Sounders hungry for fast start, MLS Cup title

Seattle is primed for another run at a championship with a mostly unchanged team from last season.

  • By Geoff Baker The Seattle Times
  • Friday, March 1, 2019 6:47pm
  • SportsSounders

By Geoff Baker / The Seattle Times

TUKWILA — To anyone not paying close attention, the latest offseason of inactivity for the Seattle Sounders on the surface might have appeared eerily similar to the one preceding it.

A year ago, they waited much of the winter before signing defender Kim Kee-hee and midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem to go with the lone prior addition of reserve left back Waylon Francis — to the consternation of an antsy fan base convinced the team had been badly exposed in losing the 2017 MLS Cup final to Toronto.

This time around, the Sounders, who open Saturday night at CenturyLink Field against expansion FC Cincinnati, made even fewer moves. And yet, the same sense of foreboding isn’t there anymore despite the team’s winless preseason. A record second-half finish to 2018, augmented by midsummer signings, has bolstered hopes the Sounders are already powerful enough to shed their early woes of the prior three campaigns and contend for a second Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup championship.

Changing the early season narrative will be key to those goals given a compacted schedule in which the league’s overall competitive balance might be weaker than in some time. Outside a handful of contenders in each conference, the remaining field’s talent drop-off could be steep — especially in the West — given coaching changes and roster overhauls. So, an opportunistic contender might pile up victories quickly.

“I think, obviously, we started off the last couple of years a little bit slow,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said. “And so we want to change that routine a little bit. We’re a very good team and especially coming out at home the first two games, we want to get six points out of those games. No pressure, but we’re ready to start a little bit better this year.”

Anything less than Sounders victories in two opening home contests against what’s expected to be a poor Cincinnati team and a rebuilding Colorado squad would be hugely disappointing.

Looking at the schedule, it’s not inconceivable to envision the Sounders starting 5-0. After all, they finished 2018 by winning 14 of 16 before being upset in a thrilling Western Conference semifinal by a Portland squad that lost the MLS Cup championship to Atlanta United FC.

Then, again, as Morris alluded, the Sounders since the start of 2016 have gone just 1-7-2 in March and 13-25-10 in games before the month of July. Repeat that and hopes of an 11th consecutive playoff appearance will likely be dashed by the condensed schedule.

The Sounders reach their season’s halfway point by early June and will be two-thirds done come mid-July. So, striking quickly is paramount.

“In the end, we’re at home,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said of the first two games. “It’s more about us. It’s more about playing our game, scoring many goals and playing compact defensively.”

After those initial two matches come road games against rebuilding Chicago and Vancouver followed by a home contest versus more formidable Real Salt Lake. In fact, the Sounders only face two Eastern Conference opponents their first dozen games.

The Sounders coaching staff is aware of how many winnable games are out there early on. That’s one reason they’ve internally addressed the squad’s inability to finish off preseason contests — blowing a pair of 2-0 leads, including to San Jose last weekend with mainly their first team playing.

“When you’re up 2-0, I don’t care who I put out on the field, we need to hold leads,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said.

Particularly irksome, the Sounders had an immediate chance to go up 3-0 against San Jose after their second goal only to have Raul Ruidiaz fail to convert.

“That’s what we showed at film session,” Schmetzer said. “At 2-0, the game’s not over. At 3-0 the game’s over. But not at 2-0. And we need to continue to play and try to score that third goal.”

The Sounders certainly have the firepower to win their opening five contests — and arguably the two following at Colorado and at home against Toronto — to set the pace as Supporters’ Shield front-runners. Peruvian forward Ruidiaz scored 10 goals in 14 regular season appearances last year and three more in two playoff games, freeing space for attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro to set a club record with 16 assists.

“I used last year for learning about the other teams and about the (playoff) tournament because it was very difficult,” Ruidiaz said, through an interpreter. “And to get used to our own team as well. So I expect that with all that knowledge this coming year is going to be even better.”

The Sounders are also coming off their biggest winter rest since before the 2014 season, when, incidentally, they won their previous Supporters’ Shield for having the league’s top record.

They are far healthier than a year ago when forced into CONCACAF Champions League matches in February that taxed a lineup already precarious from a minimal six-week offseason. Worth noting: Toronto FC — barely a year removed from being touted as the league’s greatest squad ever — has been a shell of its 2017 MLS Cup champion self since pushing Chivas of Guadalajara to penalty kicks in the Champions League finals last spring.

Toronto wound up missing the MLS playoffs, but the Sounders were still standing at the end and came within a hair of reaching their third straight conference final.

Now, a healthy Morris rejoins them and should amplify the space for Lodeiro and the playmaking Victor Rodriguez, also recovered from the leg issue that sidelined him in last season’s opening months.

“I’m great,” said Rodriguez, who scored twice in the preseason finale. “I’m ready to go. I want to start, and we think we are ready to start.”

Even Lodeiro dealt with two foot injuries the first few months of 2018, meaning the Sounders open with the equivalent of four elite level offensive players that weren’t completely around 12 months ago.

The defense, albeit a year older, is the deepest in years and had Stefan Frei contend for 2018 Goalkeeper of the Year and Chad Marshall for Defender of the Year. The flanks should be bolstered with right back Kelvin Leerdam having improved a nagging ankle issue and Brad Smith being around to start at left back.

Of course, the Sounders could still benefit from summer additions. GM Garth Lagerwey seemed to nix importing another designated player, but don’t rule out targeted allocation money additions for the defensive midfield and on the wing.

The Sounders could use another central midfielder after Osvaldo Alonso’s departure, providing the option of bumping Roldan up to the wing again if needed. The condensed schedule means durability could factor — especially with oft-injured Morris and Rodriguez — and having additional elite midfielders eliminates a season being threatened by either going down.

Other than aging former captain Alonso signing with Minnesota United FC, the starting lineup and coaching staff is almost entirely back for this retry with little upheaval.

“The team is the same with just a couple of new players we have to mix in,” Rodriguez said. “We kept going with (coaches) Brian (Schmetzer), and Gonzo (Pineda) and Djimi (Traore) and we’ve tried to improve on little things.”

The Sounders jettisoned left back Francis, unhappy with his playing time behind Smith and Nouhou. Worth keeping an eye on is veteran center back Roman Torres, also frustrated with playing time late last season and unlikely to surpass Marshall or Kim.

Some of that angst, as with Nouhou playing behind Smith, could be eased initially by midweek games forcing some squad rotation. But it’s what happens apart from those weeks, when talented players see the bench longer than they’d like, that could truly test Schmetzer’s locker room.

The Sounders compiled 42 second half points in 2018, showing they’re capable of surpassing the 64 by their franchise-best 2014 squad over a full campaign. Do that and the odds of the Sounders matching their 2016 MLS Cup title increase exponentially given a changed single-elimination playoff format that guarantees only home playoff games for top seeds.

Finishing first overall means a clear home route through the championship round. The Sounders won’t necessarily have to be better than Atlanta, the New York sides, or D.C. United to win another title: Merely take advantage of a potentially soft conference and run up points early to secure home playoff dates throughout.

Few teams have been able to beat the Sounders at home under Schmetzer’s reign. They’ve gone 32-6-9 in MLS play at CenturyLink Field, including playoffs, since he replaced the late Sigi Schmid in July 2016.

Take care of business early on, and the Sounders could very well be hoisting multiple trophies.

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