TUKWILA — Last season was pure nostalgia. Left for dead in the middle of July, the Seattle Sounders made a remarkable late-summer recovery, going unbeaten in 12 of its final 14 regular-season matches just to make the MLS playoffs — and ultimately win their first league championship.
“It has been hard on these guys,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said.
But here they are, one step away from being the fifth club in league history to return to the MLS Cup.
Seattle travels to Houston for the start of the two-leg Western Conference finals Tuesday at BBVA Compass Stadium.
The return match is scheduled for Nov. 30 in Seattle at CenturyLink Stadium.
“It it going to be a tough team,” said Seattle forward Clint Dempsey, the 2017 MLS Comeback Player of the Year with a team-leading 14 goals. “It is a team that is compact defensively and did not concede many goals against Portland (in the conference semifinals). They can catch you on the break, and you have to watch out for their speed. We have to prepare well.”
It is only fitting that the last team in the way for Seattle making back-to-back trip to the MLS Cup is the same one the Sounders opened their grueling season against, losing 2-1 on the road.
That was just the start of a season with many hurdles.
It started with the uncertain status of Dempsey, who missed the final four months of last year with an irregular heartbeat that required two surgeries.
Given the circumstances, this might have the been the Texas native’s best season in the MLS, tallying 12 goals (on a career-high 116 shots) in the regular season while also juggling U.S. men’s national team duties.
“Around May or June is when I really started feeling good,” Dempsey said. “And my numbers started to show that.”
His rebound could not have come at a better time in the spring after the Sounders had a nine-match stretch in which they scored one goal or fewer, posting a 3-5-1 record.
Some of it was injuries, particularly on defense. Some of it was the league adjusting to standout midfielder Nico Lodeiro. And some of it was infusing the lineup with new faces.
“It has been a challenge for me, as a first-year full-time head coach, to rethink everything that we were doing, how we were doing it and why we were doing it,” Schmetzer said.
Most will point to one match as the key to getting Seattle’s season rolling — the June 25 match at Cascadia Cup rival Portland.
Down a man in extra time, Seattle got the equalizer on Dempsey’s header in the 94th minute to salvage a 2-2 tie.
After that result, the Sounders went unbeaten (6-0-5) over the next two months, scoring 20 goals in 11 matches. Their 33 points from that point on to the end of the regular season were second-most in the MLS behind Toronto FC (40 points).
“We are a team that usually turns it on midway through the season,” Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “It has been fun since then. As a team, we’ve really come together. You need a whole year to do so.”
Neither of the 2015 MLS Cup finalists, Portland and Columbus, reached the postseason the next year, what Seattle has accomplished already should be seen as an amazing feat, Schmetzer said.
It is likely any club will be hard-pressed to match what DC United did for the first four seasons in the MLS — reach the MLS Cup finals.
That was done in an infancy era when only 10 clubs played in the league. Now, there is 22.
And by 2020, the league expects to be up to 28 teams.
“This franchise has a good chance to get back to the MLS Cup,” Schmetzer said. “We don’t want to push the cart before the horse … but this is already an achievement, because MLS is so full of parity that is it so hard to win. And now there is so much money being poured into the league, it is going to get harder from this point forward to do what we’ve done.”