Any question of how Sounders FC won its second MLS Cup last season is excusable after the first 45 minutes of the club’s league opener Sunday afternoon.
All the pageantry of a championship celebration was rolled out for the crowd of 40,126 at CenturyLink Field — including the unveiling of the title banner the majority of the same people saw won in November.
Then the match against the Chicago Fire started and a newcomer might have asked, “This is your champion?”
Once forward Jordan Morris was substituted into the game in the 46th minute, the Sounders regained that aura of a champion.
The Mercer Island native scored in the 62nd minute and in stoppage time for a 2-1 Sounders win.
“That’s the goal, always,” Morris said of trying to be the magic his team needed in the second half.
The result was an escape from a four-day stretch where more was expected of the Sounders. The club spent the offseason building and training for a deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Sounders lost the series to CD Olimpia on Thursday and dropped out in the Round of 16. A good showing in the MLS opener was a small consolation.
“I heard people will talk about us in a negative way because all of the other teams have gone through,” Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said of the tournament where the other four MLS clubs advanced to the quarterfinals. “That’s why this win is so important, to get confidence in the group. That we still have it.”
The offside flag was the hero of the opening half for the Sounders.
Chicago had two shots that sent Sounders keeper Stefan Frei to dig the ball out of the back of the net with the referee waving off the goals.
Sounders midfielder Miguel Ibarra had back-to-back chances at point-blank range in the 23rd and 24th minutes that missed.
The Fire scored its goal seconds into the second half. Robert Beric, a designated player signed in January, sent a right-footed attempt past a sliding Leerdam, who was going for the block, and a lunging Frei.
“If I’m being a little critical, I don’t like giving up the first goal,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “I told them (players) in there after the game we’ve got to be a team – plenty of positives from this game – but be a team that’s hard to score on. That (goal) to me was a little too easy.”
Chicago’s 1-0 lead was briefly saved by an offside call on Seattle. But Morris followed up the nullified assist to Cristian Roldan with an unquestionable attempt with his right foot minutes later.
Morris’ brace was a header in stoppage time off a corner kick from Joao Paulo, the Sounders’ designated player signed in January.
“He’s dangerous,” Roldan said of Morris. “He’ll always get one or two, three chances in a game and that’s great to see from a winger. Wingers don’t get such clear opportunities like that in a game and the fact he’s (getting) those is pretty good to see. It’s constant. It’s every game.”
Morris didn’t start because Schmetzer was being conservative with his lineup due to the short turnaround from Thursday’s loss. Morris played 84 minutes against Olimpia.
Schmetzer placed Ibarra in at left wing for Morris and Joevin Jones shifted over to left fullback in place of Nouhou. Roldan played on the right wing with Danny Leyva picked to start at center midfield.
New signee Shane O’Neill lined up a center back because Colombian defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade, who was signed in February, arrived in Seattle on Saturday after complications obtaining his U.S. P1 Visa.
The Sounders were also without Nico Lodeiro (hamstring), Gustav Svensson (calf) and Will Bruin (ACL) due to injuries. Svensson and Bruin could make their season debut when the Sounders host Columbus on Saturday.
“Missing players, short rest, it’s part of it, but it’s disappointing and unacceptable to start slow,” Roldan said. “This team is very talented and capable of establishing the tempo and really taking it to teams. Especially at home.”
Proudly waving without controversy in the south end of CenturyLink Field was the Iron Front flag. The symbol — three arrows pointed Southwest inside a circle — is widely regarded as anti-fascist and is also emblematic of a victory for MLS supporters groups.
MLS banned displaying the Iron Front in its stadiums based on a previous revision of the fan code of conduct that proclaimed the flag political.
Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC, Portland’s Timbers Army and the Independent Supporters Council, which represents fans for numerous North American men’s and women’s soccer leagues, worked with MLS to seek changes to the code throughout the offseason after getting the original ban lifted in September.
MLS rolled out its updated fan code of conduct in February. All of the supporters groups demands were met, including removing “political” from its conduct policies.
“This new language is a significant, positive step in the relationship between the fans and the league they support,” Bailey Brown, president of the Independent Supporters Council, said in a released statement. “We want to thank the MLS officials for consulting with the ISC in developing this language for 2020 and beyond, and we’re looking forward to continuing our dialogue on the interactions between fans, teams, players and the league.”