The Seattle Sounders have the sparkle of fortune about them as they prepare to square off against Toronto FC in Saturday’s MLS Cup. As the national spotlight shines, ever so briefly, on MLS and the Sounders, the professional sportswriters are busy crafting narratives. Seattle as a team of destiny is one narrative with a lot of gravity, but as stories go, it is mostly fiction.
The key thing taking the shine off Seattle as “destined” is that key players are nursing knocks ahead of the final. Chief among these is Ozzie Alonso. For a player nicknamed “Honey Badger” and (briefly and notoriously) “Energizer Bunny,” Ozzie has had some kryptonite moments. The 2014 MLS Playoffs, the last time we entered the playoffs as destiny’s darling, the most glaring. After beating L.A. in a home-and-home, winning the Supporters’ Shield and bragging rights, Ozzie got hurt and couldn’t save us from an embarrassing early exit at the hands of the same L.A. squad. Ozzie is still listed as Questionable, but will undoubtedly play. He may not be 100%, but playing hurt is nothing new to this Seattle squad.
The Rave Green have been black and blue all season. Much has been made of how Seattle lucked into the final. National pundits are barking about how things magically clicked for us: a missed offsides vs SKC + Mauro Diaz and Tim Howard injuries = easiest path to MLS Cup ever, right? Wrong. Seattle has battled through adversity to be here at the precipice of heady, uncharted glory. And Schmetzer deserves heaps of credit for navigating these troubled waters.
A quick survey of the ill-fortune Schmetz has had to endure: first, Aaron Kovar was a regular starter and contributor over the first 2/3s of the season, but has barely been available for selection since August. Just a few games into the post-Sigi era, and right after a brace against Portland, superstar Clint Dempsey suffers possibly career-threatening heart issues. Then Captain Brad Evans gets hurt. Then Ivanschitz, who was really coming on and doing yeoman’s work out on the flank, goes down. Then Friberg joins the walking wounded and the carousel of lineups continued (Hell, Oneil Fisher had to replace Ozzie in our last game!). Though the lineup has been in flux, the formation has been a rock.
Schmetzer has solidified the 4-2-3-1 as THE Sounders identity. Luckily, with all the injuries, depth has been stellar for Seattle all season. One of the reasons the depth has been solid has been the 4-2-3-1 formation. The Sounders have been remade in President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey’s image: they are no longer a player-dependent team, but a system-dependent team. The loss of Dempsey would’ve crippled any other Sounders squad in recent memory. Now every player knows their job, and, when called upon, they don’t have to pretend to be someone else, they just have to do that job.
Take Brad Evans’s injury, for example. With the return to fitness of Roman Torres in early September, we could afford one of B-Rad’s customary trips to the trainers. It is easy to forget now, what with Torres stepping in and dominating, that Evan was the unquestioned started at CB for much of the season. He started 21 of our first 26 games, and mostly went the full 90. Then, boom, he gets injured and hasn’t started since. This could be crippling to another team (hello, Dallas). Brad’s gotten minutes in only 6 of Seattle’s 13 subsequent matches (including the playoffs), but hasn’t played more than 20 minutes, or centerback. He now comes on in the midfield and is yet another weapon at Schmetzer’s disposal.
There are many narratives surrounding Seattle as they prepare for their date with destiny: Nico saved the season, Seattle has nothing but dumb luck, the maturation of Jordan Morris, to name a few. But the one true story Seattle has told consistently since Schmetzer took over: next man up, play hurt, do your job, win.