Seattle – The Seattle Sounders didn’t quite clinch an MLS playoff berth with their 3-2 win over Toronto FC on Saturday.
However, they did catch a ghostly rival: the expansion Sounders of 2009.
The Sounders’ latest win moved them to 12-9-6 on the season. That not only moves them to within striking distance of playoff qualification, but it matches their win total of last season with three games remaining.
That seemed almost inconceivable in mid-July, when the club stood at 4-8-4. And with Seattle 8-1-2 in its past 11 MLS matches, at least one Sounder raised a possibility that once would have seemed equally unthinkable: This team might be better than last year’s.
“To have lost once in the last (11 games and still not have clinched) the playoffs tells you how bad we must have been,” second-year midfielder Steve Zakuani said. “Something wasn’t working. And for some reason, somehow, we’ve managed to turn it around, and we’re kind of just playing in our zone. (Saturday) was a very, very, very good performance. It felt very mature. … I would say we’re a better team than last year just because we’re more mature, and we’ve thrown that sophomore jinx off for sure.”
This season’s most identifiable turning point may be the arrival of designated player Blaise Nkufo. The Sounders’ 8-1-2 MLS run began when he reported after duty with the Swiss World Cup team.
On Saturday, he extended his own personal sizzling streak to five goals in three games when he provided the one that pushed Seattle ahead to stay.
Toronto opened the scoring in the 16th minute, when Dwayne De Rosario fired just ahead of the charging James Riley and Jeff Parke, and beat goalkeeper Kasey Keller to the near post.
Seattle answered in the 21st minute, when Zakuani took a pass from Osvaldo Alonso alone at the top of the penalty area after beating an offside trap. Zakuani faked around Toronto keeper Stefan Frei and sent the ball into the open net.
The Sounders moved ahead four minutes later when Nathan Sturgis sent a free kick to the front of the keeper box, where Nkufo rose above the defense and headed the ball hard into the net.
Seattle put it away in the 59th minute, when Toronto’s Adrian Cann botched the clearance of a Zakuani cross. Sanna Nyassi scampered to the ball and knocked it home from just inside the top of the penalty area. It was his first MLS goal after a season – and even a first half – of multiple missed chances.
“It was exciting,” Nyassi said. “After the whole season of not scoring a goal, I finally get on the scoring sheet. … I should have scored at least two goals in the first half, but the composure wasn’t there.”
Toronto got the final goal on a Chad Barrett header in the 88th minute.
“We’re really proud of the way we came back after they scored the first goal,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “I was really happy with how we came back, to go up 2-1 at halftime. Once we were up 3-1, we wanted to make sure the fans stayed involved and stayed interested, so we decided to make it 3-2 there at the very end. Overall, I’m very pleased.”
The Sounders must quickly turn their attention to the goal of becoming the first MLS team to successfully defend a U.S. Open Cup title. They will meet Columbus in the final at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Qwest Field.
The Sounders return to MLS action Saturday with a visit to Kansas City, one of the last remaining clubs capable of displacing them in the playoff race.
“We talked about getting the last two home games – getting two wins, which would get us to 45 points,” Schmid said. “We’re at 42 now. We have the same amount of wins as last year. We’ve got more shutouts (12) than last year. So there are certain things, even with the bad run at the beginning of the year, that we’ve improved upon. And we need to continue to play well, and I thought at times today, we played some very good football.”