By John Boyle Herald Writer
TUKWILA — After an offseason full of roster turnover, the Seattle Sounders opened their 2014 season talking about the team’s improved character, about better team chemistry and about a better locker room.
Yet Sounders coach Sigi Schmid and his players also acknowledged that while it was one thing to feel good about team chemistry before a game had been played, the real test would come when the team faced a little adversity.
Well it’s early still, but so far, so good for the Sounders when it comes to showing improved team chemistry. When it comes to early season adversity, the Sounders have dealt with their best player, Clint Dempsey, being suspended two games; they’ve had one of their best midfielders, Brad Evans, miss four games with an injury; they’ve lost in disappointing fashion at home twice; and they faced deficits in their past two road games. Yet in spite of all of that, the Sounders head into today’s game at Chivas USA with a 3-2-1 record after impressive road comebacks in each of their past two outings.
“That’s what they said they had a problem with last year,” said forward Chad Barrett, one of several newcomers who already has contributed one late game-winner off the bench and assisted on another. “When they started the season not too well last year, they were looking for players to bring them out of slumps like that. It’s not ideal to be fighting from our backs in these games, but we don’t mind. We’re going to play for the entire 90 (minutes) … You can never sleep on us.”
The Sounders’ 2014 campaign started off promisingly enough with Barrett providing a stoppage-time goal to give his new team a victory over defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City. But in a home loss that saw Seattle gift Toronto FC a pair of early goals, Dempsey earned a two-game suspension for violent conduct, and Evans left early with a calf injury that ended up sidelining him for a month. Two weeks later, Seattle blew an early lead, lost defender Djimi Traore to a red card, and lost a second consecutive home game when Columbus scored in stoppage time.
With three consecutive road games looming, that Columbus loss could have been what led to an early-season slump, but instead Seattle responded to a two-goal deficit in Portland with two late goals to earn a tie. The following week, Seattle was down again on the road, this time against then-unbeaten Dallas, but scored twice in the second half to earn a road victory.
“We’ve faced adversity this year,” Schmid said. “… Being able to come back in Portland is a big sign, being able to come back in (the Dallas) game as well is a good sign. Also with a disappointing loss at home with Columbus the way we lost it at the last second … We’ve had different little hurdles and challenges placed in front of us, and I think we’ve coped with them pretty well.”
Of course, the easy answer for why Seattle has been able to overcome deficits on the road is simply that Clint Dempsey is really good, and yes, that’s certainly a big part of it. Dempsey had a hat trick in that 4-4 tie at Portland, and added two more goals last week in Dallas, including the game-winner, but there appears to be more to it than that.
The Sounders hope to at some point be the best team in Major League Soccer, but for now they’re showing that they are one of the most resilient, something that wasn’t the case last year when the team battled what general manager Adrian Hanauer admitted was not the best locker-room chemistry.
“I just think it’s the character, fighting back in games where it looks like it’s starting to get away from us,” Dempsey said. “And also sometimes being able win ugly. In the Dallas game, it wasn’t really our best performance, the second half was better, but still being able to grind out results.”
Yet to say the Sounders have been good late in games simply because of character would be inaccurate. The team’s fighting spirit, as Evans called it, is certainly a big part of Seattle’s late-game success, but so too is the depth and fitness of the team.
Even with Dempsey suspended for two games, and with Evans and Andy Rose injured, the Sounder have enough depth, much of it acquired this offseason, to bring in impact players late in games, players like Barrett and Marco Pappa who have figured into late-game goals.
“Look who we have on the bench,” Barrett said. “We have guys like Pappa on the bench, Andy Rose when he’s healthy, Mike Azira’s coming in and doing a great job. We have a good amount of depth on this team, and it shows. It’s a good problem for Sigi to have.”
In addition to having a talented bench, the Sounders also believe they have the ability to outwork teams late in games.
“The fitness of the team is very good,” Pappa said. “In Dallas, you saw in the second half, they could not run anymore, and we keep running. I think that was a key in the Dallas game. The fitness level of the team is pretty good.”
Fitness, depth, and perhaps most importantly, the improved chemistry and character of the team have Seattle off to a strong start despite some early adversity. A long season still awaits, but the Sounders are encouraged by what they’ve seen so far in 2014.
“I’m extremely encouraged by our ability to continue to fight and battle and find ways to win,” Schmid said. “… I’m very, very encouraged by our ability to compete and fight until the final whistle blows.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.