Seattle Sounders flex championship mettle, resolve in win over Real Salt Lake

The Seattle Sounders were missing MLS Golden Boot contender Raúl Ruidíaz, World Cup veteran Gustav Svensson and starting center back Xavier Arreaga on Wednesday, and all the Rave Green did was defeat Real Salt Lake 2-1 at CenturyLink Field for their third win in a row and stay within four points of the Supporters’ Shield lead with a match in hand.

With the aforementioned trio away on international duty, there was a big opportunity for Will Bruin, Jordy Delem and Shane O’Neill, and all three stepped up seamlessly to keep the Sounders train rolling.

Bruin earned his second start of the season, going 64 minutes and beautifully dummying a ball in front of the net that lead to Jordan Morris’ opening goal. He was also unfortunate to not get in the goal column himself after his towering header was saved by goalkeeper Andrew Putna. But it’s Bruin’s work off the ball that makes him, and the team, so effective.

“He tactically understands where he needs to position himself to try and score goals, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t see,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer of Bruin. “Will and I have a running joke about this. He does a lot of things that you don’t see on the score sheet like his defending. It sounds weird to talk about Will and his defending, but the guy gives it his all, he chases things down, he bodies up on people. Lots of little things that Will does really well for the squad.”

Delem and O’Neill put in gutty defensive shifts that, if not for a fluky own goal, would have earned the Sounders a deserved shutout. Delem had six recoveries and an interception, while freeing up central midfield partner João Paulo to focus more on creating offensively. O’Neill had four recoveries, two clearances, two blocks and an interception to go along with 58 of 60 completed passes.

“[O’Neill] works really hard, is super committed to being a pro, he’s a good pro and all of the guys like him, all of the guys respect him in the locker room,” said Schmetzer. “He and Raúl have this little battle at training because Shane plays defense hard against Raúl, and Raúl actually appreciates that. Shane trains like he plays the game, and guys respect that. He’s a very good example of guys we want to have here in the club long-term.”

Former Sounders winger and current broadcaster/ contributor Steve Zakuani agreed and lauded O'Neill's unsung performance.

“He has looked solid every time he has played this season,” Zakuani wrote of O’Neill. “He probably feels a little hard done by to have lost his place to Xavier Arreaga in recent weeks considering he hasn’t put a foot wrong all season. But he responded in the best way possible — with a flawless performance. He has surpassed the expectations most Sounders fans would have had for him. Strong in the air and in the tackle, good on set pieces in both penalty areas, and very comfortable even when he is dragged out to wide areas by forwards making inside-out runs.”

With so many matches coming up in such a short amount of time, and with three key players gone for a considerable amount of them, the task is a tall one. Many teams around MLS would crumble and begin to show cracks they might otherwise be able to mask.

The next-man-up mentality the Sounders have shown, and continue to show, is yet another example of why Seattle is perennially competing for trophies. You don’t make three MLS Cup appearances in four years by accident. It’s a championship mindset that starts at the very top of the organization and trickles down into every player in the locker room, from star veterans to younger players champing at the bit to get their opportunities.

“The culture of this club that was established way, way, way before I came on the scene has always been about playing well and winning,” said Schmetzer. “If you look at Seattle, I was born and raised in Seattle, Seattle is a winning sports town…You have to win and be successful in Seattle to be relevant.

“I asked [the players], what is the personal standard that you set for yourself, and what is the standard that the group is going to set for us to repeat as champions?...We can never, ever, ever, lower our standards. Ever.”