By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — The Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake are two of the most talented teams in Major League Soccer, a fact that’s evident not just in their places in the standings, but also in the list of notable players who weren’t on the field Saturday.
The Sounders were without forward Clint Dempsey and defender DeAndre Yedlin, who are with the U.S. national team preparing for the World Cup, while Salt Lake played without goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielder Kyle Beckerman and Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio for the same reason.
And what was most evident in Seattle’s 4-0 drubbing of Real Salt Lake was that while both of these teams are among the league’s best when playing at full strength, the Sounders have the edge over Salt Lake perhaps the entire league when it comes to depth.
When the Sounders overhauled their roster this offseason, they did it in part to fix the team chemistry, which is clearly improved, but they also wanted to make sure they built a roster that could stay strong in a World Cup year when several key players might be gone. And as the Sounders approach a midseason break in the schedule, it’s clear those moves are paying dividends in a big way. Not only were Seattle’s first three goals scored by players who weren’t on the team a year ago — Gonzalo Pineda, Marco Pappa and Chad Barrett — their fourth was set up by another newcomer, Kenny Cooper, who had come into the game as a second-half substitution.
Since Dempsey, Yedlin and Brad Evans were called in by the national team — Evans has since returned to the team having not made the final cut — the Sounders are 2-0-1, building on their lead atop the standing rather than allowing Salt Lake or any other team to make up ground.
“It’s what I expected us to do,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s not only our depth; it’s our spirit. The guys like each other, the guys work hard for each other, the guys battle for each other, and it doesn’t matter who is out there on the field … We can take guys and put them at different positions and they will do what we need them to do in that particular game for us to be successful. I’m very pleased with our depth — it’s what we expect — but I am very pleased with our commitment to the game.”
And as much as adding talented depth has paid off for Seattle, which has the league’s best record at 9-3-2, it has been just as important that the Sounders added players with the right mindset. Having a talented player available to fill in when Dempsey is gone, or to come off the bench is great in theory, but it only works if that talented player, someone who perhaps was an every day starter for another team, has the right attitude about it.
Barrett appeared in just four of Seattle’s first nine games, and hadn’t made a start, but now he has started, and scored in, two consecutive games. Cooper, meanwhile, has gone back and forth from starter to the bench all season, but came on to replace Barrett Saturday and excelled. Even Pappa, who has started five straight games, struggled early on to establish himself as a regular in the starting lineup, yet now he’s starting to look more like the player who was an All-Star with Chicago before leaving MLS to play in the Netherlands.
“It says a lot about the guys,” Evans said. “When the guys are on the field, they’re hungry. Chad Barrett is a competitor, and when he’s not on the field, he gets (angry). Kenny Cooper, same thing. When he found out he wasn’t starting this week, he was (angry). Then he comes on and makes a difference. That’s a credit they have inside; they contribute everything they have to the team. They could easily say, ‘I’m getting games here, I’m getting games there, but I want to be a regular starter.’ But they’re all pushing for a starting spot. When you smell it and you get a chance — guys are gone with World Cup duty, guys get injured, whatever it is — and you have a performance like that, it just makes the team better.”
The depth is what helped Seattle roll to a blowout in the second half, but it’s the improved chemistry or the character or whatever you want to call it that looked like it was going to be tested early on. The Sounders have shown an ability to grind out wins when need be this season, and for most of the first half, Saturday’s game looked like it was headed that direction. In a first half that was a pretty poor advertisement for the sport, Seattle and Salt Lake combined to commit 23 fouls while attempt just two shots, one of which was Pineda’s penalty kick that put Seattle ahead in the 42nd minute. Let’s just say that if you were on the fence about soccer, hopefully this wasn’t the game you decided to use to make up your mind about the sport. Or if it was, you hopefully at least watched the second half as well.
But in grinding out that first half, then putting their foot on the pedal in the second, the Sounders showed how their offseason moves improved both the team’s character and top-to-bottom talent level.
“As a group we are maturing, and being able to step into a game between a first place team and a second place team and win with a convincing result speaks volumes for our character,” Schmid said.
Real Salt Lake at full strength will test the Sounders when they meet again, perhaps even in the playoffs, but their unbeaten streak — Salt Lake opened the season 6-0-6 before Saturday’s loss — came to an end because the Sounders depth proved stronger.
“We’ve been showing that all year,” Barrett said. “Through injuries, through suspensions, whatever, everybody that’s stepped in has done a great job. We had a good strong lineup going out today, on paper I thought it was much better than theirs. I thought we should have imposed our will on them and I thought we did.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.