TUKWILA — Before mental health was thrust back into international headlines by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles this week, a shift was noticed among the Sounders FC players.
This season has been a whirlwind for the Sounders. An MLS-record unbeaten streak to open the season, including a record stretch of not being scored on in the run of play, overshadowed key players dropping out of the rotation for injuries, international call-ups or suspensions. The team just kept succeeding.
A fissure was spotted July 18 when Seattle conceded a goal in the 81st minute, losing 1-0 at Minnesota to end the 13-match unbeaten streak. The breaking point was a 3-1 defeat against Sporting Kansas City at Lumen Field on Sunday. The team was stretched to its limit.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer shared in his postgame interview that he was giving the team two days off for a “mental break.” Biles announced Tuesday she was withdrawing from the team gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Games to focus on her mental health.
“Last week was a very difficult week,” Sounders keeper Stefan Cleveland said of the stretch that included a victory at Austin with five teenagers in the starting lineup. “It’s always good to get away from the game. If you stay locked into the game too much, it’s easy to get caught up into too many details and things like that. Getting away, having other hobbies, stepping out is vital for mental health. … Being able to perform at your highest level takes a clear mind. So that was really important for us.”
Cleveland said he took time to get out of the city and walk in nature.
He added: “For somebody on (Biles’) platform to come out and talk about it and (NBA player) Kevin Love a few years ago, they’ve gone through some very difficult things, and everybody goes through difficult things, I think their purpose is to make others comfortable in talking about mental health. Because it’s not an uncommon thing by any means. The more people are comfortable with it, the more they’re going to work through it.”
Midfielder Jimmy Medranda appreciated time to just rest, hitting a milestone in playing a full 90 minutes in the Minnesota defeat — a first since 2019 due to injuries. Other players spent time with their families, with Raul Ruidiaz, Fredy Montero and Alex Roldan also celebrating birthdays this week.
Schmetzer contended Friday, playing-wise, that the team is “firmly past” the Kansas City defeat. The Sounders (9-2-5) meet the San Jose Earthquakes (3-7-5) on Saturday at Lumen Field.
“You get a feel for what your athletes are thinking and going through,” Schmetzer said. “They get physically tired. Sometimes you can measure that based on their performances. But it’s harder to know your players, understand your players on the mental side of things. … They need days off. A lot of them have families, kids, so they need time with their families. So you’ve just got to try to find the right balance.”
The Sounders don’t employ a sports psychologist. The late Sigi Schmid paid attention to his players’ mental health while coaching the club from 2009-16. And Schmetzer, who succeeded Schmid, said his staff has been intentional about monitoring the mental health of the team through conversations and watching body language.
Schmetzer and center back Shane O’Neill are looking forward to how the reset translates to the match Saturday. San Jose is known for its man-marking defense and wants to make games physical. The Quakes also will want to redeem a 1-0 defeat against the Sounders in May.
Seattle still is dealing with the strain of injuries, however. Forward Will Bruin is expected to play Saturday after undergoing surgery July 2 to repair a torn meniscus. But center back AB Cissoko isn’t expected to be available because of tendinitis.
Cissoko replaced Nouhou in the starting lineup the past eight games, the latter still out because of an adductor injury. The Sounders remain without defender Jordy Delem (knee), winger Jordan Morris (knee), midfielder Nico Lodeiro (knee) and keeper Stefan Frei (blood clots).
Midfielder Cristian Roldan was called up to compete for the U.S. men’s national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Stars and Stripes play Mexico in the championship match Sunday.
“(Nouhou’s injury) is the toughest one for us to solve,” Schmetzer said. “The nature of the injuries, who the injuries are, the amount of injuries — it’s been by far the most since 2009.”
Another reason rest can be the best practice.
Correction: This story’s been updated to reflect that the Sounders lost 3-1 to Sporting Kansas City, not 2-1 as originally reported.