Sounders emerge healthy ahead of matchup against Houston

The summer at times seemed like an interminable slog through marshy swamplands for Sounders FC. The moment it seemed like the team found some sort of solid purchase, the ground gave way and the muck interred the Sounders in another futile chase after health.

After three relatively healthy months to start the year, everything seemed to hit hard in June. Osvaldo Alonso didn’t play a game that month through a mixture of suspension and injury. Obafemi Martins had only just returned from nose surgery when, on June 16, he was knocked out for two months with a groin injury in a U.S. Open Cup match against the Portland Timbers.

Seattle then lost Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans to CONCACAF Gold Cup duty, and when Dempsey returned he battled injury through September. Their absences coincided with an injury to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Stefan Frei, who missed nearly all of July.

The team’s three then-Designated Players didn’t play a single game together from June through August, when a skeleton crew did its best to keep Seattle afloat in the playoff race. After starting the season 8-3-1 through May, Seattle went 4-10-0 in the league from June through the end of August. Shortly thereafter, that dropped them from the lead in the Supporter’s Shield to, briefly, outside the playoff picture entirely.

“It was two months of always someone being injured,” said veteran central midfielder Gonzalo Pineda. “We never had all of our regular starters for the games. At that point we changed the style of the team, because it’s not the same playing that style with Marco Pappa and Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. They try to keep the possession, playing with other players that want to create chances right away. They are good in that, they are good in playing direct balls, and I think we got a little bit confused (without them).”

The list of walking wounded this season is basically a printout of the Seattle roster. Even the new signings weren’t immune. All four of Seattle’s summer additions have missed games with injury this season. No sooner had Román Torres staked a claim to a starting centerback spot, he tore an ACL in his fourth match and was lost for the season. Andreas Ivanschitz’s debut was pushed back almost a month due to a muscle strain. Nelson Valdez missed time early and then was scratched from the last gameday roster two weeks ago due to a pre-game knock. Central midfielder Erik Friberg’s missed time, too.

Just when it seemed like Seattle was clear, defensive stalwart Chad Marshall suffered a neck injury in practice two weeks ago and was rushed to the hospital.

But for Schmid, a look around practice this week was a breath of cool, refreshing air sweeping in after the team’s much-needed bye week. Marshall was a full participant in training this week. Dempsey returned from national team duty early without injury. Ivanschitz, Friberg and Nelson are all progressing well, and the midfield looks as well-stocked as it has all season.

Finally, that depth the Sounders spent the entire summer cultivating is building to a refined point. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Everybody in the league has injuries, and everybody’s going to say, ‘Hey, we had the most,’” Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “We’re not trying to say that or the other, but I think we’ve had injuries to significant players that’s caused us to change our lineup at various times. We had significant injuries to the same type of player, the same position. And that’s what really hurt us in that period of time. So when you lose a number of players that play the same position, then it attacks your depth a little bit more than you want it to be stretched.”

At present, Seattle’s only two serious injury concerns are Marshall and Valdez, both of whom are up in the air for this weekend’s critical battle against the Houston Dynamo on the road. A win and Seattle qualifies for the playoffs for the seventh season in a row, which encompasses the team’s entire existence in MLS.

After a scary neck injury, Schmid said this week Marshall is “definitely” a possibility to play on Sunday. Valdez could be more touch and go, considering the team is cautious that it doesn’t exacerbate the strain by rushing him back too soon. The good news is that the team finally has the healthy depth to plug-and-play for injured positions, namely wide play. Pappa’s return after missing much of the summer assures that. Pappa’s been key off the bench as a narrow wide player over the past month.

Seattle is now enmeshed in a fight for postseason seeding, which will come to bear soon. Portland’s midweek win over Real Salt Lake all but assured Seattle’s place in the postseason, and it now seems likely that Sporting Kansas City, Portland and Seattle are in a dogfight for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. A Seattle win against Houston this weekend would go a long way in that regard.

Schmid, never one to beat around the issue, laid it as plain as humanly possible this week.

“Having more guys healthy right now than injured is a good thing,” he said.

Pineda couldn’t help but agree.

“Now I think we’re better,” Pineda said. “We can play our best soccer.”