MLS Closeup: Seattle ready for another playoff push

Pretty soon the retelling and rewriting of the Sounders’ remarkable surge to their first MLS Cup title will begin.

July 26, 2017 will mark the one-year anniversary of Sigi Schmid’s firing, which begat the naming of assistant coach Brian Schmetzer to replace him, which begat everything that followed. The Sounders hope by then a few midseason tweaks and a growing sense of purpose will have generated a wave of momentum something akin to that which swept them past all obstacles to the league crown.

When Schmid departed, Seattle stood eighth in the Western Conference with just 20 points from 20 games via a 6-12-2 record. A 2-2 tie with Portland last weekend closed the first half of their 2017 season at 5-7-6 (21 points) and again in eighth place. Their points per game -- 1.0 last year, 1.17 this season -- have improved but not their place in the standings, at least not in absolute terms.

However, last year after 20 games they were 10 points out of a playoff spot. This year? “Off the top of my head I think we’re four points out of second place in the West,” says striker Will Bruin, and his head is correct.

Houston, which traded him to Seattle during the offseason, is tied for second with Portland and FC Dallas. All three teams have 25 points. Seattle has the same point total as seventh-place Vancouver, which is just one point out of sixth, occupied by the Galaxy. Leader Sporting Kansas City has 30 points, which would place it fourth in the Eastern Conference behind Toronto FC, New York City FC and Chicago.

If overall the Western Conference isn’t as strong at the top as it has been the past few seasons, it is again extremely competitive in the middle amongst the teams on either side of the playoff line. In that sense, Seattle is in a much better spot than it was 11 months ago when the firing of Schmid, arrival of eventual MLS Newcomer of the Year Nicolas Lodeiro, and return from injury of defender Roman Torres launched its amazing campaign.

“In this league, it always comes down to the last two months, if you can stay in the pack,” says Bruin, who rolled with the Dynamo to MLS Cup appearances in his first two professional seasons (2011, 2012). “Just so long as you don’t hurt yourself too much early you can always make a run. My last two years in Houston we didn’t make the playoffs and the first two years we went to MLS Cup, so I was definitely spoiled."

Schmetzer says his staff is working on adding two or three players to supplement the current squad, not transform it as did with Lodeiro, Torres and a spectacular revival of midfielder Oswaldo Alonso. Bruin and Harry Shipp were acquired during the offseason in trades and Gustav Svensson was signed as a free agent.

Yet 16 players have departed since Seattle lifted the MLS Cup trophy Dec. 10 and there’s roster spots and cap space to be used. Paraguayan Deris Gonzalez has been offered a contract, according to reports, and the Sounders are in avid pursuit of at least two other players. Team officials would not say if other offers had been made.

“We have a lot of targets,” said Schmetzer.  “It’s just a question of which targets are available, which ones are at the right price, which ones we’re going to pull the trigger on. But overall I think we have a good team, a strong team. We just need some depth and competition in spots and that could jump start the program.”

The possibility remains that if a top-notch player became available, as did Clint Dempsey four years ago, Seattle could get involved. Schmetzer’s primary objective in this upcoming transfer window is infuse the squad with the same hunger and determination that fueled last season’s remarkable finish, in which the Sounders won eight and tied four of their last 14 games to finish fourth with 48 points.

“If you look at our starting lineup, it’s pretty good,” said Schmetzer Wednesday after a team of mostly backups and second-team players lost its Open Cup match to San Jose, 2-1, playing with 10 men from the 35th minute. “But I need some subtle pressure to get everybody ratcheted up that one more notch. When I look at the performances -- including that group there, because they’re all hungry to play -- but Portland, we went down a guy, nobody quit. Everybody knows it’s the halfway point of the season and beyond that time’s running short.

“I thought the Orlando effort [a 1-1 tie June 21], even though we couldn’t put them away, the physical output by the players in that game was high. So they’re getting it. Hopefully with a few more reinforcements we can put out maximum effort and I can bring the next guy in and he puts in maximum effort. Everybody does that and we won’t have to worry.”

This time of year, Schmetzer has to worry about international callups for the Gold Cup. Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan are with the USA, Oniel Fisher was summoned by Jamaica, and Jordy Delem has joined up with Martinique. This transfer window offers opportunities to add options in case of injuries as well as future callups for Hexagonal matches in September and October. Schmetzer also has to measure minutes for Clint Dempsey, who isn’t expected to play in the Gold Cup but at 34 requires close monitoring.

Bruin (6-foot-2, 194 pounds) who scored 50 goals in six seasons (2011-16) for Houston, has brought a target-man presence to the front line. He came off the bench in the second half of the Open Cup game and set up an excellent chance for Shipp by muscling an opponent off the ball and cutting back a pass that Shipp’s favored left foot drove wide of the far post.

“Experience, leadership, workrate, effort, size, strength, speed,” said Schmetzer. “He’s a good combination for a No. 9. Either we bring him on as a sub and he does well or we give him a start and he does well. He scored the winner against his old team [a 1-0 win June 4]. He’s happy to be here, we’re happy to have him, so it makes for a good marriage.”

Bruin concurs. The heat and front-office turmoil -- he played for three head coaches in six seasons -- in Houston had worn him out. He was ready for a change, has fallen in love with the city, and is anxious to see if the Dynamo finishes of years past and Sounders of 2016 can be replicated.

“It’s always tough coming off an MLS Cup championship season because you don’t have much time off,” he said. “A lot of those guys were gone for a long time and had to jump right back in, so we got off a little slow. I was integrating into the team, Harry was integrating into the team, there were some new pieces getting put in and I think everybody’s kind of getting their footing now.

“There’s still a lot of points on the table and the West is so close that it takes just a little streak to get going and I think we’re more than capable of doing that. The second half of the season, it’s time to get those stupid mistakes out of the way and get all the points.”
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