If you were to draw up a season-opening win for the Seattle Sounders, Friday’s couldn’t have been scripted any better.
A 4-0 dominance over fellow 2020 Western Conference finalist Minnesota was exactly what head coach Brian Schmetzer drew up.
But despite the convincing win, I found myself still scratching my head, trying to figure out what the 2021 version of the Sounders is really all about.
First, the good: despite a slow start to the game, the result was fantastic. The team trotted out their new formation: three on defense, five in the midfield, and two strikers. Normally Schmetzer prefers to play with just one striker and an attacking midfielder and outside wings involved in the offense. But the loss due to the injury of winger Jordan Morris and his speed and scoring prowess forces the head coach to adjust.
How do you add more offense after losing such a crucial piece from last season? The team recycled its all-time leading scorer in Fredy Montero, and with a healthy Will Bruin and lethal Raul Ruidiaz, the team now has an abundance of forwards.
It only makes sense to get at least two of them on the field at one time to try and fill the void left on the score sheet by Morris.
Friday night, Bruin and Ruidiaz got the call, but they were missing their playmaker in Nicolas Lodeiro, who is battling a quad injury. The slow start to the game had more to do with Lodeiro’s absence than with the new formation. When he is absent or even struggling when he is on the field, the Sounders suffer. Lodeiro can pull strings like no one else on the roster. 19-year-old, homegrown player Josh Atencio did an admirable job in relief, but he needs much, much more seasoning before anyone forgets Lodeiro.
The first half was sluggish while the Sounders struggled to connect passes as Lodeiro’s absence was evident. Minnesota, to their credit, pressed the home team high on the pitch and forced turnovers that prevented any rhythm from being established in the game. Ruidiaz missed a penalty kick in the 17th minute, which, honestly, was shocking. He said after the game that he couldn’t remember the last time he missed from that spot.
So the team trotted off the field at halftime, wondering if they had what it takes to turn around a 0-0 game. I certainly was questioning Schmetzer and his staff as the team looked tired and out of sorts most of the half, and it wasn’t just about the new formation. A team will always lack a little sharpness in the first game of the season, but this team looked nothing like last season’s Western Conference champions.
I coach high school soccer and never put too much weight into halftime speeches. I try to let the team talk about what they see on the field and offer a few things to think about and work on. Brian Schmetzer, on the other hand, is the king of halftime speeches. Probably “adjustments” is the right word. But he has an unusually high success rate on his team’s second-half results.
Friday night, he clearly chose the right words.
It took just four minutes into the second half for midfielder Joao Paulo to unleash the early front runner for goal of the year with a 30-yard volley that left every one of the 7,000 socially distanced fans, including me, stunned. Wow! Like soccer or not, look up that highlight. You won’t be disappointed—simply a great show of skill.
From there, it was a party as Ruidiaz scored twice, and Montero reopened his Sounder’s scoring account with a wonderful first-time volley to close out the contest.
Yes, it was just one game, but that second half was delightful. It featured great skill, passing, effort, and fun. If that continues, it could be another enthralling season.
However, for me, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. There was a great result, a fantastic way to start the season. But one glaring issue surfaced that I think, and hope, the Sounders will address in the coming weeks. Depth.
As I mentioned, Lodeiro was out with a quad injury, and Josh Atencio got the start in the center of the park and did just fine. He made the safe passes and accomplished some tackles but gave the ball away a few too many times. If he is the best replacement option in the midfield off the bench, that could spell trouble.
This season features many international competitions, which means the Sounders will be missing several team members playing for their national teams. Looking at the current bench (Kelyn Rowe, Jordy Delem, Ethan Dobbelaere, Danny Leva to name a few), no one puts fear in any opponent. Everyone on the sidelines right now is what my good friend calls “innings eaters.” Mainly, they are safe choices to fill minutes but don’t offer anything special. Where is that player who can come in and change a game? I don’t see that in this current version of the Sounders, and every team needs one or two of those players.
The starters on this team can hang with any team in the league. Despite missing some stalwarts from last season, the Sounders’ opening game was a delight. But with injuries a constant in this league and players leaving for their national teams, you have to have a deep and talented bench to succeed in Major League Soccer. Right now, depth is definitely a big issue for this team.
The Sounders have always had a knack for finding players in the midseason who can come in and change the direction of the team. Just look at who is on the roster now: Lodeiro, Paulo, and Ruidiaz. All came midseason and had an immediate impact. I’m not saying they need another all-star (although one wouldn’t hurt) but rather several players who can have a substantial impact when they come off the bench or when they have to fill in as starters.
The history is long with this team when they find those sorts of players. Can they do it again this season? I sure hope so.