By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — If last week’s drubbing of San Jose didn’t convince you, then certainly Saturday night had to do the trick.
The Seattle Sounders’ latest victory, a 4-2 thriller over FC Dallas — the owner of the best record in the league, by the way — showed, that the Seattle Sounders have not just moved on from an awful start to this season that had them stuck in last place for the first two months of the season, they’ve become what most people thought they’d be heading into the year — one of Major League Soccer’s best teams.
After starting the season with three losses and two ties in their first five games, the Sounders had a lot of folks wondering what the heck was going on with a team expected to compete for the top spot in the Western Conference. But since the scoreless draw at home against New England that put the Sounders at 0-3-2, they have gone 4-0-1 over the past month, outscoring their opposing 12-4.
“Being able to measure ourselves against the first-place team in our conference is important,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “Being able to show that, once our weapons are healthy that we can score goals was another important factor as well.”
Since that head-scratching start that saw Seattle manage just a pair of goals in five games, the Sounders have fully hit their stride, smacking around one of last season’s top teams a week ago, and this year’s top early-season team on Saturday.
Those “what’s wrong with the Sounders” questions? We can officially put them to rest.
At this point, the biggest question about the Sounders is trying to figure out how the heck this same roster, give or take a few injured players, was the last winless team in MLS. The other pressing question, of course, is how the heck Schmid is going to juggle his lineups going forward given the attacking options he has at his choosing.
Lamar Neagle, who was not a starter until injuries forced him into action, has three goals in the last two games, and could have easily had one or two more Saturday. Eddie Johnson is showing why he’s the only forward from this league to be called in by the U.S. national team for the latest round of World Cup qualifiers. Johnson’s two-goal performance in this game, which including the vital go-ahead score that came less than a minute after Dallas stunned the CenturyLink Field crowd of 38.979 by erasing a two-goal lead, was a reminder that he possesses a combination of speed, skill and strength that is incredibly rare in this league. Add to that this year’s big acquisition, Obafemi Martins, who had his third goal in as many games, and it’s hard to see long scoring droughts being a problem for Seattle going forward.
“Certainly with the emergence of Lamar right now, with Eddie playing as he’s playing right now, with Obafemi coming in — I think that’s three goals in three games for him — we’re a handful up front,” Schmid said. “If your center backs lose sight of our forwards for a second, they’re going to be running behind you.”
But Seattle’s turnaround hasn’t just been about having one of the most talented rosters in the league, which they do, it has also had to do with maintaining the right attitude. While the outside world was wondering what was wrong, the players in the locker room kept their heads down and pushed forward. The reward has been the way the Sounders have played over the past five games.
“From Day 1, I’ve told everybody that I was 100 percent confident in this team,” midfielder Brad Evans said after a practice last week. “We’ve gone through ups and down before, and I’m sure we’ll continue to go through ups and downs. … If we find ourselves in another rough patch, it says something that we can bounce back from that rather quickly.
“There was a lot of talk on the outside, but it’s about staying together on the inside and really keeping that family community feel in the locker room. Our mindset never changed.”
If anything did change — besides some improved health — it was the team’s work rate, which at times early in the season didn’t always match the talent level. The low point came in Salt Lake City on March 30 when the Sounders were badly outplayed in the first half. Schmid let his team hear it at the half, and while they didn’t come back from a two-goal deficit, they did get a goal back in the first half, and have not lost in league play since.
“The first half in Salt Lake, we played badly,” Schmid said. “Up until then, I thought we’d been maybe a little bit unlucky, but the first half in Salt Lake we played badly, and that was something we definitely impressed upon them.
“From there on out, we stuck to it and said, ‘you can’t forget that work is part of what it is. Unfortunately that’s part of the game, you’ve got to be able to work.’ And the guys have put in the work the guys have believed in themselves.”
Of course as good as they have looked the past two weeks, the Sounders won’t score four goals per game going forward. They won’t win every week either, not in a league so geared towards parity. But what the past few weeks have shown is that, despite a terrible start, the Sounders, to borrow a phrase from former NFL coach Dennis Green, are who we thought they were: a very good team.
“Tonight we showed our true character,” Johnson said. “Even going up 2-0, then conceding two goals, we really put them on our terms from start to finish, and when we got our chances in the second half, we put them away.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.