Perhaps it is, in fact, an Icaran year for the Seattle Sounders. Perhaps they want too much to be the MLS champion, to host the finals in their ample stadium, to finally move past being nearly the contender. Last year, they were one finger from the finals, the second finger on their defender Adam Johannson that was nicked for a penalty kick by the LA Galaxy's natural villain Robbie Keane.
In the off-season, Johansson was waived and returned to Sweden and will start for the Swedish National Team in the World Cup 2014. The Sounders used that money and more to buy some expensive players: their forward Obafemi Martins, the Premier League defender Djimi Traore and eventually, the prize of all, Clint Dempsey, the Premier League's American star. That acquisition spree was very ambitious. Was it flying too close to the sun?
As the fates often will have it, there has not been a moment this season that these new players have even been on the field together, and it will take some good fortune, the ephemeral kind, to ever see them play together. Dempsey arrived not yet in condition and now has a separated shoulder. Traore and Martins have both been out with leg injuries and now even Eddie Johnson, the Sounders' best and most brutal scorer, has a hamstring injury.
Three weeks ago, the Sounders were in position to be the top team in the league, in every sense, and to ensure home field advantage for the entire playoffs. But after losing to the Portland Timbers last Sunday, 1-0, they are now in third place and could even be left out of any playoffs at all.
They left a lot of money at home when they travelled down to Portland; Traore and Johnson and Martins did not even dress for the game. It is all a little skewed, the regular season, especially in pre-World Cup years. The U.S. Men's National Team is hurtling towards its placement and can call up any soul it wants, as can the National Teams of every other country. The MLS is a considerable force but it is a junior exec to the World Cup.
Portland was missing players as well, their fine defenders Rodney Wallace and Ryan Johnson. In Portland, football is soccer and the added fuel of at least some American football loonies makes their fans a handful. Even Portland citizens give the Timber Army a wide berth. They are narrow and nasty.
Seattle had lost two games in a row coming into Sunday's match: 5-1 to Salt Lake and 4-1 to Vancouver. The scores were so lopsided that Portland was not sure which Sounders team would show up: a dying franchise or a proud veteran. The Sounders are in a weird slot. The size and success of their stadium is so out of scale to the rest of the league that they are easy to resent and a great pleasure to beat.
That's why the Sounders have to be good. And if the whole team ever gets to play together, they might be. But for the moment, Portland lived up to its own reputation for blue collar hard work and sincerity. Fans unfurled a banner at the start of the game that read: "Money Can't Buy You Love". Then the team came out in a fury, thinking perhaps they could finish the task of pounding Seattle into a final humility.
But it was a fine evening for the Sounders, even with a 1-0 loss and more perilous roads ahead. They benched their Number 1 keeper Michael Gspurning and replaced him with the veteran Marcus Hahneman, a Seattle native, who knows all about the long simmering Seattle/Portland enmities. It was a sorrow to watch the proud Gspurning do only perfunctory warm ups but it was a time for him to heal. There was no real way to know whetherf the Sounders were about to concoct their third true mess in a row, and Gspurning did not need more of that.
Instead, the Sounders played their best soccer, even with so many absent stars and should have twice tied the game. No matter, really, they got what they came for: Facing a Timber team dying to kill them, on a Sunday night in the Willamette, they recovered the grit and sense they seem to have been out of for nearly a month. And if they make the playoffs, they will know, with absolute certainty, that their best speed is full pitch and that is enough to get it done.
They do need to tinker a little on defense. And now that they have Leo Gonzalez back on the left, they can. Gonzalez, a subtle player some aficionados call their favorite, simply makes some things appear normal. Early on against the Timbers, who love to press and harass, Gonzalez sweetly dribbled between the legs of his attacker, three times, to move upfield. Once is usually enough to send the message, but three times, that is a true underlining. There is a part of true soccer that pursues the elegant and hates the manic.
Gonzalez also allows the other Seattle defenders to be themselves. Jhon Hurtado, for example, a very proud man, has dedicated his life to defending the goal. No one gets into the vault. But he is only adequate as a ballhandler and several times in the past three weeks, when Gonzalez was not playing, Hurtado was passed the ball when there was little he could do. And that seemed to freeze his game.
Three years ago, in the Sounder Stadium, the LA Galaxy let Hurtado bring the ball upfield, well over the midfield line, then struck behind him. And this year, when Hurtado has been in trouble, it has always been a case of being too far forward. Gonzalez, with his humor, his grace, his impassioned pleas, somehow that seems to make particular sense to the Seattle defense. On Sunday night, Portland had no success down their favorite right side of the pitch.
The Sounders play Saturday in Dallas, a team out of the playoffs. They will not have Ozzie Oswaldo, who played with more passion than sense on Sunday, drawing a red card for elbowing the Timbers Will Johnson, a notorious tormentor. But none of that will matter if the Sounders make the playoffs. They will not have the home field advantage they could have used, but fury and a little desire for revenge should be theirs. And perhaps a couple of their famous players, as well.