From long-shot playoff candidates who began August on the fringe to finalists for the MLS Cup, the Sounders have built a case for most improbable comeback by a Seattle sports team.
But while he’s preparing the Sounders for the league championship game next weekend at Toronto, coach Brian Schmetzer is reluctant to pinpoint where his guys rank in the big picture.
“There’s many experts who’ve been on the Seattle sports scene longer than I have that would know the history,” he said Friday. “You guys can determine that.”
Thanks, Brian. Challenge accepted.
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As somebody who has covered sports in this area for a while, I’d rank the Sounders late-season revival more surprising than the 1977 Washington Huskies, who rallied from a 1-3 start and ended up upsetting Michigan in the Rose Bowl. It’s also more surprising than the 1992 SuperSonics sudden improvement from an 18-18 mediocrity under K.C. Jones to a 47-35 playoff team under George Karl.
Another comeback worth noting was in 1983, when the Seahawks’ record stood at 7-7 with two games to play. They ended up in the AFC championship game.
And then, of course, there are the 1995 Mariners, who on Aug. 23 were under .500, trailing the first-place Angels by 11 1/2 games. I suspect you’re familiar with the rest of that story.
Just as the Mariners’ late-season push was triggered by a solitary moment during a six-month grind — Ken Griffey Jr.’s decisive home run in the Kingdome off Yankees closer John Wetteland — the date of the Sounders’ turnaround is identifiable: Sunday, July 31, when they outplayed the L.A. Galaxy at CenturyLink Field.
Although Seattle was forced to settle for a 1-1 tie — an outcome Schmetzer likened to “vanilla” — a lot of dynamics converged that day, beginning with the debut of the coach who’d been assigned the job on an interim basis.
Schmetzer had replaced Sigi Schmid, who was unable to arouse the Sounders from a skid that had found them winning twice in 11 games. The coaching change coincided with the acquisition of Nicolas Lodeiro, the human lightning rod from Uruguay, and the inevitable maturation of rookie striker Jordan Morris.
“We played better,” Schmetzer recalled. “It was Nico’s first game and we were getting all the pieces together. There were some good moments.”
A week later, as the visitors against an Orlando team with a 17-game unbeaten streak at home, there were more good moments in a Sounders victory that seemed more lopsided than the 3-1 score. Clint Dempsey finished with a hat trick, thanks to set-ups-go-to-the-veteran passes from Morris and Lodeiro.
“In that game, we played some of our best soccer,” said Schmetzer. “It was exciting. They were fired up. Jordy was going and Nico was there and Dempsey was scoring. That was a game where the team played at a really high level.
“I was talking to Clint about that the other day. He’s part of this team. He was part of that spark to get us on a roll,” continued Schmetzer, whose challenge to keep the Sounders on a roll was complicated by the irregular-heartbeat issues that have kept Dempsey sidelined through the playoffs.
The ’95 Mariners also lost an irreplacable offensive force, when Griffey broke his wrist barreling into the outfield wall in late May. But when a healthy Griffey returned for the stretch, it was as if the club had pulled off a no-cost trade for the most talented player of his generation.
The Sounders’ sustained postseason run without Dempsey, perhaps the most talented player in American soccer history, underscores the magnitude of their accomplishment.
Still, Schmetzer speaks about the turnaround in a tone of melancholy reflection. The Sounders are headed for an MLS Cup showdown without the coach who shepherded them into the league.
“We started off the season not great. I was involved in that with Sigi,” Schmetzer said. “We were in that office early in the season, trying to do what we could, as a staff, to fix it. It just didn’t happen. I guess that’s life. Sigi always used to say, ‘You’re hired to get fired.’
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, so it makes it a lot more emotional, with the depth of the valley and the mountain. It’s definitely more emotional.”
Where this ride ranks among the gallant comeback efforts of Seattle sports teams is open for debate, but remember: The final loop of the roller coaster has yet to be taken.
If the Sounders prevail on a freezing night near the shore of Lake Ontario, without Clint Dempsey, I’d rate it No. 1.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath