The old saying is that lightning never strikes in the same place twice but, as it turns out, the old adage is nothing but a myth. Lightning has struck twice in MLS before and by late August, it almost felt inevitable that it would hit a third time in 2018.
For the third season in a row, the Sounders appeared to have buried themselves by June. For the third season in a row, the Sounders looked like one of the league's biggest underperformers and, for the third season in a row, when midseason rolled around, the Sounders looked like a team doomed to miss out on the playoffs. On June 30, the Sounders had a 1.67 percent chance of battling their way into the postseason.
But, after willing themselves to two consecutive MLS Cup finals with unprecedented second-half surges, the Sounders rolled through 2018 with their best second-half run yet. After collecting just nine of the first 45 available points, the Sounders uncorked a league-best win streak while claiming 50 points from the final 19 matches of the season to finish second in the Western Conference.
Lightning certainly struck again, but can it carry them to another MLS Cup run?
"I think we always believed in ourselves," midfielder Cristian Roldan told Goal. "We always thought we would get back into the flow of things and make a run for the playoffs, but not in this manner.
"I don't think anybody really could have expected this. At this point, we've lost two games of 16 or 17 and I think that's a pretty incredible run and I hope we can continue that into the playoffs. Morale-wise, this team is as confident as ever and I think we're just a team that's really hard to beat at this point."
It's a far cry from the Sounders that limped their way onto the field from March through June. Striker Jordan Morris tore his ACL before the season could get going. Clint Dempsey struggled, failing to score until June 23 before announcing his retirement in August. Key injuries across the backline piled up, as did losses, with the team looking buried by June.
🗣 Kept it real from the jump pic.twitter.com/sXaw2LOehy
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) October 29, 2018
Roldan says there were a variety of reasons for the Sounders' spring malaise. The midfielder says the team was just "really unfortunate". They felt calls weren't going their way. They were finding ways to lose games in the last 15 minutes and, even before these moments, they struggled to score the goals required to put teams away. Injuries were limiting and, having played in the Concacaf Champions League, legs were tired.
It was the perfectly negative storm, and it hit all at once.
"We had a lot of things going on,and unfortunately it didn't go our way," Roldan said. "I really didn't anticipate the run in which we've had, but it says a lot about the team and the belief that we all had from the very beginning."
There was a turning point, though. Roldan cited a midseason road trip as the key. On the Fourth of July, just days after losing to the rival Portland Timbers, the Sounders traveled to Colorado and topped the Rapids. Then came a pair of plucky road draws, one against the New England Revolution before a significantly more impressive tie with Atlanta United.
After that, the floodgates opened. The Sounders won nine consecutive matches to jump into the playoff race, closing the season having won 14 of their final 16 matches.
Several factors helped that run. There was, perhaps most importantly, a return to health as the defensive unit came together to allow just 14 goals in those 16 matches . There was also the introduction of Raul Ruidiaz in August, giving the team a much-needed goalscoring punch to the tune of 10 goals in 13 starts.
"When Raul came in, it only helped. It just catapulted this run even more," Roldan said. "The combination of Nico (Lodeiro) being in-form, Victor (Rodriguez) was back from injury, Chad (Marshall) and Kim (Kee-Hee) were playing extremely well in defense. The team was just on a roll and it all continued to go our way."
The West runs through Seattle. ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/0jq8bVaWbH
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) October 31, 2018
For the run to continue, the Sounders will have to go through a heated rival. The Timbers suffered their own downtick in form, coasting through the end of summer after all but sealing their spot with their own 15-game unbeaten run from April to August. Still, the Timbers had to go through the knockout round, and they did just that by knocking off FC Dallas in Frisco to book a Cascadia conference semifinal.
The Timbers will be without a key piece in Larrys Mabiala due to a knockout round red card and Liam Ridgewell and Diego Chara will be a yellow card away from earning a suspension after being booked in the 2-1 win over FCD.
But Roldan says he and the Sounders are wary. It's a rivalry match, one that ranks among the best in MLS. With the first leg at the always-intimidating Providence Park, Roldan says the Sounders need to be smart defensively in the opening leg while hoping to score a goal or two. But plans flip upside down quickly and, if Portland scores early, that whole mindset changes at the drop of a dime.
"I picture it as a cage match to be honest," Roldan said. "It's two teams that I wouldn't say are afraid to open up, but want to be smart defensively first and foremost. It might come down to set pieces or one mistake. These matches, especially this rivalry, will add so much heat of the moment, passion and emotion into the game.
"It's more of a coin-flip," he added. "It's two teams that match up extremely well together, that don't want to give the other team an inch. It can be anybody's game. we feel like we're hot, we're confident, but you go to Portland and with all the fans and the intensity, for all I know it can be an open game and they can score many goals. That's how good Portland can be at home. If we can contain that, we'll have a better shot at winning the series."
Fortunes change quickly in the playoffs, and no late season miracle can carry you all the way through. It's a lesson the Sounders learned in the past and put into practice in 2016 and 2017, winning their first MLS Cup in the former before falling to TFC in the latter. The question is now whether those lessons and the momentum from this run is enough for the club's run of incredible postseason success to continue.