Rock bottom for the Seattle Sounders came at the end of July.
Two days after their miserable performance against Sporting Kansas City on July 24 resulted in a 3-0 loss, the Sounders parted ways with longtime boss Sigi Schmid, who led the club to four U.S. Open Cups and the 2014 Supporters' Shield.
“Initially it’s tough," Sounders defender Chad Marshall told Bleacher Report in a phone conversation. "Sigi was a huge part of this club. He was the only head coach they had since coming into MLS. He was a big part of the success and won a bunch of trophies. It was sad to see him go. I know how much he cared for the club and wanted us to do well."
Since Schmid left the club and Brian Schmetzer took over as interim boss, the Sounders have won seven, drawn four and lost just one match to move into fourth place in the Western Conference. Schmetzer, who was an assistant under Schmid, brought a new approach to training that motivated everyone from the start.
"When Schmetzer took over, he instilled his philosophies and how he wanted things to work," Marshall said. "Training instantly became more demanding, more physical, and I think that’s raised the level of players."
"We call them work days," Marshall said. "Every day is a work day so you know you’re going to be working out on the field and it’s going to be taxing, but you know it’s going to make you better in the long run."
"From the beginning, he’s been about that, playing both sides of the ball and really just being motivating and caring about the team overall," Marshall continued. "He’s come in and done a great job getting results. It’s a credit to him and the attention to detail he brings every day."
Marshall credited Schmetzer's insistence on playing both sides of the ball as one of the key improvements that has led the Sounders to the cusp of a playoff berth after being left for dead in July.
"Schmetzer has been good about getting good effort from all the guys on both sides of the field," Marshall said. "I think maybe that wasn’t something that was harped on at the beginning of the year, but guys are definitely bringing it on both sides of the field, which I think has helped us sure up the defensive side and not leaking goals and getting results."
The 32-year-old center back, who is in his third year with the Sounders, has been a part of a back line that's conceded 13 goals in the 12 games Schmetzer's been in charge for. Four of those tallies came in a loss to the Portland Timbers on August 28.
Marshall received the September Player of the Month award for Seattle's superb form as they rose up the Western Conference standings.
"I’m happy to accept it, but I know it’s a team award," Marshall said. "There’s a bunch of guys on our team deserving of that honor."
The extra commitment from the players in front of the back four has tightened up a defense that is only going to get better as Panama international Roman Torres gets more minutes under his belt.
"Getting Roman was a big thing," Marshall said. "He’s been huge for us in the back."
Since Torres returned to the starting XI on September 10, the Sounders have let in four goals over six matches. The club's latest clean sheet came on Wednesday night at home against the Houston Dynamo. Unfortunately for the Sounders, they were unable to lock up a playoff spot since the match ended 0-0.
“I think everyone’s still optimistic," Marshall said. "Obviously we know we missed out on an opportunity (Wednesday) night. It would’ve been nice to clinch a playoff berth last night at home, but spirits are still high."
"Guys are disappointed, but we’re not down ourselves," the center back said. "We still have two games left. There’s points out there to get so hopefully we can keep our form going and get that playoff berth."
The other key reason why the Sounders have surged up to fourth is the play of summer transfer Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguayan entered MLS on a tear as he contributed to at least one goal in eight of his first nine starts.
"We made some good acquisitions in getting Nico and Alvaro (Fernadnez) in," Marshall said. "Nico’s been huge for us in connecting the midfield and the forward line and getting guys involved in creating chances."
Lodeiro's playmaking ability has boosted the goalscoring of rookie Jordan Morris, who is now the focal point of the attack after Clint Dempsey was ruled out for the rest of the season with a heart condition.
Although MLS carries its own postseason idiosyncrasies that Lodeiro and Morris haven't experienced firsthand, Marshall's confident their big-game experience on the international level will help them thrive throughout the remainder of the 2016 campaign.
“I think they get it," Marshall said. "Nico’s played in huge games. He played in World Cup qualifying in South America. That’s intense. Jordan’s been in that world too. They know how big it is."
The rest of the squad is also aware of the intensity of the playoff race since the Sounders have been treating each match like an elimination contest since Schmetzer took the reins.
"To be honest, every game’s been like a playoff game given the position we were in earlier this year," Marshall said. "We needed to go on the run we’ve been on to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs. We’ve looked at it like every game is a playoff game. I think guys are ready."
The Sounders will approach Sunday's trip to FC Dallas and the home finale against RSL on October 23 with an increased intensity from the one they've been playing with due to the enormity of the situation.
"We know we still have two games and we need to get points," Marshall said. "Who knows what’s going to happen below us and where everyone’s going to finish up two weeks from now. We have to keep our form going and try to get as many points as possible."
“It’s that time of year," Marshall said. "Points are crucial for everyone. Even though Dallas has clinched a spot, I think they’re super pumped and want to win the Supporters’ Shield so they’re going to come out the same way as if they were fighting for a playoff spot."
"We know they’re going to be tough games," Marshall continued. "Every game is a tough game in MLS and we kind of went through the same situation last year where we had to get a win on the last day against Salt Lake."
"We’re familiar with the pressure. We know it’s going to be tough and they’re going to be grind out games I’m sure We just have to make sure we’re tuned in and focused and bring the right mentality to the games."
Since the Sounders have been playing with an increased sense of urgency for three months now, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them make a deep run in the playoffs.
In a league known for the unexpected, the Sounders winning MLS Cup on December 10 after being given a death sentence in July would still come as a shock to many.
MLS Cup is a long way from Sunday, and even if the Sounders miss out once again on the ultimate goal, a new foundation has been set for success to continue in the Pacific Northwest for years to come under a new regime.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.