All season long, much of the attention on the Seattle Sounders focused on Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris, and rightly so. Lodeiro and Morris are 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalists, and the trio were selected to the MLS Best XI. All three scored against LAFC in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as well.
But when the Sounders needed someone to step up in their Western Conference Semifinals match against FC Dallas on Tuesday, center back Shane O’Neill scored in the 49th minute on a header off a Lodeiro corner kick to record his first goal in a Sounders uniform and lead Seattle to a 1-0 win.
The most impressive part about the Sounders’ fourth Western Conference Final appearance in five seasons is not that they won their first two postseason matches this year, but that they won in completely different ways. The opener against LAFC was relatively comfortable and never really felt in doubt. The Big Three shone and carried Seattle as they had all year.
Tuesday was different. Tuesday required a much grittier, hard-earned victory against a defensively sound and stubborn Dallas side looking to avenge postseason defeat from last season. And still, the Sounders prevailed, putting in a professional 90-minute shift and keeping a clean sheet.
That’s winning culture.
“What I’m most proud of, that might not have been the prettiest soccer game, that might not have been our best performance as a team, but that team gutted it out,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, who extended his MLS-best playoff record. “That group of players finds different ways to win. That’s what makes them champions, that’s what gives them a realistic shot at winning trophies. You can’t always win the right way, the prettiest way, the best way. You have to gut out some victories.”
That mentality coincides with Schmetzer’s appointment to the helm and Lodeiro’s arrival in summer 2016, a year that ended with the franchise’s first MLS Cup title. It’s easy enough for the Sounders players who have been around for a large amount of time to understand what it takes to win these types of games, which makes newcomer O’Neill’s performance all the more noteworthy and commendable.
“I’ve said from day one, one of the best things about this club is we’re expected to win every game,” said O’Neill. “We take that on our shoulders. We’ve got guys in the locker room like Nico, Raúl, Gustav [Svensson], Stefan Frei. There’s an expectation there every single day we go out to win the ball game, whether that’s home or away. There’s a lot of pressure there, but I love that. Now at the business end of things, there’s that same expectation.”
Now Seattle turns its attention to Thursday night when No. 1 seed Sporting Kansas City hosts No. 4 Minnesota United in the other semifinal with a date in the Western Conference Final looming. If SKC wins, the Sounders will travel to Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City. If Minnesota pulls off the upset, the Loons will travel to Seattle.
Either way, the Sounders will enter Monday’s Western Conference Final brimming with confidence knowing that they have what it takes to get the job done regardless of what the match throws at them.
“These games are tough, these games are a grind, but at the end of the day, we expect ourselves to show up and win these games,” said O’Neill. “If you talk about culture, that’s the biggest thing that comes to mind. We’re here to win games and win championships, and hopefully we can do that again this year.”
Added Schmetzer: “We grinded out a win. For the team to believe they could win in different fashions, in different ways, that makes us believe even more that we have a chance to do great things.”