Seattle Sounders complete astonishing turnaround, clinch spot in MLS Cup Playoffs

SEATTLE — The final whistle blew and the party began. The team booted neon soccer balls into the celebrating throng of fans as a graphic splashed across the big screen celebrating the achievement. While Real Salt Lake slunk off the field, the Seattle Sounders embraced, pumped fists, doled out forceful high-fives.

Three months ago the Sounders sat in ninth place in the Western Conference. Today, they’re in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Seattle 2. Real Salt Lake 1.

What once seemed so Herculean became reality on Sunday, but the Sounders left it late. A win in any of Seattle’s final three games of the season assured them a postseason spot, but they drew and lost the first two. Seattle didn’t have to win Sunday to make its way into the playoffs - 28 of the 30 possible scenarios had Seattle in the playoffs - but it would’ve assured them a home game.

And they got one. Seattle snapped up the No. 4 seed and will host Sporting Kansas City later this week. An eighth season in MLS. An eighth playoff appearance.

Here are three things we learned from a riotous afternoon in Seattle.

Mears Stands Up

Every team’s targeted the Sounders differently this year. Some lean on the center backs, others try to balance width to get in behind two pushed fullbacks. But rarely is the game plan so obvious that it seeps into almost everything they do in the attacking third.

That was RSL. And it produced a brief flash of light and not much else.

Based on the way the attack tilted and how each of the attacking corps arrayed themselves, right back Tyrone Mears was clearly a point of interest. Take a look at RSL’s average position map, which charts the most centrally located position of each individual player’s touch map.

The unifying theme here is a steadfast insistence on prodding Mears’ flank. On paper it was a reasonably good idea. Joao Plata (No. 10) was a great matchup from RSL’s perspective, and the midfield generally tilted toward his side an an attempt to break through Mears. And inside the opening five minutes, just moments after Seattle’s opening goal, it worked.

RSL broke through on Seattle’s right flank, and Luke Mulholland smashed one across Mears that deflected into the far netting to tie the game at 1-1. It was the kind of lightning crack RSL needed on the road, and they spent the rest of the game trying to rekindle it.

But credit Mears and the midfield combo of Erik Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso. They rolled coverage to that flank to prevent overlaps and bust down RSL’s repeated efforts to plunge through what they perceived as a soft spot. Not so much.

Cristian Roldan: Mr. Versatile

The Cristian Roldan-at-right-mid experiment got another run-out on Sunday, and there was plenty of reason to be skeptical. As good as Roldan’s been all year (and he’s been one of the team’s top three or four most consistent players), attempts to install him as a quick-fix option at right mid in a pinch haven’t been all that successful. They’ve only happened fleetingly, but Roldan’s worst games have been out wide.

But if Roldan’s proved anything over the past two years, he’s maybe the quickest learner on the team. And his performance Sunday proved the theory as much as any game before it.

Roldan actually played two positions on Sunday, which came just a week after he played three in one match against FC Dallas. When Friberg came off in the second half Roldan switched back from right mid to his more favored position next to Alonso in the central defensive midfield. He performed well in both roles, but it’s worth noting that his ability to hold up the right gave the Sounders game-changing width. To wit, it was his nonsensical back heel that started the movement on Seattle’s first, and he bagged the second himself on a set piece.

Roldan did a ton of work out wide, and specifically in Seattle’s defensive third to help Mears deal with RSL’s overload. But the important thing to notice here in his pass map is how consistent he was. Even though he wasn’t always the most accurate passer on the field, he was able to stay wide and provide an outlet. That in itself was positive.

Roldan’s continually evolved to meet the challenge this season, developing into a ball-stopping defensive midfielder combined with a player comfortable plunging forward. Sunday proved he can do even more than that when called upon.

A Remarkable Turnaround

Over the past few months we’ve pondered over Seattle’s turnaround and where it ranked in the pantheon of the best. There have been teams who’ve reinvented themselves at midseason, but arguably none so dramatically. And now that Seattle is in the playoffs - a realm where anything’s possible - we can officially look back on the accomplishment as something to be lauded.

After a 3-0 loss to Sporting KC on July 24, the Sounders had a new head coach, sat in ninth place in the Western Conference and were 10 points out of the final playoff spot. They certainly looked to most outside observers like a team in disarray. The discussion was already beginning to turn to 2017.

But inside the team’s walls, the Sounders were circling the wagons. After starting the season 6-12-2 through that SKC game, the Sounders finished it a resounding 8-2-4 over their final 14 games. Certainly a good deal of that was helped along by the addition of Nicolas Lodeiro, but soccer’s a team game. And the Sounders have been quite a bit more cohesive over the final third of the season.

So is it the most impressive ever? The answer is conditional, but probably yes. It is.

Other teams have had starker turnarounds. San Jose started the 2005 season 3-3-6 and went on a 15-1-4 run to finish first in the regular season. New England closed out the 2002 season 5-0-1 after a 7-14-1 start. And these same Sounders turned around a 4-8-4 start in 2010 with a 10-2-2 run to finish with a No. 4 seed that year.

Colorado in 2005 was the closest mirror to the Sounders’ season. In fact, it’s almost identical. The Rapids started 5-11-3 and charged home with an 8-2-3 mark to go into the playoffs with a No. 3 seed. But a few factors make the Sounders turnaround more impressive. For one, Colorado wasn’t coping with a new coach in July, even one who’d been an assistant. Second, the Rapids’ playoff march began a few weeks earlier in the season, allowing Colorado more time.

But the most obvious? The Rapids were in fourth place in the West at their nadir. The Sounders were in ninth, forcing them to overturn five other teams on their run to their current spot at No. 4.

So feel free to tell your friends. The Sounders made history this year.

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