part of the team. We had a good side before, but I think the reinforcements that came in and those guys, it’s huge for us.”