If you look for a season opener to set the tone for a season, then Sunday was an ominous MLS debut for the Sounders.
On an inhospitable night of pouring rain and soggy offensive production, the Sounders fell 1-0 to Nashville SC at Lumen Field. And it looked at times as if they were playing in slow motion against a Nashville team that conjured a clever defensive game plan to stymie Seattle.
“It’s always frustrating to play a team like that,’’ Cristian Roldan said. “But at the same time, I don’t think we played fairly well. I felt we were lacking a little bit today.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who has touted the offensive potential of this team — and then watched them crush F.C. Motagua 5-0 just three days earlier in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament — felt the same.
But Schmetzer also added some important perspective. Namely, that the tone of a season as long and arduous as the MLS’s is most definitely not set on opening day. Or even in the opening month, which will be a particularly challenging stretch for the Sounders in which they intersperse Champions League games with MLS while trying to integrate key new players like Albert Rusnak.
“The way I framed it for this team was, yes, it is early,” Schmetzer said. “Yes, we are disappointed. You need to feel that. You hate to lose, OK. But there’s no reason for us to panic. We have a tremendous team. We are a proud franchise. There’s been a lot of good home openers, some bad ones. We will get through this. You know, it’s not the end of the world. There’s lots of other people that are having other issues.”
The Sounders demonstrated last year that it is far more important to peak at the end of the season than at the beginning. They had a 13-game unbeaten streak at the outset of the year and didn’t suffer their first MLS loss until July, which seemed to put them on a straight path back to the MLS Cup.
But beset by key injuries, they closed out the 2021 regular season with six straight loses in which they scored just five goals — and then were unceremoniously knocked out of the playoffs in the opening round by Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks after a scoreless game. At home, to add to the insult.
Schmetzer said immediately after the playoff game that the loss would fuel the Sounders, and they are still operating under that theory. Sunday’s game notwithstanding, there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be — or at least couldn’t be — an offensive juggernaut.
You can point to many extenuating circumstances Sunday. They had “more miles under their belt” than Nashville, as goalie Stefan Frei put it, by virtue of their Champions League games. The absence of Raul Ruidiaz from a hamstring injury was an obvious detriment to the offense. And the driving rainstorm served to muck up the pace of the game, though perhaps not as much as Nashville’s pressure.
But that didn’t fully explain the sluggish nature of Seattle’s offensive attack. Only after Nashville finally broke through with a goal in the 80th minute by Anibal Godoy did the Sounders seem to play with urgency. But by that time, it was too late.
While noting the personnel issues — Ruidiaz’s absence, and Joao Paulo still working himself into the mix after a late arrival — Schmetzer was most alarmed by the pace of play. Or lack of it.
“We’ve got some moving parts,’’ he said. “I don’t think we’re quite in sync. So how we figure that out will be a work in progress. The specifics to that for tonight, in my opinion, were I didn’t think we created enough tempo. The game was slow.”
Schmetzer added, “What I would say is that for us, it’s always more challenging and difficult to create things than it is to destroy things.”
The Sounders under Schmetzer have done far more creating than destroying, making it to four MLS Cup finals and winning two of them. This team has the personnel to make a run at another championship once the work in progress becomes a finished product. And the immediate goal, Schmetzer said, will be to play faster.
Frei pointed out that every year is a completely new team, with all the challenges of learning to work together as a unit.
“Hopefully, you can do it during the preseason, but it’s a darn difficult thing to do,’’ he said. “So there’s going to be moments where you need to learn it the hard way, and maybe today was one of those.”
The Sounders hope it’s a lesson to build from, and not an omen of things to come.