You can almost sense the confidence building with each win. Team chemistry, seemingly an issue in the past, has improved dramatically. And the new high-priced, high-profile superstar, after an early period of adjustment, is elevating his teammates as they all figure out how to succeed together.
That scenario certainly describes Robinson Cano and the Mariners, who improbably find themselves in strong playoff contention at the All-Star break.
But as the Seahawks prepare to open training camp next week, an occurrence sure to unleash renewed Super Bowl hysteria, the Sounders are emerging as a potential powerhouse in their own right.
In fact, it’s increasingly relevant to wonder if this is finally the year Sounders FC makes its mark in the postseason. That answer is far off in the distance — the MLS season goes practically until Christmas — but the long-term prognosis has rarely been more promising in Seattle’s six-season run.
That period has been marked by tremendous local support and some substantial regular-season success. But the Sounders have yet to advance to the MLS Cup, much to the growing impatience of their fans.
Last year, the feverish expectations spawned by Clint Dempsey’s acquisition in August were punctured by a flat finish. Amid whispers of internal discord, they won just one of their final 10 matches and were unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs by archrival Portland in the Western Conference semifinals.
Coach Sigi Schmid was retained, an open question for a while — but he needs this team to fulfill the promise it is now showing. An offseason roster purge, the most significant departure being that of Eddie Johnson, has resulted in a revamped squad in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Or so it seems.
In fact, midfielder Lamar Neagle, who attended Jefferson High School in Federal Way, sees a little bit of the Seahawks’ magic being instilled in the Sounders.
“Having that winning mentality, it’s something that rubs off,” he said. “They had the mentality of team first, and I think this year we definitely have that. It kind of shows with the players they picked up, and the kind of mentality we were going for this year. It’s definitely fed into that.”
The Sounders — with 12 wins, four losses and two draws, good for 38 points — have a healthy lead in the race for the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best overall record. With 16 MLS games remaining, they’ve scored a league-leading 35 goals and given up 24, the plus-11 goal differential topping MLS.
The Sounders have perhaps the best midfield they’ve ever had, with new additions Marco Pappa and Gonzalo Pineda augmenting holdovers Osvaldo Alonso — team MVP the past four seasons — and Brad Evans, who’s out with an injury.
Pappa and defender Jalil Anibaba, both acquired from Chicago in the offseason, have survived an adjustment period with increasingly effective results. Anibaba, in particular, has seen his participation increase after a rough game against Portland early in the season. Echoing Pete Carroll, Schmid talked of the fierce competition for playing time.
“We have a deep squad, so sometimes you fall to the back of the line,” he said. “You have to wait your turn. He (Anibaba) has always worked hard. That’s why he was ready when he got called upon.”
At the heart of the Sounders’ success is the marvelous rapport that has developed between Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. That forward combination is extremely difficult for opponents to thwart. Their affinity survived the extended absence of Dempsey (along with defender DeAndre Yedlin) to play for the U.S. in the World Cup.
Schmid is savoring the freelance aspect of Dempsey and Martins that appears to be guided by an unspoken bond.
“The beauty of the game of soccer, and the thing that has always attracted me to it, and keeps me loving it every day, is that there is that creativity, and there is that freelancing that’s there,” Schmid said. “And once the game begins, it’s not as structured as so many of the sports are in America. So being able to freelance like that and create is the beauty of the game.”
Schmid talked about the winning culture he has tried to demand, starting with the Sounders’ first exhibition game back in their inaugural 2009 season. He pointed to a moment in Tuesday’s training session, in advance of today’s friendly with Tottenham of the English Premier League, when a veteran corrected one of the younger players, who had misstated a strategic point.
“What happens is, they buy in and it gets passed down to the younger players,” he said. “Once you get it established, it’s easier to move on with it. It’s something you expect from your team … We want to establish that in our DNA now.”
So far, so good. But check back in December.