Surprise and euphoria give way to the long, hard slog for Seattle Sounders

By Ridge Mahoney

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.”

9 comments about "Surprise and euphoria give way to the long, hard slog for Seattle Sounders".
  1. John Soares, May 17, 2017 at 12:37 p.m.

    True the defense has had some injury difficulties...BUT, that could be resolved, to great extent if more goals were being scored forcing opponents to stay back/defend more. Where is the promised DP, Valdez replacement? Another solid/premier mid could make the difference

  2. Nick Daverese, May 17, 2017 at 3:07 p.m.

    I agree defense can be resolved, but not by the attack scoring more goals. Defense is all about hard work by the whole team before and after they lose the ball. That is what it takes, and trying to counter right after the teams wins the ball.

    My son used to work in Seattle. I never been there does it really rain all the time? His sales people seem to be content with making 70 thousand base pass. When they could make 4 times back with commissions on new sales. Plus I heard they got a high suicide rate? You know they hire New York City cops for their police force right out of the academy. NYC cops start in the high 30 thousand dollar range. Seattle starting pay for cops is around 70 thousand. So they relocate there.

  3. Paul Cox, May 18, 2017 at 8:28 a.m.

    that's the most random Sounders comment of all time

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now, May 18, 2017 at 10:02 a.m.

    This highlights the problem with the MLS playoff format. Too many teams make it and there is very little advantage given to teams with better regular season records. As a result a team can win MLS cup just by getting hot and/or lucky for a few weeks. This is a very average team that has no business calling itself "champions."

  5. Rusty Welch, May 18, 2017 at 11:43 a.m.

    FPGN -
    Hold your horses there, hoss. This team has a deep, talented roster. We won the supporters shield just a few years ago, so consider last year payback for that one if you must. I tend to agree with you that the playoffs aren't necessary, but as long as there's no relegation fights going on we need something to see - and watching the best teams in the league play each other should be a showcase (and will be when the league improves as it is slowly and despite having TERRIBLE refs). Point is, since we don't have relegation fights to keep teams fighting all the way, if we didn't have the playoffs a lot of teams would be on early vacation and the games towards the end of the year wouldn't be quite so entertaining.
    This Sounders team will find their groove - they are passing a lot better out of the back and working on improving movement and control - it takes time, though. I'm willing to suffer through some hard times to see the result of a better style of play. You don't start playing like Barcelona overnight (or when you have Alvaro Fernandes in the lineup). Give them time - they ARE deep, and keep finding great young talent (Alfaro, Joevin Jones, Roldan).
    Whatever your thoughts - just like Presidents Obama and Trump were/are every American's president(s), like it or not SEATTLE SOUNDERS ARE MLS CHAMPIONS!!!!!
    Now that felt good.

  6. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, May 18, 2017 at 4:40 p.m.

    I admit they are champions under the current flawed system but I don't see we essentially have to hand out the title of champions randomly just because we don't have pro/rel. The 2014 Sounders actually were very good but the 2016-17 is pretty average and we a year and a half worth of games to confirm this. Personally I think winning the supporters shield is much harder and a much bigger accomplishment.

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now, May 18, 2017 at 4:43 p.m.

    How about this playoff format instead? 6 teams from each conference still make it and we still start with the one game "play-ins" to get down to four teams in each conference. The next stage is a group stage where the four remaining teams in each conference play each other once but every game is hosted by the higher seed. In other words, the team with the best record gets all three games at home, the second best records gets two of the three at home and so on. Then the two group winners meet in the final at the home of the finalist with the most points, just like now. There are still playoffs, still the same number of teams involved but there is a real advantage for the top regular season teams.

  8. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, May 18, 2017 at 4:45 p.m.

    Plus it's the same number of playoff games so TV rights etc. wouldn't be impacted and it should take the same amount of time as the current system. Actually maybe less.

  9. I w Nowozeniuk, May 18, 2017 at 5:59 p.m.

    With injuries to the defense, time for the Sounder players to deliver extra punishment on the opponent's stars. Thuggery is half punished in the MLS. Coaches are aware which referees swallow the whistle, especially in the first half.

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