As the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs reach their pinnacle, VAVEL USA will examine the Seattle Sounders and their road to the conference finals where they will be facing the Colorado Rapids in just over a week.
After a poor performance in Major League Soccer for most of 2016, a change of management and a new star signing shifted Seattle's season and now they have the chance to do something not many had expected if they had been asked in July; potentially win the 2016 MLS Cup.
Preseason movement leaves the Sounders treading water
The signing of Jordan Morris was seen as a coup when the Sounders announced it as he seemed set to sign with Bundesliga outfit SV Werder Bremen but instead signed with his hometown team. Many expected the young striker to work behind Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins before making the starting role his own as the veteran forwards faded due to time but that was not to be. Fans were then shocked and upset to hear that the Sounders had allowed Martins to move on from MLS and go to China not long before the season was to start. This meant that Morris was thrust into the spotlight before the Sounders coaching staff would have liked and, along with early season injuries especially to defender Román Torres, exposed the weaknesses in the Sounders' roster.
This led to one of the worst performances by the Sounders in recent memory as they only managed six wins in 20 games and it left them well below the red line which would get them into the playoffs. For a team with the fan base and wealth that the Sounders have, languishing near the bottom of the Western conference was not what their front office must have envisioned when the season started and although they added the likes of Nelson Valdez and Oalex Anderson to compensate for the loss of Martins, the lack of quality was there for all to see. A 3-0 defeat away to Sporting Kansas City was the last straw and long-time head coach Sigi Schmid was given his marching orders.
Sigi leaves and Lodeiro arrives
Almost as if forgotten in the aftermath of the firing of Schmid, the Sounders welcomed new Designated Player signing Nicolás Lodeiro into their midst. The quality of the Uruguayan playmaker was well-known but no one could have predicted his immediate and sustained impact on the Sounders and the MLS. From his very first match, a 1-1 draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Lodeiro did not skip a beat and played like a veteran of the MLS instead of a newcomer from another country. His chemistry with Dempsey and Morris was instantaneous and it made the Sounders faithful hopeful for the future.
Then assistant coach Brian Schmeltzer, now head coach of the Sounders, may have down played the effect that he himself had on the team but it was there for all to see. The team responded to the change in management and ended up winning eight of their last 14 games to make it into the post season, something some of their fans may have lost hope in achieving. This run also coincided with some great performances away at Orlando City SC and Los Angeles, and the form of goalkeeper Stefan Frei and midfielder Cristian Roldan will no doubt have pleased the interim head coach. The fact that the Sounders place in the playoffs came at the expense of Pacific North-West rivals, the Portland Timbers, would make the progression the team made all that much sweeter.
Valdez finally arrives to the 2016 Sounders party
If one man's journey has match the Sounders' overall season, it has been that of Nelson Valdez. The Paraguayan had a poor 2016 in the MLS and found himself relegated to a substitute role even after the news broke of Dempsey's absence for the rest of the season. Valdez kept working hard and continued to find himself in the right positions but could not convert his chances. Once the playoffs started, Valdez came alive.
His lone goal in the 88th minute against Sporting KC allowed the Sounders to advance to the next stage of the playoffs and he started things off for Seattle against the current 2016 MLS Supporters' Shield champions, FC Dallas, as the Sounders romped their way to a 3-0 win over the Texas-based team. In the second leg, Valdez did not feature on the score sheet but his hold up play was exceptional and it helped Seattle hold off FC Dallas and make their way to the Western conference.
Seattle primed to go all the way
As one of the more well-known and wealthier teams in the MLS, the Sounders know that their current momentum can help them achieve their ultimate aim, the MLS Cup. To do so, they will have to find a way past the Rapids and either the Montreal Impact or Toronto FC. All three teams are on a hot streak of their own which will make all the potential match ups something to behold for the neutral. The Sounders have belief, and in players like Lodeiro, Morris, Valdez and Roldan, they will have every reason to believe that they can beat any team that they face on any given day. That will be tested in just over a week when they welcome Colorado to Century Link Field in front of what will surely be a boisterous capacity crowd.