SEATTLE -- Brian Schmetzer's most pressing concern this past offseason was about what the head coach described this week as a "leadership vacuum." Mere hours after winning last year's MLS Cup, his Sounders parted ways with a host of veterans like Nelson Valdez, Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Tyrone Mears, Herculez Gomez and Zach Scott.
Not all of them played starring roles in Seattle's title run, but each had been popular within the locker room. They were strong voices willing to share opinions honed over long careers.
Schmetzer speaks often about the importance of a winning culture, and he credited that intangible for the Sounders' turning around last season, for soldiering on through a coaching change and after Clint Dempsey was diagnosed with a heart condition.
Who would step up in those guys' stead?
Some of that answer was found internally. Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro has only gotten more comfortable during his first full season as a Sounder. The defense is stocked with big personalities: Roman Torres, Chad Marshall, Stefan Frei. Having Dempsey back healthy and effective helps, too.
With Seattle on the verge of a second straight MLS Cup final appearance -- up 2-0 ahead of the home leg of its Western Conference final against Houston (Thursday, at 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) -- credit is also due to the way general manager Garth Lagerwey has ably restocked the roster with what Schmetzer gushingly calls "team guys."
Will Bruin is not the most stylish of forwards, but he netted 11 goals during the regular season and added another against his former team in the first leg. The smiley 28-year-old has been a positive force when it comes to team chemistry as well, his good vibes radiating outward. Midseason acquisitions Kelvin Leerdam and Victor Rodriguez each arrived from Europe with plenty of big-game chops.
And then there's Gustav Svensson, who has been perhaps the unsung hero of Seattle's season and whose experience has been emblematic of the club's recent run of success.
Svensson arrived in the Pacific Northwest in late January from Guangzhou R&F of the Chinese Super League. Neither he nor the Sounders knew quite what to expect from one another: Schmetzer referred to him as a "pleasant surprise" on Monday, and Svensson had all but given up on ever returning to the Swedish national team fold given his preconceived notions of Major League Soccer.
His signing was something of a flier. Svensson had had some good years in far-flung locales like Turkey and Ukraine, but he was about to turn 30 and had spent a year mostly off the radar in Asia. Yet with Guangzhou picking up the lion's share of Svensson's salary -- and at the recommendation of Friberg, a former Swedish international himself -- the risk/reward was favorable.
His versatility proved invaluable almost immediately. With first-choice right back Brad Evans having tweaked his calf while with the U.S. national team, Svensson filled in, beginning a yearlong habit of slotting into holes that popped up all over the field. With Torres out for most of April and May, Svensson deputized at center back. As Osvaldo Alonso has been hobbled down the stretch, he's finally gotten some run at his preferred spot in the midfield.
"Center mid is my position, and Brian knows that, as well," Svensson said, a slight dig at his coach delivered with a smile.
Svensson might grumble, but he hasn't looked out of his element no matter where he's been deployed. And that attribute has been especially vital down the stretch as injuries have piled up. His presence has allowed Seattle to avoid the same fate that befell rival Portland in the previous round against Houston, done in by a few too many knocks.
"He's played probably more positions than he would like," Schmetzer said. "But he's a team guy. I asked Nico [Lodeiro] the same thing, dropping back for a few of those games. That's just what team guys do. That speaks volumes about the guys that I mentioned. They all do whatever it takes to help the team win."
Svensson's efforts attracted attention in some unanticipated places. Under coach Janne Andersson, he was called back into Sweden's national team, seeing action in the dramatic second leg at San Siro as the Blagult stunned Italy in the playoffs to earn a World Cup berth.
He has found a natural fit here: "Seattle is very similar, to be honest, to a Scandinavian city," like Gothenburg, where he grew up, Svensson said.
Friberg gave him the full rundown, like which suburbs to gravitate toward and which daycare would be the best fit for his young son. The Sounders are a tight-knit crew, too, yet given the turnover, welcoming to newcomers.
"It's very easy to be a part of the group," Svensson said. "Schmetzer is a guy who likes the team to be close. He thinks the locker room is really important. You can tell, in the way we play, and in the way we react as a group."
The results speak for themselves, with Seattle on the brink of another final, thanks in no small part to Svensson's seamless transition, as well as others like his own.