By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 9, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Seattle Sounders can add another record to the club’s already long list. A 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night in Seattle gave the defending Western Conference champions a run of 13 games without a loss to start the season. That puts them ahead of four other teams that reached the 12 games unbeaten mark over the league’s history. The question now is how long the streak can last on the other side of the Gold Cup break.
Seattle is no stranger to league success, especially come playoff time. Last year’s trip to the MLS Cup final was the club’s fourth in five years, a stunning run matched only by the DC United teams of the 1990s when MLS was less than half of its current size. Despite all of that postseason glory, however, the Sounders have never been all that good to start a season.
Famously, Seattle’s rise to MLS elite status began in a year when the first half of a campaign was so bad it cost their head coach his job. Back in 2016, they started the season with just 20 points from 20 matches. With only six wins and a pair of draws in the plus column, the ownership decided to let the late Sigi Schmid go on July 26.
The decision didn’t come easy. Schmid was the first and only head coach in the club’s MLS history at the time of this firing. His achievements were notable, especially considering the team’s brief history. The Sounders not only made the MLS Cup playoffs in their first season in 2009, they made the playoffs in every year of Schmid’s tenure. The club won the 2014 Supporters’ Shield as the top finisher across the league in the regular season and won four US Open Cups in six seasons.
Brian Schmetzer took over from Schmid, returning to the top job after coaching the team in their USL era from 2002-08. Schmetzer built on the foundation laid by Schmid. The Sounders went on to win the 2016 MLS Cup, bouncing back from the slow start to beat Toronto at BMO Field. The championship wasn’t exactly a surprise, it was always the poor start that carried more shock, but no one knew at the time just how high the club would climb.
Nicolas Lodeiro arrived to improve the attack in the summer of 2016. To say Lodeiro transformed the Sounders would be something of an overstatement. Still, his creativity high up the field and his relentless work tracking back to aid in defense turned the Sounders from a perennial playoff squad into a perennial championship contender.
The Sounders went back to the MLS Cup final in 2017, losing to Toronto FC. They turned that around the following season, beating Toronto 3-1 in Seattle. Last season, Seattle lost at Columbus in the final. While leaving out last season for obvious reasons, in regular times, Seattle always started slowly on its way to MLS Cup.
In 2017, Seattle’s bad start didn’t reach 2016 levels, but it did feature seven losses and just five wins in the club’s first 18 games. That 1.16 points-per-game pace kept the Sounders on the outside of the playoff picture through June. A stoppage time goal from Clint Dempsey to split the points at Portland began their turnaround. The Sounders then went into high gear, winning seven of their next eight matches and collecting 23 points over their next 11 games.
Seattle lost just twice for the rest of the year. They pulled even with Portland for 1st-place in the Western Conference. The Timbers earned the top seed via tiebreaker, but it was Seattle rolling through the playoff field on the way to the MLS Cup final. By the time the dust had settled, Seattle had improved that 1.16 ppg number to 1.55.
2019 started positively for Seattle. The club ran off six games without a loss, five of those games resulting in wins. A swoon came as summer arrived. Though the Sounders maintained their place among the playoff teams for the rest of the season, the losses made sure the club had no chance to keep up with high-flying LAFC. Fifty-six points were good enough for 2nd-place.
In a league where real success is measured in championship trophies, not silver shields handed out for the points title, the Sounders are a juggernaut. There’s no real choice necessary when it comes to priorities. Every club wants to win as many regular-season points as possible, but the ultimate goal only comes through the playoffs.
Seattle’s unbeaten start to 2021 isn’t so dominant that it rivals the run LAFC went on during the 2019 regular season. That year the second-year squad racked up 72 points and a +48 goal differential. Bob Bradley’s team lost just four times all year, winning an astonishing 61% of its games. Although LAFC didn’t challenge the record for the best unbeaten run to start the season, no team in either conference challenged it for supremacy.
Even with 13 games unbeaten to begin the year, the Sounders are only three points up on Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings. Seattle’s goal differential is good at +15 but not large enough to indicate Schmetzer’s team has a record-breaking full season in its future.
The Sounders win through smart defending and good enough attacking play. The club’s unbeaten run is all the more remarkable because it has come in a period awash with injuries to key players. They lost Lodeiro for an extended period following a knee issue that flared up in May. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei went down with a knee injury after a collision with Sounders defender Shane O’Neill back on May 12. In their stead, Cristian Roldan moved into the number ten role and Stefan Cleveland stepped in for Frei.
Roldan, in particular, has done yeoman’s work and is a major reason why Seattle remains unbeaten. The problem that Schmetzer faces now, whether he cares about the unbeaten run or simply wants to keep the club even keel through July, is that his do-everything midfielder will be away with the USMNT for the Gold Cup, likely until early August.
The Sounders’ lone Supporters’ Shield came in a season when the club fell in the conference final to the LA Galaxy. If the trade-off is winning a Supporters’ Shield but coming up short in the MLS Cup playoffs, the Sounders will pass on that deal every time. The effort required to win both trophies, especially when the team will be short-handed through a large chunk of the season, my mean prioritizing.
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Photo by Lyndsay Radnedge – ISIPhotos.com