TUKWILA — To use Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s metaphor of cars when looking at MLS players and teams, the Sounders FC are a clunker rolling into his L.A. Galaxy’s parking lot.
Ibrahimovic, a star forward challenging for league MVP, told ESPN in a July interview his talents are “like a Ferrari among Fiats. And it can happen that the Ferrari can become a Fiat, or the Fiat can become the Ferrari.”
The 37-year-old Swede has since moved to third in MLS goals scored (18) and has the Galaxy sitting third in the Western Conference standings. L.A. hosts Seattle at Dignity Health Sports Complex in Carson, Calif., on Saturday.
But instead of the Sounders (11-8-6) sporting their flashy, goal-scoring prowess ahead of the matchup, the team’s defense has been poor. Seattle has conceded three goals in each of its past three games, resulting in two losses and a draw.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer hopes Friday’s tuneup at the team’s Starfire Sports training facility in Tukwila fixes the performance. And when Ibrahimovic, before a nationally televised ESPN audience, kicks the tires, the Sounders won’t fall apart.
“Some of you guys might count us out,” Schmetzer said. “We’ve got some tough games coming up. We get it. We’re realistic about things. But this team is not going to quit. So, we are not Fiats.”
The Galaxy (13-11-1, 40 points) is only a point ahead of the Sounders in the conference. It’s the benefit of Seattle’s franchise-record six-game unbeaten streak to open the season. The Sounders have recently played like their fifth-place standing, however. Schmetzer has used six different center backs this season, three new to the club.
While defense is a team effort that begins with immediate pressure on the ball when possession is lost, a center back has a singular focus — defend. There have been missteps and miscommunication due to the inconsistent lineups.
“It’s not easy to bring new guys into the fold,” said Schmetzer, whose lineup had to adjust to Chad Marshall’s forced retirement in May due to a knee injury and veteran Roman Torres serving a 10-game suspension beginning this month due to a banned substance.
In a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, the Sounders used a formation that featured Jonathan Campbell, Xavier Arreaga and Saad Abdul-Salaam on the back line. They have a combined nine MLS starts with the Sounders at the position, Abdul-Salaam having the most league experience at five seasons.
Arreaga and Campbell were signed this year.
“We’re dealing with it,” Schmetzer continued. “What I saw out of the center backs was better (against RSL), although the score line didn’t show that. I don’t fault them for two out of the three goals.”
Arreaga, 24, is a rising Ecuadorian defender who was thrust into the rotation sooner than expected. He’s a mainstay now with Kim Kee-hee, who missed Wednesday’s loss due to yellow-card accumulation.
“I’m adjusting OK, and I feel good,” said Arreaga as translated from Spanish. “I feel like I’m getting the confidence from the coaches, and every game I just to give my best to the team.
“There have been moments where our concentration wasn’t good, and that has cost us a lot of points. … The important thing is we have a good team and we can turn the page at any time and find some good result for us. But we have to have the back line together.”
The Sounders are running short on time to reignite their play, with nine matches remaining in the regular season. And just five points separate eighth-place FC Dallas (36 points), the final playoff seed, from the coveted second-place slot, which means home-field advantage through the conference semifinals.
Minnesota (12-8-5, 41 points) currently holds the No. 2 position.
“This is a game where we have to be real careful,” Arreaga said of the back line. “We know that the rival (Galaxy) is extremely good with their counterattack. It’s a game where we have to be concentrated and don’t have any errors.”