HOUSTON — The Seattle Sounders often say the next game is the most important one.
They said it again Saturday after a 3-1 loss at Houston. But this time the sentiment had extra meaning. The Sounders’ next game clearly stands out as special: a Sunday visit from the arch-rival Portland Timbers that will be played before a national television audience and a standing-room crowd of around 67,000 at CenturyLink Field.
“We’ve just got to keep working hard,” said designated player Clint Dempsey, who got his first start with the Sounders in Houston. “The next game is always the most important game. You’ve got to pick yourself up. We’ve got to maximize our points from here on out. We want to make sure that we make the playoffs. If you don’t make the playoffs, then you can’t push for the MLS Cup.”
The loss dropped Seattle (10-8-4) to sixth place in the MLS Western Conference, two points behind Vancouver for the fifth and final playoff spot, although with two games in hand.
The Sounders returned home Sunday and get Monday off before turning their attention to preparations for the Timbers starting Tuesday.
The club is expected to be joined once again by two key players missing against the Dynamo: forwards Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson.
Martins was excused to tend to family business while recovering from a left ankle sprain, while Johnson served a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation. Midfielder Brad Evans was limited to 28 minutes after playing three days earlier with the U.S. national team.
“We’re going to be happy to go back home,” Schmid said. “We’ve got a little break. Make sure that guys are healthy. Obviously Oba should be back (this) week. Eddie is off of his suspension. Brad Evans doesn’t have a midweek national team game that he’s got to play. Right there is three guys that are normal starters for us who should help us.”
With Martins and Johnson unavailable Saturday, Schmid paired Dempsey and Lamar Neagle at forward. At midfield, he gave Shalrie Joseph his first start in more than a month, and Joseph responded with Seattle’s lone goal.
“The group did all right,” Schmid said. “Our issue for us a little bit was when Dempsey dropped into the hole to collect the ball, (Midfielders Mauro Rosales and Marc Burch) maybe weren’t offensive enough to push up on the flanks to give us another option. Lamar was sometimes stranded on his own, so having an extra forward up there obviously could’ve made a difference.”
Dempsey said he benefitted physically from playing 90 minutes. But he said the absence of key teammates slows the process of getting familiar with each other.
“You have to work on things and see what your best rhythm is going to be,” Dempsey said. “When you have injuries or suspensions it always makes these things more difficult. It was good to get 90 minutes, I’m still trying to catch form and get caught up to speed. Everybody’s midseason now, where I’ve been off for a while. But I’m feeling good where I’m at, and hopefully I just keep getting better and better.”Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer @donruiztnt