By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — After an offseason of significant roster turnover, Seattle Sounders players, coaches and executives all noted the team’s improved chemistry. The collapse that ended the 2013 season exposed flaws in Seattle’s locker room more than in its talent level, and before the Sounders played a game with their revamped roster, they were confident they had significantly improved chemistry.
What the Sounders also knew before the start of the season, however, is that they wouldn’t fully know how much things have changed until the team faced a little adversity.
And now, in a season where very little has gone wrong for the owners of one of Major League Soccer’s best records, the Sounders are facing what, for them anyway, amounts to a bit a rough stretch. Not only have the Sounders lost two consecutive games for the first time this season, they lost, in consecutive weeks, in a blowout fashion at home, and then to a San Jose squad that coming into the game was in last place in the Western Conference.
Losing two straight and three of four is hardly a reason to panic — the Sounders are still in first place in the West — but for a team that ended the previous season by going 0-4-3, including a four-game losing streak, today’s game against Houston is a chance to show the character of the team and prove that this is a bump in the road, not the start of another prolonged rough patch.
“I think we’ve responded positively,” midfielder Brad Evans said. “We’ve come out and worked every day. There’s no bitching and moaning. Right now we realize it’s going to take the collective group to get over a hump. The real test is to kind of ride out these dips and make them as short as possible, so Sunday in our minds becomes a must-win.
“Sometimes things come easy, and I think in the first half of the season some things maybe went our way a little bit when they couldn’t have, and now this is a test of our mettle.”
The Sounders aren’t just being tested because of some recent struggles. They also have a daunting schedule this month with five games in a two-week stretch thanks to a U.S. Open Cup semifinal this week and a mid-week game the following week as well. Throw in the possible distraction of DeAndre Yedlin’s transfer to England, which is expected to be finalized soon — though he will finish the season with the Sounders — and this is as close to a test of this team’s improved chemistry as they’ve faced all season.
“The team’s response will be good,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “We’ll show that on Sunday.”
What perhaps makes even a brief rough patch more concerning for the Sounders, or at least their fans, is that last year’s skid came largely without warning. The 2013 Sounders’ fall wasn’t gradual; it was Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.
From late July to mid-September, the Sounders won eight of nine matches, had the best record in the league, and with the addition of Clint Dempsey, looked like an MLS Cup favorite. Then, beginning with a tie in Los Angeles, Seattle finished the year winless in its final seven games before losing in the playoffs to the rival Portland Timbers.
So maybe it’s not surprising to hear Evans call this game a must-win. The Sounders need to beat the struggling Houston Dynamo not just for the sake of their position in the standings, but also to prove that they are indeed a more together team than last year’s squad. The results the rest of the season will provide the meaningful proof, but a good indicator, Evans said, is the way people have taken ownership following recent losses, particularly that embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Galaxy at home.
“Taking ownership of yourself is No. 1, not pointing the fingers,” Evans said. “We’ve got guys now who, when we’re watching video raise the hand and say, ‘That’s my fault, I’ve got to do better.’ When you look at the result against the Galaxy, most of those guys who made a mistake, or whatever it was, stepped up and said it.
“That’s what it’s going to take. We have a great team, but you can’t predict everything. I can talk as much as I want about what this team is going to do, but at the end of the day all it comes down to is game day and whether we show up or not. … As a team captain and a guy who believes in this team, I’ve learned from last season and I think the guys on the team have learned from last season, but the only test is the game Sunday. We can talk as much as we want, but we’ve got to do it on the field.”
And again, we’re talking about a whopping two-game losing streak here, that’s hardly a season-killer. As forward Chad Barrett, one of Seattle’s many offseason additions puts it, the fact that Seattle only now has something that can be called a losing streak is a pretty good sign.
“But two games is enough and we need to right the ship,” Barrett said. “That’s what we need to do on Sunday.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.