TUKWILA — Disappointment from the Sounders’ early exit in CONCACAF Champions League play still lingered at the team’s training Thursday.
The club lost its Round of 16 series matchup against CD Olimpia last week, making the Honduran side the first in its country to advance in the knockout rounds of the regional tournament. The Sounders were the only of five MLS teams to not reach the quarterfinals.
“In regards to CONCACAF, we should be ashamed of that,” Sounders forward Raul Ruidiaz said, as translated from Spanish. “We had plans to advance and to continue to advance one step at a time, but everything happens for a reason. It’s not just because.”
The Sounders were able to respond with its MLS-opener win against Chicago on Sunday, with two goals from forward Jordan Morris — the winner in second-half stoppage time — to take the game 2-1.
With Champions League matches cleared from the calendar, the Sounders (1-0) have the ability to concentrate on MLS games. A singular focus last season — meaning no Champions League — helped Seattle string together a franchise-best six-match unbeaten streak to open league play. That performance countered a sluggish summer en route to winning MLS Cup in November.
This month, the Sounders have one match per week — starting with Saturday’s game against the Columbus Crew (1-0) at CenturyLink — before a FIFA international break March 23-31.
MLS also worked with Seattle to move a June road game against the New England Revolution to April 8 in Foxborough. Previously, the Sounders had only three matches scheduled for April compared to six in the same month last season.
“We have to step up now in the league,” Sounders fullback Kelvin Leerdam said of MLS matches. “If you want to be the best, it doesn’t matter how hard the schedule is, you should try to win every game. I just wanted to play the CONCACAF and I wanted to win it.”
Having fewer matches means the Sounders have more time to integrate their new players and heal their veterans.
Defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson will be available for selection Saturday after missing the opening three matches due to a calf strain. Midfielder Nico Lodeiro’s tendinitis in his hamstring is improving but he likely won’t play against Columbus, along with forward Will Bruin (ACL).
Bruin suffered his season-ending knee injury during training last June. He could make his return with the Tacoma Defiance in USL Championship competition before MLS games with the Sounders.
“There’s a couple of games we’ve targeted,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said, ruling out the USL season opener Friday. “Will has accelerated his timeline to a point where we have to keep recalibrating that one. That’s part of the reason for Defiance — to give young guys a chance, to have some of our guys go down and get 90 minutes and also injury rehab.”
For Saturday’s Sounders game, Svensson is expected to be paired with Joao Paulo, whom the club signed in January from Brazil as their third designated player. Center backs Xavier Arreaga and Yeimar Gomez Andrade, who signed from an Argentine club in February, are also using the extended time without Champions League matches to build chemistry as expected starters.
Against Chicago, veteran Shane O’Neill, who signed in January, started alongside Arreaga, and it wasn’t the cleanest showing defensively.
“He did well,” Leerdam said of O’Neill. “We had some mistakes communication-wise here and there. We have a lot of work to do. It’s just the start of the season (and) it’s a new group. But you can’t afford those mistakes because the league is getting better and better.”
Ruidiaz agreed that utilizing the time without a packed schedule can help Seattle improve.
There were kinks up top, too. New veteran signee Miguel Ibarra missed three attempts that were on target in the box. Ruidiaz, who led the team in goal-scoring last season, had fewer touches (23) than Morris (24), who only played the second half.
“It would be something to concern me if I didn’t have opportunities to score,” said Ruidiaz, who had three shot attempts. “The day-to-day work is what’s going to help (us) get a good result. And have a good game on the weekend.”