One thing the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t take from the Sounders could be what carries the club to another title.
Whether due to international call-ups or injuries, coach Brian Schmetzer’s need to shuffle his starting lineup has created solid competition at Sounders training through the years. The pandemic limited the team to only play against each other as Major League Soccer placed restrictions on sessions in efforts to slow the spread of the disease.
Now those intrasquad challenges are being credited for the performances seen throughout the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida. It’s particularly evident along the back line, as right back Kelvin Leerdam is the sole constant in the starting lineup.
“It’s a very good group that we have here and if we can push each other in training, we’re going to be so much better,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said in a videoconference call with media Saturday. “That’s always been our motto here. The guys who unfortunately do not start play a huge factor in the game. … These guys are going to catapult us to the next level.”
Injuries are forcing an adjustment Monday for the Sounders’ matchup against Los Angeles FC (1-0-2) in the tournament’s Round of 16 knockout game at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The match will air at 8 p.m. PT on Fox Sports 1.
Sounders defender Shane O’Neill, a six-year MLS veteran signed in January, will likely get the start again due to defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade suffering a left hamstring injury in a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Fire on July 14.
The Sounders (1-1-1) will also be without defensive midfielders Joao Paulo (quad) and Danny Leyva (fractured foot). Defenders Xavier Arreaga (concussion) and Joevin Jones (adductor) are questionable. But Nouhou has been dueling with Jones for minutes the past year and piecing together a breakout season starting at left back in Florida.
With Stefan Frei in goal, the Sounders defense has conceded just four goals in their five MLS matches – two played before the MLS shutdown in March. Two of the scores were because of errors by Arreaga in the loss to the Fire.
“Nouhou has been fantastic,” said O’Neill during a videoconference call with media Saturday. “Being (sequestered) in the hotel, I’ve watched almost every game and I haven’t seen a left back playing better than Nouhou. So, it’s really great to kind of have somebody like him come in to the form that he is.”
The Sounders will be tested again with LAFC’s potent attack. The club has scored a league-best 11 goals during the tournament. Last season, LAFC finished with the Supporters’ Shield, setting MLS records for regular-season points (72) and goal differential (48).
But it was the Sounders who defeated LAFC for the Western Conference championship last fall en route to winning the MLS Cup.
“They finished our season last year and we’ve all watched that game many, many times,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said via videoconference call with media. “(We were) disappointed to not push the game harder at times. It was a game we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. We made a few mistakes and paid the price. As good as we’ve been the last couple of years, that’s always the challenge when you step on the field.”
While focus will be on LAFC’s explosive offense, the Sounders can counter with the symmetry midfielder Nico Lodeiro has with forwards Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris. Homegrown midfielder Handwalla Bwana has also shown flashes of brilliance, scoring a second-half goal against Chicago in the tournament – another tribute to intrasquad training.
“Leading into the tournament as well, we’ve had a lot of intrasquad matches and the defense was doing very, very well; wasn’t conceding many goals,” O’Neill said. “Coming into this tournament, that was a big key for us. … We’ve got to keep the communication, keep working and hopefully Nouhou continues to play at the level he’s playing at.”
NOTE: For a sixth consecutive report since July 14, MLS testing for COVID-19 found no new cases among those sequestered in the league’s “bubble” at Walt Disney World Resort complex.
A total of 885 individuals — players, coaches and staff from the 24 participating clubs, along with referees, league staff and other members of the MLS delegation — were tested July 24-25. The parties are staying at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, which is southwest of Orlando in Florida.
The Sounders arrived in Florida on July 3. The club said it hasn’t had a positive case since one was found while training in Tukwila in May.
MLS has released testing updates every two days since June 30.