The Sounders this season have largely given away bragging rights to having the league's toughest home fortress in CenturyLink Field, with places like Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta now laying claim to that throne. But for the Sounders to salvage their season, they'll have to practically win out at home.
It used to be that Major League Soccer teams would be glad to get out of CenturyLink Field alive.
Nowadays, with the Sounders having already lost four times there this year compared to once last season, frontrunning Atlanta United FC and their Mercedes Benz Stadium make a compelling case for the new home fortress title. Hence, the reason Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer admittedly rolled the dice Sunday in settling for a lone road point at Atlanta rather than going for three late.
That’s no small decision: his Sounders now likely need to average more than two points per game over the final 16 matches to make the playoffs.
But Schmetzer figured his revamping squad, despite its CenturyLink struggles, was more likely to reel off some three-point efforts in upcoming home contests than a road win against an Atlanta team that spent the second half bombarding his shorthanded side. So, once right back Jordan McCrary was ejected in the 63rdminute for a second yellow card, Schmetzer nixed his plan to insert Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz for some late offense in favor of hanging on for dear life.
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“I read some of the stuff and I know that everybody wanted to see Ruidiaz out on the field,’’ Schmetzer said Tuesday, as the Sounders trained ahead of Saturday’s home match against Vancouver. “And we would have loved … had he come on and scored a winning goal against Atlanta. But obviously, the game didn’t dictate that.’’
Instead, Schmetzer’s playing for the draw dictated that the Sounders now must win nearly all of their remaining home games to have a realistic playoff chance. In Schmetzer’s mind, the team’s 2-5-3 play on the road has been largely good enough; including taking five of a possible nine points the past three games.
It’s the 2-4-2 mark at CenturyLink that he feels has nearly done the Sounders in. And that, he adds, must change immediately.
One senses irritation around the Sounders when it comes to the constant comparisons between their highly successful 2009 franchise launch and that of the Arthur Blank-owned Atlanta side last season. It’s been pointed out numerous times already that Atlanta last year bested the Sounders’ single-game and season records for attendance.
On Sunday, United eclipsed their own single-game attendance record by drawing 72,243. Not all the Atlanta fans, many taking to social media, were thrilled with the Sounders and what they viewed as stall tactics to escape with their lone point intact.
A whopping seven minutes of stoppage time was added to the game’s conclusion. Asked about it Tuesday, Schmetzer suggested the Atlanta faithful have some things to learn yet.
“What I would say is that they are a good franchise,’’ he said. “They have done a lot of good things. They should be happy to cheer their team on. Throwing shade on opponents, that’s where you can, sometimes, cross a line.’’
Schmetzer added: “There’s good competition between the two franchises. They obviously think they’ve gotten the better of us, but look – we won an Open Cup trophy our first year in existence. We actually won some trophies in our first year, they did not.”
Zinger delivered, Schmetzer now must focus on salvaging his team’s current season. The first attempt comes against a Whitecaps squad nine points ahead of the Sounders in the Western Conference standings.
Lose that contest and the Sounders are pretty much toast. Not only because of the resulting 12-point gap with the Whitecaps, but also since the Los Angeles Galaxy are already 11 points up on the Sounders while the Houston Dynamo are in front by nine in the race for the final playoff spot.
At some stage, the number of teams to overcome significant gaps with becomes too many.
The Sounders will have midfielder Gustav Svensson back for more than just a handful of minutes this time around. Svensson admitted to feeling mentally drained after his quarterfinal loss playing for Sweden at the World Cup, but said Tuesday he’s ready to move on.
“It’s my job,’’ he said. “I have to be professional.’’
And the Sounders need him on the field.
Osvaldo Alonso has not looked the same since his return from injury and Svensson would be a defensive midfield upgrade. As with forward Clint Dempsey, who the team says has been dealing with an ongoing groin issue, the Sounders must quickly figure out which players can continue as starters given there’s almost no margin for error left.
Ruidiaz will likely be the starting forward Saturday. Whether the Sounders leave him as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation – or go with Dempsey or Will Bruin as a second forward up top – will largely be dictated by performance.
“Obviously, we needed him,’’ Svensson said of Ruidiaz. “We needed somebody who can score a lot of goals. Hopefully, he can do that for us. If he starts doing that, it’s going to be easier for us.’’
As will winning every home game they can from here on out.