Seattle didn’t exactly take flight Saturday night, but Clint Dempsey did raise up high enough to nod home Andreas Ivanschitz’s 79th-minute corner kick for the game’s only goal.
Before Saturday night’s home match against the Montreal Impact, Sounders midfielder Aaron Kovar had started only two Major League Soccer games, and even then only when the team was stripped bare by injuries and international call-ups last summer.
Of all of Seattle’s lineup changes for the game, from Clint Dempsey moving into the midfield to Jordan Morris starting on the bench, Kovar’s inclusion was probably the most surprising. Saturday’s match wasn’t quite a must-win — the only must-wins are elimination playoff games, coach Sigi Schmid sagely noted this week — but was certainly a better-not-lose.
Kovar took a different approach to the opportunity of finally getting some run next to veteran teammates.
“There was nothing to lose,” Kovar said. “When there’s nothing to lose, you come out flying.”
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Seattle didn’t exactly take flight Saturday night, but Dempsey did raise up high enough to nod home Andreas Ivanschitz’s 79th-minute corner kick for the game’s only goal. And the Sounders picked up their first win of 2016, 1-0 over the Impact in front of 39,705 at CenturyLink Field.
The round number in front of Seattle’s record had become a millstone around the team’s collective neck. With no points from three previous matches, it sat alone in Major League Soccer’s basement entering the weekend.
“It hasn’t been an easy situation for any of us,” Ivanschitz said. “We’re the Seattle Sounders and we’re supposed to win games. We’re a great team. It was hard for us to walk off the field with no points, week after week. That’s always hard.”
The lineup changes reflected both the attrition of the international window and the urgency with which the Sounders approached the match. Joevin Jones arrived later than expected from Trinidad & Tobago’s pair of World Cup qualifiers, and while Morris is healthy, Schmid cautioned this week that the letdown of failing to qualify for the Olympic Games with the U.S. U-23 team had taken a toll.
Dempsey’s move into central midfield was more tactical, a way to get the team’s most dangerous player more consistently involved.
“Whatever position allows me to get touches in the attacking third, that’s the position I like the most,” Dempsey said.
Schmid insisted that the change in approach wasn’t too drastic, even if, in practice, his squad lined up in something more like a 4-2-3-1 than the 4-3-3 they’d drilled on all preseason. Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan shielded the back line and Dempsey lined up directly behind lone forward Nelson Valdez.
Ivanschitz said the instruction to both him and Dempsey was simple: “That we play free.”
For the lofty rhetoric and lineup tweaks, the match followed a predictable pattern: plenty of ball control, occasionally intricate passing patterns and very few legitimate scoring opportunities.
The Sounders dominated the first half once again, managing almost 60 percent of the possession and rocking the Impact back on its heels from the start. But they could not turn that control into goals. They managed only two shots on target all night — and the bright start gradually slowed to a crawl.
“Sometimes when you’re in a little bit of a bad run like we were in the first three games and things aren’t going your way, sometimes the first one that goes your way is a little bit of a squeaky bum one,” Schmid said.
The goal came through another set play, meaning Seattle has scored just once from open play all season.
“We get a little excited,” Dempsey said. “We’re trying really hard, and you can’t fault our effort as a team. At the same time, maybe we could be a little bit more patient, bringing the ball back when it’s not on, keeping the ball in their half, making them have to defend, making them step to players then playing the ball into spaces.
“We’re still getting used to each other. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to play. But it comes from confidence, too. We were on a little bit of a slide. It was good to finally get that win, and I think you’ll start to see the boys get a little bit more confident.”