A lax attitude and failure to play together have contributed to the Seattle Sounders starting an MLS-worst 0-3-1.
This is supposed to be the year the Seattle Sounders finally make a serious MLS Cup run.
So far, Seattle is the only winless team in the league after a franchise-worst 0-3-1 start.
The Sounders are 1-5-2 in all competitions, when including the CONCACAF Champions League, but their one win came against a 10-man opponent and the two ties felt like losses — one resulted in CCL elimination and the other came on a heartbreaking last-minute equalizer by rival Portland at home.
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Seattle has been shut out in half of its games and sits alone in last place for the first time in five seasons.
So what is wrong? And is the shine starting to fade on a franchise that burst onto the MLS scene in 2009 as an immediate winner in front of sellout crowds?
Well, one problem isn’t a false sense of reality.
“We know what our position is in league; we’re not stupid,” said coach Sigi Schmid. “We can read the papers and we can look at the standings.”
The main issues this season have been twofold.
The Sounders have been unable to keep a full group together in games — or even practice — due to players being injured, out of shape or with their respective national teams. This is especially significant after a number of offseason changes, including the departures of the team’s top-paid forward (Fredy Montero), midfielder (Christian Tiffert) and defender (Jeff Parke) from last year. Cohesion, as a result, has been late arriving.
The other, perhaps more alarming concern has been a laissez-faire attitude at times that Schmid likened to a “disease” after a March 30 loss at Real Salt Lake. Such issues have included lapses in concentration, overconfidence due to a talent-laden roster, and a general lack of effort, though Seattle showed signs of improvement there in a recent CCL semifinal against Mexico’s Santos Laguna.
When did this all start?
One Sounder points to a strong 4-1-1 preseason, including a sweep of the Desert Diamond Cup tournament against all-MLS competition.
“We thought we were cruising,” said goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, a veteran of the U.S. men’s national team and English Premier League.
Then international call-ups hit. Injuries, too.
In mid-March, the Sounders lost forwards Eddie Johnson (USA) and Obafemi Martins (Nigeria), and midfielder Mario Martinez (Honduras) to their respective national teams for World Cup qualifying.
Johnson (toe/hamstring) and Martins (knee) have also had health issues since returning. Others on the mend have included Patrick Ianni (foot), Brad Evans (calf), Shalrie Joseph (fitness/calf), David Estrada (eye).
Being short-handed in some games hurt, of course, but more important was being unable to get a feel for each other on the field, particularly newcomers like Martins and Joseph.
Johnson called the lack of practice time together “frustrating” but “a good challenge.”
“I think each team hits a certain spell during the year when they face adversity — ours is right now,” the forward added. “We’re confident within every individual that we have in this organization that things are going to get right. … I’ll face our team up against any team (in the league).”
The Sounders were close to full strength in that game at RSL, and fans were bursting with excitement to see Johnson and Martins start together for the first time.
Seattle, instead, had a shamefully disappointing effort — especially in the first half — that led to a closed-door team meeting in the locker room after the loss.
“I think the talent on our team is such that sometimes maybe we think that our talent is going to get away with it, and the hard work will come only when we need it,” said midfielder Brad Evans. “Unfortunately the game requires 90 minutes of work.”
Added midfielder Steve Zakuani: “On paper, yeah, it’s a good team, but the paper doesn’t play. You have to play the games.”
So far there hasn’t been a tangible sign of frustration within the fan base.
Are the grumblings getting louder? Sure. But Seattle still leads MLS in average attendance at 39,574, and with plans to open up all of CenturyLink Field for four regular-season games, the Sounders will likely break their record of 43,144 fans per game.
“The last thing we’re doing is panicking,” Zakuani said. “It’s a long season, and we have too much quality in this group, too much belief in this organization to stay where we are.”