The Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls meet Sunday with the Major League Soccer Supporters’ Shield lead at stake.
It also is possible that a less glamorous goal will pass with relatively little fanfare. Seattle can become the first MLS team to clinch a spot in the playoffs if it wins and FC Dallas loses to Columbus and the San Jose Earthquakes lose to Chivas USA.
Whether the achievement comes Sunday or later, it would continue the Sounders’ run of five playoff appearances over their five seasons in MLS.
“It says a lot for the club and the organization for us to have started out well in our first year getting into the playoffs and then to stay there,” coach Sigi Schmid said Saturday. “I think it’s only us, L.A. and Salt Lake (to reach the playoffs every season since 2009). For us to do it as an expansion team, year in and year out, speaks for the consistency and the quality of the organization.”
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There were times this season when the road to playoff qualification demanded a pretty long climb up a pretty steep hill. After five games, Seattle was at the bottom of the Western Conference at 0-3-2. As recently as mid-August the Sounders were sixth in the West, where the top-five finishers qualify.
Yet, Schmid said he never doubted that his team was up to the task.
“I know there were a lot of people … who started to doubt a little bit,” he said. “But I think the group always believed in it; and for me, it’s something I always believed in as well.”
Since a 3-1 loss at Houston on Aug. 17, Schmid’s faith has been rewarded. The Sounders’ 5-0-1 run has left them one point behind Real Salt Lake for the conference lead, and they are one point back of the Supporters’ Shield-leading Red Bulls and RSL.
This marks the second time this month – and the third consecutive big game overall – the Sounders have played for the top of the MLS standings. They briefly moved to the summit with a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Sept. 13. Then, in the wake of a 1-1 draw at Los Angeles last weekend, the Sounders slipped a point behind the Red Bulls and RSL.
“Any time you play your Western rivals – the history with us and RSL, the history with us and the Galaxy – those teams always have a little bit of a bigger feel to it,” Schmid said. “We only end up playing New York once a year, and we haven’t really had a playoff series with them.
“It’s a big game because they’re in first place in their division. It’s the two division leaders playing each other.”
Supporters’ Shield is a major MLS trophy, and it would assure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs – including hosting rights for the MLS Cup final.
However, Schmid points out that fourth-place Los Angeles won the 2012 MLS Cup over fifth-place Houston; and that regular-season success traditionally does nothing to assure a postseason trophy.
That is why the Sounders have always listed playoff qualification as the crucial in-season step toward their goal of wining the MLS Cup.
“Now (we’re) being chased,” midfielder Brad Evans said. “As I said last week, now it’s how we perform at being at the top of the Western Conference standings. It’s how we do from here on out, how we handle that pressure. If you want to be a championship team, it’s having good results away from home, but it’s also taking care of business at home.”
NEW YORK RED BULLS (15-9-6; 51 POINTS) AT SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (15-8-5; 50)
6 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: ESPN. Radio: 97.3-FM, 99.3-FM (Spanish).
Head to head: The Sounders lead 3-2-2 overall and 2-1 in Seattle.
Notes: This is a pairing of two of the top teams in the MLS points race. … The availability of Sounders designated player Clint Dempsey (hamstring) and defender Leo Gonzalez (groin) are game-time decisions. New York goals (9) and assists (8) leader Thierry Henry and 2010 MLS defender of the year Jamison Olave did not travel, at least in part due to the FieldTurf surface. … Seattle would become the first MLS team to clinch a playoff spot with a win, combined with an FC Dallas loss to Columbus and a San Jose loss to Chivas USA. … New York has won four straight games, while the Sounders have a league-high six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1). Seattle also has a 13-game unbeaten streak (9-1-3) at home, while the Red Bulls are 5-7-3 on the road. … Seattle defender Zach Scott is out while serving a one-game red-card suspension. Defenders Djimi Traore and Gonzalez are one caution away from one-game suspensions for accumulation. … The referee is Kevin Stott.
Quotable: “A team that’s probably going to play it a little bit close to the vest in terms of making it difficult for us to break them down. Maybe they come out in more of a 4-5-1 type of formation, more than a 4-4-2. But a team that’s very confident right now, has been playing well, and has been getting results.” – Sounders coach Sigi Schmid on the Red Bulls.
Next: The Sounders visit the Colorado Rapids at 7 p.m. Saturday.