Which team should we expect to show up as the regular season segues into the playoffs?
Are the Sounders the seemingly impotent team that could only manage a goal at home against San Jose? The side that ran the Chicago Fire off the pitch in a 6-0 drubbing in the Open Cup semi-final at Starfire? Something in between?
It’s honestly been hard to say during what was shaping up to be the Sounders’ second annual late-season swoon.
The Sounders’ 4-2 win over the rival Portland Timbers on national TV was not only reassuring, it was a reminder: This team leads all of MLS with 45 points through 24 games, and is very much a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup (not to mention US Open Cup) contender.
For the first time in seemingly forever, the Sounders were able to put their first-choice lineup on the field. Marco Pappa, Gonzalo Pineda, Brad Evans, Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall – all accounted for. No more patching things together with Lamar Neagle, Kenny Cooper and the like. Those guys are all great in their roles – but they’re not in this squad’s ideal eleven.
Right out of the gate, it was clear: This game would be a character-revealing moment. Aside from a heart-attack-inducing near miss from Diego Valeri on an early set piece, the Sounders were dominating – they looked, well, alive. Composed. Energetic. In sync.
The Obafemi Martins-Clint Dempsey partnership reappeared, with Oba setting up Deuce to spin and fire from the top of the box in the 13th minute. Remember that? Remember reading quotes from those two guys about how much it is to play together? It’s back – and the fun was on display all afternoon.
The scoring began with another reemergence – from clearly no longer injured Brad Evans, who sprinted wide right to retrieve a pass from DeAndre Yedlin. After turning a corner and blowing by the defense, he sent a perfect pass to Martins right at the goal. The result: ObaFlips. Remember those?
Martins got an assist of his own in the 34th minute, when he delivered a perfect ball to Dempsey at the top of the box. Deuce finished with a slow roller into the net, but the impressive thing was his run – for a guy who admitted to being tired after the San Jose match, he didn’t show it. Watch his epic run from the other side of the centerline to the goal – it’s hard to describe how glorious that run is without uttering a string of exclamatory profanities.
When this team has it going, Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey can flat-out clown opposing defenses. The problem of late: They haven’t been playing together enough to establish a rhythm. Dempsey was a late sub against San Jose and rested during the Open Cup. Oba was suspended against Real Salt Lake. Are they back? Sure looks like it, and not a moment too soon.
The game looked like it was shaping up to be a bloodbath when super sub/spot starter Chad Barrett continued his recent streak of goal-scoring, making it 3-0 with 20 minutes to go.
Assuming the offense is indeed back on track (which is still a bit of an assumption), the only worry – and it’s a nit-picky one – might be the defense.
Chad Marshall played his typical Defender of the Year-caliber game, but was momentarily grounded when Portland defender Norberto Paparatto threw an elbow into his neck. Hell, even Wil Johnson thought it was uncalled for. Given that Marshall is a guy with a history of concussions and a recent back injury, that is not good. Stay safe out there, Chad.
The Sounders need Marshall to compensate for the fact that they don’t have a true center back partner for him. Zach Scott is fine, but he’s not a starter on an MLS Cup contender, as was evidenced when he lost track of Timber striker Fanendo Adi, who knocked home a cross from Rodney Wallace to get Portland on the board at 3-1.
Though the Timbers would get another goal in stoppage time, Martins essentially put the game away with what has to be the goal of the week. If you want to see a display of pure power, skill and will, watch him spin, run and hop through the Portland defense for his second goal. Damn.
So that’s five games in a 15-day stretch. The Sounders won three of them. It feels like the fixture-congestion gauntlet has been run. The team slumped. The offense disappeared for a bit. It looked, however briefly, like we could be in for a repeat of last year’s disappointment.
But against Portland on Sunday, all the regular starters returned to form and we saw what this team really is: A legit contender for multiple trophies.
(image courtesy of Susan C. Ragan/USA Today Sports)