Except for the result, all too much about a 1-1 tie the Seattle Sounders played in San Jose Saturday stung with familiarity.
Three starters -- Brad Evans, Roman Torres and Nelson Valdez -- had been knocked out of the game by injuries, yet
the Sounders rallied after falling behind with yet another spectacular goal by Obafemi Martins to snag a point. It was just Seattle’s third tie of the season and given the circumstances
it was especially valuable.
Midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Marco Pappa sat out with injuries, which has been a common theme this year for the Sounders. For the first time since moving up to MLS from the USL, they are in danger of missing the playoffs. Though the Sounders (13-13-3, 42 points) are fourth in the Western Conference, and the top six make the playoffs, they are just two points ahead of seventh-place San Jose. A Quakes' win would have deadlocked the teams at 41 points in a tie with Sporting Kansas City and Portland.
“We’ve never been in this position before as a team,” said Evans, who won the 2008 MLS Cup title with head coach Sigi Schmid and then joined him in Seattle via the Expansion Draft. Seattle has qualified for the MLS postseason every year but not reached an MLS Cup, much less won a league title. “We’ve been a bit spoiled; already locked into the playoffs by now. That’s not the case this year, so it’s a challenge. It’s something you talk about in the locker room and everybody’s ready for the challenge. You saw a team that didn’t quit tonight, that was hungry, that pushes forward on set pieces.
"This is only our third tie of the year, which is very hard for me to believe. We’ve got some momentum. We’ve won three and tied one of the last five so if we keep that up in the remaining games, we’ll be okay." (The Sounders had lost five in a row prior to their revival.)
Record: 13-13-3. Position: 4th in Western Conference.
Home (2 games): 10/4 LA, 10/25 RSL.
Away (3 games): 9/19 VAN 9/27 SKC 10/18 HOU.
Key match: 9/27 SKC.
The momentum took a severe jarring when Schmid left the team for health reasons on the morning of the Sept. 5 match against Toronto FC. He was released from the hospital last Tuesday and returned to work on Friday but didn’t travel with the team to San Jose. Assistant coach Brian Schmetzer, whose affiliation with the team dates back to the start of his playing days in 1980 with the old NASL Sounders, took over, and the run of injuries necessitated unforeseen changes to the lineup.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult situation when you’re forced to make two subs that you don’t expect to make with Torres and Evans going down, so then you’re handcuffed a little bit in the second half as to what changes you can make,” said Schmid on Monday after returning to conduct a training session “But after going down 1-0, again, we showed determination and character. To come back and get a point down there was very important for us.”
Torres departed with a knee injury that on Monday was diagnosed as a torn ACL. He’s out for the season. Ironically, his likely replacement at centerback is Evans, who had been resumed his midfield role after being moved to centerback at the start of the season. In the Quakes game, he needed a few minutes to recover from a ball smashed into his face and left the game at halftime.
“We did so well with injuries last year,” says keeper Stefan Frei. “We were blessed, we barely had guys go down. This year it’s just been nonstop and missing guys on suspension and national team duties. It’s been hard to dig out of that hole. It was a pretty big hole. Slowly we’re starting to get there."
Evans spoke lucidly after the game but will need to complete the MLS concussion protocol to make the 18-man squad to play Vancouver this weekend. His halftime departure opened the door for another recent signing, Austrian midfielder Andres Ivanschitz, to make his MLS debut. While he seemed a bit bewildered at the hustle and bustle so prevalent in many league matches, his prowess at set plays revealed a major motivation to sign him.
Safe to say, every dead ball he hit caused the Quakes problems. Martins scored from the rebound of a Zach Scott header swerved into the danger zone, and two other balls carried danger.
“He gave a great ball to [Lamar] Neagle that Neagle should have scored on,” said Schmid. Chad [Marshall] got his head on another one, and obviously he found Zach’s head on the other one. It definitely helps.
“People could see he has good service on set pieces and that helped us equalize the game. I think he’s one of those guys like Pappa who’s left footed and comfortable on either side of the pitch. I think Andreas is a little bit more comfortable on the left side. I think it’s because he’s played there more, but I thought he came in and did well.”
Torres had been signed in midseason using Targeted Allocation Money to buy his contract down below the Designated Player threshold and had played just four games since joining the team after he captained Panama at the Gold Cup. Ivanschitz gives Seattle another left-sided presence and offers the option of using him on one side and Pappa on the other. Pappa was on the list of subs in San Jose but the injuries probably precluded Schmetzer’s use of the Guatemalan international.
Schmid said he spoke with Valdez on Friday about playing left mid rather than as a forward so the Sounders could use Martins and Clint Dempsey in his preferred 4-4-2. Valdez cramped up and also took several hard hits -- including one on an ouchy foot -- before being replaced by Neagle in the 59th minute.
“As he plays with Oba and Clint, the understanding grows,” said Schmid of the 31-year-old Paraguayan who has played for clubs in Germany, Russia, Greece, Spain and Saudi Arabia. “They had a couple of good interchanges. He understands that Oba and Clint have a unique relationship so we’ve got to get them close together.”
There are two bottom lines in play for Seattle in 2015: Reaching their first MLS Cup, and what happens to Schmid if they don’t. Yet for Evans, the struggles with injuries and increased competition might better prepare the Sounders for the playoffs, assuming they get there. Next up is a daunting trip to Cascadia Cup rival Vancouver, which just happens to be top the Western Conference.
“I can’t say enough about the guys and how they’ve handled it, from top to bottom,” says Evans. “Even-keeled heads have prevailed. That’s a testament to experience, which we have a lot of. It’s kind of an older locker room, maybe the oldest in the league right now. They’ve faced this adversity before in other situations.”