Sounders FC is entering the crucible of its season this weekend.
A win against Real Salt Lake on Sunday (4:00 p.m. PT; JoeTV/KIRO 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360 AM), and Seattle is in the postseason. A draw or a loss, and the Sounders will be scoreboard watching to make sure they qualify for the league’s second season. At this point a playoff berth seems extremely likely, but you never know in this league. Welcome to MLS.
While the biggest game of the year is on the horizon, we’ve left a raft of huge, season-defining matches in our wake. These five moments from the season set the Sounders on a unique path studded by one new waypoint after another. This is how we got to here.
5. The Trial by Starfire
June 16 is a day that will live in infamy in the archived scrolls of the Sounders’ 2015 season. And perhaps less because of the immediate impact in a cup competition and more because of its reverberating effect on the rest of the league campaign.
The Sounders were rolling in the league entering their U.S. Open Cup meeting with the Portland Timbers. They had lost just once in the previous five MLS games, topped the race for the Supporters’ Shield and was playing, at the time, some truly aspirant soccer. Furthermore, when the Timbers came to town, the Sounders had Starfire Stadium on their side, a place where they had never lost in Open Cup play. Ever. What could go wrong?
As it turned out, pretty much everything. Seattle lost Clint Dempsey to a red card for tearing up the ref’s notebook, lost Obafemi Martins for two months to a groin injury and finished the game on seven men. That 3-1 loss touched off the summer of discontent for Seattle, which began a two-month stretch in which the team won just a single game. Dempsey and Brad Evans just about went straight from the game into National Team duty for the next six weeks, and Seattle’s season was altered irreparably.
The good news, of course, was that the ship began correcting course by mid-August. Now, that result seems a world away, and of course it didn’t directly effect the standings. But its reverberations were felt well beyond that singular cup competition for months.
4. A Penalty to Remember
The Sounders haven’t been particularly hard hit by penalties this season. There have been a few, but on balance there’s been comparatively little to gripe about from an officiating standpoint in the league. Yes, the officials in Seattle’s aforementioned cup loss to Portland had a police escort off the field, but at least in actual league play things have been relatively benign.
That is, barring one notable exception.
The Sounders entered their June 6 match at Sporting Kansas City on a high. They were coming off a resplendent 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls, and the team had every reason to be confident despite the strength of the opponent. The game was expectedly physical, and the teams were hurtling toward a scoreless draw when keeper Stefan Frei was whistled for a penalty for supposedly colliding with Dom Dwyer.
It was a contentious call the referee probably got wrong, but the kick stood, and Benny Feilhaber converted in the 84th minute for the winner in a 1-0 contest that probably should’ve ended scoreless. Looking at the standings, that mattered. Take two points from SKC and add one to the Sounders’ tally, and Seattle would’ve clinched a postseason berth last weekend with its draw against the Houston Dynamo.
On such fine margins do seasons rest.
3. A Fire in the Rockies
If there was a low point of the Sounders’ regular season, it isn’t all that hard to find. Just locate the middle of July, look at two results back to back and ponder this: how on Earth did the Sounders manage to lose to the two worst teams in MLS on back to back weekends?
On July 11, decimated by injury and absence, Seattle trekked to Chicago and left with a 1-0 loss in a game that was disjointed from both teams from the start. The game looked as though it was headed squarely for a scoreless draw, until Jason Johnson snuck behind the defense in the 92nd minute and crushed home a shocking goal to give the last-place Fire a lift and, without question, their biggest win of the season. Seattle slunk home looking for some semblance of a rhythm.
It seemed as though they were about to find it when the hapless last-place Colorado Rapids visited CenturyLink Field on July 18. The game marked the re-debut of Erik Friberg, and once again the game seemed destined for a scoreless draw when Rapids Designated Player Kevin Doyle shocked the home crowd with an 84th-minute winner for a 1-0 result.
Just like that, Seattle had lost to the last-place teams in both the Eastern and Western Conference in the span of seven days. And both losses came in the dying moments of the match.
Those were hard losses to swallow at the time, but they seem doubly costly now. A single win in either of those matches would’ve cleared Seattle above trouble and had them in the playoffs by now. Wins in both? Seattle would be in the driver’s seat for the No. 2 seed and a bye through the wildcard round headed into the final weekend. Taking care of bottom-table teams in MLS can often be just as arduous a task as winning the postseason. Just ask these 2015 Sounders.
2. The Turnaround Cometh
After the aforementioned summer waged its winning battle against the Sounders, Seattle enjoyed a bit of a false dawn with a rousing 4-0 win over Orlando City on Aug. 16. The Sounders still lost two of their next three, so the real moment of triumphal clarity was still two weeks off. But when the breakthrough hit, it hit like a 10-ton anvil.
On Aug. 30, four days after a challenging 1-0 loss to CD Olimpia in Honduras, Seattle returned home to host the Timbers. It was the first meeting since Portland trounced Seattle 4-1 in Portland on June 28, and Seattle had to do it on a short week.
It ultimately didn’t seem to matter.
Seattle managed to brush Portland aside 2-1 on the final match day of a congested August calendar, with goals from Martins and Evans guiding Seattle to a key three points just as the Western Conference playoff race began to boil. The win didn’t just herald a triumphant moment over Seattle’s rivals. It also presaged the coming of Seattle’s return to prominence.
Since that win over Portland, Seattle hasn’t lost a single game across all competitions in nearly two months. The Sounders are 4-0-4 in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play, and it all began with a ground-shaking win over their little brother to the south.
1. Kings of Cascadia
Ask any Sounders fan, and he or she will almost always admit the MLS Cup is the undoubted Holy Grail of trophies staring back from the postseason abyss. But the Cascadia Cup isn’t far behind. There’s nothing quite like pulling the rug out from underneath two bitter rivals at once.
Despite their summer swoon, the Sounders had done enough against the Whitecaps and Timbers to set themselves up with a win-and-take-the-cup scenario on Sept. 19. The problem? They faced the Supporters' Shield-leading Whitecaps on their home turf at BC Place, where they had been nearly unbeatable all season long. Sure, Seattle had won there earlier in the year, but could they do it again? And with so much at stake?
Sounders fans didn’t have to wait long for a brutally effective answer. Seattle was absolutely rampant that day, scoring a deserved 3-0 win almost nobody - except perhaps the team itself - saw coming. Dempsey had two assists, and Martins, Andreas Ivanschitz and Gonzalo Pineda drove home goals to finish off the beleaguered Whitecaps. And when the final whistle blew, the players carried the Cascadia Cup to the corner stuffed with the Sounders’ traveling fans.
It was a big moment for the club, which took home the coveted Cascadia Cup - easily the most prestigious intra-team cup in MLS - for the first time since 2011. Will that augur more cups to come this season? There’s still time left to find out.