SEATTLE — First, the Sounders built a two-goal lead over the team with the best record in Major League Soccer.
Then they subbed in one of the best soccer players the U.S. has ever produced.
Yes, things are going pretty well for the Sounders these days, and the good times continued Friday night when Seattle beat Real Salt Lake 2-0 in front of 55,107 at CenturyLink Field for its fifth consecutive victory and eighth in nine games. With the victory, Seattle replaces Salt Lake atop the Western Conference standings, and now also has the highest point total in all of MLS.
In fact things are going so well for the Sounders, they can go into a first-place showdown with two of their best players, Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson, starting the game on the bench and still jump out to a 2-0 lead in the first half thanks to goals from Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle.
Then, as if to remind the rest of the league just how deep and dangerous this team will be in the playoffs, they brought in Dempsey as a 61st-minute sub, then subbed in Johnson in the 75th minute.
Not bad for a team that opened the season with five losses in its first seven games.
“Before the game we talked about, ‘We believe. We believe in ourselves, we believe today’s the day to make believers out of the doubters,’” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “That was our mission going out on the field. … Just to show that this is a team we can beat, this is a team we can play against and play well.”
Mission accomplished. If there were any remaining doubters to convince after the impressive run through August, then dominating Salt Lake, a team that had beaten Seattle twice already this year, and doing it without a first-choice lineup ought to do the trick.
Johnson and Dempsey were both held out of the starting lineup since they played for the U.S. national team in Tuesday’s win over Mexico that clinched a World Cup berth. But the Sounders opened the game looking nothing like a team that wasn’t at full strength.
Just 2 minutes, 20 seconds into the game, Martins scored on a perfectly placed cross from Andy Rose. Zach Scott nearly made it 2-0 in the seventh minute, but was denied by a spectacular Nick Rimando save. The second goal eventually came in the 38th minute when rookie DeAndre Yedlin dribbled into the box, then found Neagle alone in the box, setting up Neagle’s eighth goal and third in as many games.
“I’m definitely confident,” Neagle said. “I’ve enjoyed playing up front, I enjoy having that freedom. I was getting on the end of a bunch of crosses. It was just good service from the other guys, really.”
On the back end, the Sounders were again able to keep a clean sheet, which is no small accomplishment in the mind of their coach. Schmid made it a priority to clean up his team’s defense following some high-scoring losses, including his team’s most recent defeat, a 3-1 loss in Houston last month that features some rather suspect defending. On Friday Seattle defense and goalkeeper Michael Gspurning came through again, earning a fourth shutout in five games since that Houston loss.
“The commitment to defending was something we’ve talked about, and that’s been there,” Schmid said. “We got another shutout today.
Those two goals and another strong defensive effort were enough to give Seattle a third straight win with no or little contribution from Johnson and Dempsey, who missed two games for national team duty.
“Credit to the boys, they’re the ones putting in the hard work,” Dempsey said. “I haven’t been here for the last two games, and (in this game) they won the game in the first half, so the team’s been playing well. Credit goes to them. That’s a game that’s easy to go into when it’s two-nothing.”
As the final minutes of stoppage time wound down, fans chanted a rhetorical question that definitely needed no answer.
“Who’s in first place? Who’s in first place?”
For now, it’s the Sounders, and they have no intention of seeing this hot streak come to an end anytime soon.
“We kept climbing and kept climbing, and now we’re in first place,” Schmid said. “Now we’ve got to make sure we stay there and enjoy the view a little bit.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.