Welcome to soccer’s longest halftime.
The Sounders FC opened their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series with a 3-1 win against New York City FC on Wednesday at Lumen Field. The sides will retreat to their trainings in preparation for the decisive second leg at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey on April 13.
It’s the first semifinal featuring two MLS clubs playing each other. The league did its teams a solid by rescheduling matches slated for this weekend to later dates in order to focus on the CCL. Either team will advance to their first Champions League final with the aim to become the first MLS club to win the regional tournament.
“We know it’s game-by-game, so we’re not getting ahead of ourselves too much,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said. “Our only focus now is the next game next Wednesday and what we can do to win that and move onto the final. We’d love to be the first (MLS) team to win the championship.”
Here’s what could be tweaked to ensure the Sounders advance:
On the left side
Have you noticed those loose balls off deflections from a shot at goal just hanging around? The poor clearances were often picked up by Sounders left back Jimmy Medranda and sent screaming back at goal.
Seattle’s missed that to open the season as Medranda recovered from a hamstring injury. He played his first minutes of the season Wednesday when he subbed on in the 84th minute for Morris.
Activity from the left side isn’t barren. Morris is a threat on the left wing and was on a tear against NYCFC with a goal and assist Wednesday. But when the crosses are coming from the right, there’s not much else going on.
Medranda worked well last season with Sounders defender Nouhou to balance the field. Both should be available next week, Nouhou missing the opening leg due to yellow card accumulation in CONCACAF competitions.
Whether it’s getting more production out of midfielder Kelyn Rowe or playmaker Albert Rusnak floating more to the left, the Sounders will hinder themselves if they continue to struggle to build plays from that side.
NYCFC’s goal also came from a slip-up defensively on the left.
“We could balance out the left side with the right side a little bit more,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We can get a little bit better in that part of our game. And we’ll work it. When Jimmy Medranda came on, he showed a couple of flashes.”
Not sure whose stat sheet NYCFC coach Ronny Deila was handed postgame Wednesday. When asked his assessment of his team, he replied “We had good control for 80-90 percent.”
None of the statistical numbers support the statement, even if you toss out the final score. Seattle possessed the ball 55.2% of the match, outshot the visitors 12-9, and held NYCFC to zero corner kicks. The Cityzens did outduel the Sounders 43-31, but nothing came of it.
The Sounders imposed themselves on the game instead of picking off balls for a counterattack, which is a great strategy for this roster. It should be repeated next week.
Schmetzer already mentioned wanting to win, so it’s highly unlikely the Sounders sit back defensively to keep NYCFC from scoring. The Cityzens’ direct route to the finals is a 2-0 result for a 3-3 aggregate scoring, the lone away goal being the tiebreaker.
Seattle stacking goals is a better tactic to block NYCFC from advancing. New York City could see the return of star midfielder Maxi Moralez (ribs) and defender Maxime Chanot (upper body), that could muck up the middle. But Seattle’s lethal attacking front will be rested and another week healthier, barring any training mishaps.
“You’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg there when guys are back to full health, and Raul (Ruidiaz) and Nico (Lodeiro’s) inclusion to the group that did some heavy lifting earlier,” said Schmetzer of Ruidiaz and Lodeiro missing the slate of games in March due to injuries/health and safety protocols. “There’s other people that have stepped up. But to have everybody now in place, I think you’re going to see a little bit of how this team is going to kind of build into what they are.”
But where is Raul
Ruidiaz is healthy, so naturally it’s time to start the clock on when the Peruvian international will score his first goal of the season. It has been five months since he’s buried one in the net — that includes the MLS offseason, a two-week international break and injury, of course.
Time on the field is likely the only problem. Of Ruidiaz’s four matches this season, his sole full 90 was the CCL Round of 16 opener against F.C. Motagua on Feb. 17. He played 87 minutes Wednesday and nearly had a golazo in the 73rd minute. The long-range shot was a touch too high.
The Sounders were unbeaten last season when Ruidiaz scored.
NYCFC’s home turf is Yankee Stadium. The baseball park doesn’t meet CONCACAF’s qualifications for matches, so that’s why the CCL second leg will be played at New York Red Bull’s namesake facility.
Seattle hasn’t played at the soccer-specific stadium since a 2-1 loss to NYRB in June 2018. Players likely will be pleased with the natural grass for what is basically a neutral site.
NYCFC is on a four-game losing streak across all competitions, so they need a win no matter where the match is played.
Morris debuted a new buzz-cut Wednesday. Does it have anything to do with the series? Well, a fresh hairdo usually shows importance and Morris may be drawing power from the look. He’s on the path to surpass his skillset pre-ACL tear a year ago. The U.S. international needs to keep it going because NYCFC will surely try to shut Morris down next week.
“I was just ready for something new,” Morris said. “I had that other haircut for a long time and was just ready to try something a little bit different. Kind of a reset on that. I think I’ve gotten 75/25 positive to negative, so. More positive, which is good.”
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