A storybook ending of surprise and euphoria has given way to the long, hard slog of a full campaign as defending champion.
Ten games into the 2017 season, the Seattle Sounders have won just twice. They have scored 15 goals and conceded 16, a remarkably similar balance to their totals of 44 goals and 43 goals, respectively, of 2016 when they won eight of their last 13 games to finish 14-14-6, then reeled off a run of victories that included the MLS Cup final.
After 10 games last year, they were 4-5-1 with 10 goals scored and 12 conceded. So, a few more goals scored and conceded, and three fewer points with a 2-4-4 record as compared to 4-5-1. A year ago, rookie Jordan Morris had scored in four straight games after being blanked in his first five pro appearances. Defender Roman Torres was still rehabbing a serious knee injury suffered in September of 2015.
In May 2017, Morris has scored just two goals in 10 games and Torres -- suspended for a game in March and sidelined by a strained hamstring suffered in April -- hasn’t been able to solidify a back line hit often by injuries and international callups.
Clint Dempsey has scored four goals and shows no ill effects of his long layoff due to an irregular heartbeat, and though the numbers for Nicolas Lodeiro are solid -- three goals, four assists -- he’s not been the dominant figure that earned him Newcomer of the Year honors.
“People didn’t know what Lodeiro was about, so they’re making adjustments to that,” says former U.S. keeper Kasey Keller, a native of Washington state who ended his playing career in MLS with the Sounders and works on their TV broadcasts. “People are making adjustments to Jordan Morris, who’s also a little banged up and not at full speed. Ramon Torres had a big motivation coming back from injury and played a big part, and he hasn’t quite got up to full speed yet.”
Photo courtesy of Seattle Sounders
It’s all made a short honeymoon for head coach Brian Schmetzer, who engineered last year’s remarkable run as Sigi Schmid’s replacement, and this season has watched
perplexing performances like the 4-1 thumping by Chicago last weekend. Injuries on the back line prompted Schmetzer to use midfielder Cristian Roldan at right back and pair Tony
Alfaro in the middle with Chad Marshall, who had missed three games with lower back pain; Chicago scored three of its four goals from close range and had several other attempts stopped
by keeper Stefan Frei.
“Being unsettled on the back line has been a challenge for us,” said Schmetzer after a 1-1 tie in San Jose April 14 that produced a great volley by Lodeiro and a last-second Quakes’ equalizer. “Last year we won the championship not just because of Lodeiro and Jordan Morris and stuff like that, but we played good team defense. We were a good defensive team.
“This year we’ve kind of lost our way a little bit. We’ve had some good performances and we’ve had some not-so-good performances. It hasn’t been just one guy, it’s been kind of across the board. Not having the same back four for more than two games in a row has certainly hurt us.”
What has also hurt the Sounders are teams formulating game plans specifically to stop Morris and Lodeiro, and simply matching the intensity opponents ramp up against the defending champion. San Jose equalized after Sounders sub Alvaro Fernandez lost a duel with Darwin Ceren, whose sharp pass sparked a sequence that Chris Wondolowski capped with a goal.
Schmetzer refused to blame Fernandez and cited several other players as contributors to the breakdown, but he did admit the challenge faced by the MLS Cup holder is a strong one that recurs in every game.
“I said that to them during preseason in the lead up to the Houston game, but that first 45 minutes in Houston, that’s when it finally got through to them,” said Schmetzer of a Dynamo blitzkrieg that produced a 2-1 victory. The Sounders were outshot, 15-2, in the first half. “They were fired up. New coach [Wilmer Cabrera] for them, opening game at their home, they took it to us that first 45 minutes.”
Schmetzer knows the burdens imposed by success. He won two titles with the USL Sounders after taking over as head coach in 2002, and accepted an assistant’s role when the team hired Schmid for its 2009 entry into MLS. No signs of resentment or jealously were seen from Schmetzer, a Seattle native who played for the Sounders in the old NASL after signing with them out of high school in 1980.
“In this case I know Brian was extremely loyal to Sigi and supported him from day one,” says Keller, who has talked often with Schmetzer about managing personalities and situations on a daily basis as the ultimate arbiter. “It’s interesting for someone like Brian who had spent so much time as the No. 1 guy, to then take that role and then relish his opportunity to be the head coach again. I’ve heard from multiple players that it’s a good locker room and Brian has done a good job of getting everybody on the same page, which is nice.
“Now it’s a question of getting everybody on the same page on the field, where you have a target on your back 34 times [a season] and people are starting to figure things out.”
The Sounders wear the target again Wednesday at Sporting Kansas City, where Schmid’s tenure ended after a 3-0 SKC rout nearly 10 months ago. Seattle has conceded eight goals in its last three games and the back-line issues persist: the hamstring strain is still bothering Torres, Marshall had some rough moments in Chicago, and Joevin Jones -- team leader in assists with five -- is suspended. On the plus side, Brad Evans came on as a late sub Saturday for his first minutes of the season and defender Jordy Delem is coming off a suspension he served in that game.
The short-term schedule is crowded. The game against Chicago was the first of six in 23 days, a brutal stretch typical of those in MLS that strain the roster and coaching staff. Team president Adrian Hanauer has confirmed the team plans to be active in the next transfer window that opens in early July, but there are a lot of points on offer before the big signings can begin.
“They know they have cap space and I think there will be moves coming in during the summer window,” says Keller. “It was one of those anomalies in MLS that we’ve seen multiple times. You can be playing really poorly and sneak into the playoffs and carry that momentum to a championship.
“I’m proud of what he was able to do. Obviously, it’s a different learning curve now and I’m interested to see where he takes it after a slow start to the season.”