Clint Dempsey, sidelined nearly three weeks ago to have an irregular heartbeat diagnosed and treated, returned to training Wednesday. Defender Zach Scott, a 15-year member of the club dating back to its USL days, announced his retirement Thursday.
Fortunately for head coach Brian Schmetzer and his players, the focus Friday will be on Vancouver, which like Seattle desperately needs points to edge into the playoff tier. The ‘Caps have compiled 34 points in 29 games, the Sounders are two points back and have two games in hand. They meet Saturday afternoon at CenturyLink Field. (Cascadia Cup rival Portland is sixth with 38 points.)
“These are always about bragging rights,” Schmetzer told soundersfc.com. “Playoffs are No. 1, but a millimeter underneath that is Vancouver and Portland. It’s all I should have to say."
Thanks to the midseason arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro and the return to fitness of Roman Torres, the Sounders look potent up front and stable in the back. In a 1-1 tie with San Jose last weekend they fell behind when a terrible misplay by right back Tyrone Mears set up a Chris Wondolowski goal but a great free kick by Lodeiro earned them a point. In just seven games, Lodeiro has scored three goals and logged six assists.
“Nico can always change a game, no matter what,” says Mears, who has started 58 games for Seattle since coming aboard last year. “The spirit’s really good and we’re going to need that from now until the end of the season.”
Despite posting a 3-1-3 (W-L-T) record since head coach Sigi Schmid was fired and replaced by Schmetzer July 26, Seattle is still a longshot to continue its remarkable run of playoff appearances since joining MLS in 2009. A three-game winning streak in August has given way to three games without a win (one loss, two ties).
The Quakes didn’t generate much offense aside from that goal, though Osvaldo Alonso cleared a ball off the Sounders' goal line, and Quakes substitute Chad Barrett misfired on an excellent opportunity in the final minutes On a soft field, the Sounders at first tried to bypass the conditions by playing long balls but after falling behind got back to the principles preached by Schmetzer since he took command.
“That’s when we’re a good team,” says Mears. “I think we’ve got a lot of good players with quality who can possess the ball. We’ve got to use that the best we can. When we go side to side, it creates space in the middle for Nico and Jordan [Morris] to get it to feet, rather than chasing balls in behind.”
Yet Morris set up a great chance for Andreas Ivanschitz when played in behind the back line to confront keeper David Bingham. Morris held the ball a second, then cut it back diagonally for Ivanschitz, who blazed a first-time shot over the bar from about six yards out. Substitute Alvaro Fernandez also missed the target from close range. Lodeiro’s bouncing bender that beat Bingham redeemed those misses.
After spending most of his rookie season learning to play with Dempsey, Morris had a few weeks to play with both players, and now is being paired up top with Lodeiro as Dempsey comes back into the picture. The Stanford product and U.S. international is learning on the job with a seasoned veteran honed by nearly a decade of pro experience.
“I think we meshed pretty early,” says Morris of the Uruguayan international. “The first day he got here he said, ‘I’m going to look for you, make those runs.’ He puts great balls out there so it’s been a lot of fun playing with him.”
“His timing is great, the weight of the ball’s great, where he puts it is awesome, so he’s very good.”
Captain Brad Evans stayed behind last weekend to nurse a leg injury. He’s expected to be available to face the Whitecaps, which means either a change in midfield or the benching of Mears so Evans can play right back. Torres fought through a few shaky moments that were to be expected of someone making his first competitive start in nearly a year. Torres suffered a torn ACL against the Quakes Sept. 12, 2015, in just his fourth MLS start.
Torres played the centerback slot inside of Mears, and floated wide when the English League veteran pressed into the middle third to add some attacking punch. After inadvertently setting up the Quakes’ goal, Mears got down the right flank to center a dangerous ball across the goal area that neither Morris nor Lodeiro could put away. As Torres regains fitness, whoever lines up at right back can take more opportunities to get into the attack.
“He’s a natural leader, an international player,” says Mears. “He has a lot of experience. He just feels safe and when I have him playing next to me, I know the center forward’s going to have a tough time. One-v-one defending and in the air, he’s very good.
“He’s good with his feet. He’s not scared of getting the ball and when I go high, that creates space for him to carry the ball forward. He’s a natural ball-playing centerback and a very strong one, so it’s great to have him back.”
Looming over CenturyLink Field are clouds of doubt regarding the long-term. Does Schmetzer stay on if the Sounders make the playoffs? Does he get the boot if they don’t? Is Dempsey’s condition manageable? Will Schmid’s dismissal be the start of a major housecleaning?
As with the other distractions dropped into his lap, Schmetzer has little choice but to ignore them and stay on message. “There’s so many positives with our team, but at the end of the day we have to get results,” he said. “We still need to figure out how to manufacture three-point games.”