Drawing huge crowds and making money off the field might no longer be enough for the Sounders, who are drawing increased fire from a fan base that feels the team needs to do more to repeat lofty prior on-field results
Two games into the Major League Soccer regular season, the Sounders find themselves in uncharted territory with a portion of their fan base.
This is hardly the first 0-2 start in team history. The previous 0-2 start came in 2016, and last year it should have been the same before two late goals salvaged the team an undeserved draw at Montreal in its second match. The Sounders made the MLS Cup final both years, but that’s been quickly forgotten this time as fans fret on social media and in online comments about the lack of goal scoring or offseason moves to acquire another designated player to boost the attack.
And in many ways, that’s a positive step for a franchise longing to be treated on an equal plane with the city’s other professional sports teams. In other words, the Sounders are being increasingly viewed as more than just an off-field financial success story and instead for on-field performance and what they’ve done lately.
“Well, it’s not good enough, number one,’’ coach Brian Schmetzer said after a second shutout loss this season, this one 3-0 at FC Dallas on Sunday. “We need to play better.’’
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Schmetzer indeed echoed the sentiment of many Sounders fans. Where they may differ is over how to accomplish that part about playing better.
Though Schmetzer implied the existing team is good enough to do better than get blown out on the road in Frisco, Texas, a significant number of fans are not convinced that is the case. They feel the team was shorthanded on attack even before striker Jordan Morris was lost for the season because of a knee injury and that things will only get worse unless general manager Garth Lagerwey steps up and adds some bodies quickly.
Lagerwey last week in Guadalajara, Mexico — where the Sounders lost to Chivas in a Champions League quarterfinal match — suggested there won’t be any major signings until the summer. Certainly, he has little leverage in signing what few candidates are out there, given how the soccer universe is well aware the Sounders need offensive help.
But as is the case with other teams on the city’s sports scene, on-field results could intercede with the best-laid plans. Lagerwey almost certainly won’t make a move until after the team plays at Kansas City four weeks from now in what will be only its fourth game this season.
By then, if the Sounders are 0-4 and still without a goal scored, the pressure to do something might overtake the most prudent course. This is an annual happening in sports such as baseball and football, where front offices often feel pressured by unruly fan bases into steps they otherwise wouldn’t take.
And it’s hardly unreasonable for fans to question the team’s decision to rely so heavily on the oft-injured Morris at striker without importing more big money talent. The Sounders enjoy one of the most lucrative revenue bases in the league and yet are close to drifting outside the top-third of teams when it comes to payroll spent.
Lagerwey will rightly tell folks that Morris snapping his ACL this year amounts to bad luck and was not at all predictable despite his multiple “soft tissue” injuries last season. But common sense doesn’t always carry the day when losses pile up, and to be fair, Morris being able to carry the team’s load even while healthy was always a gamble based on previous mixed results.
That plan has now blown up. And whereas Sounders fans might previously have cut the team some slack, they are increasingly antsy.
The fact remains: In six meaningful regular-season and Champions League games this year, the Sounders have only once scored more than a goal. That lone multi-goal game came with four second-half markers against an underdog Santa Tecla FC team from El Salvador.
Meanwhile, in their past three MLS games that mattered – including the MLS Cup final — the Sounders have not put the ball in the net. And there is growing concern by those that follow this team religiously that the blueprint laid out by Toronto FC in December’s championship match is now being copied by others to neutralize a stale-looking 4-2-3-1 attack formation.
“We’ve got a few days off now to hit reset, come back in a refreshed state of mind,’’ midfielder Harry Shipp said after the Dallas game.
And yes, getting eliminated from Champions League play in disheartening fashion by Chivas five days ago ahead of the Dallas loss was not an easy thing to overcome. The injuries have piled up and the Sounders could use midfielders Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez back on the field. They could use concussed striker Will Bruin as well.
But they were having trouble scoring even with Lodeiro and Bruin out there. For all of the talented, playmaking midfielders and Bruin’s knack for finding the net, none of them seem truly the game-changers over a 90-minute span the team needs.
And with every scoreless game that goes by, the cries for the Sounders to do something will mount.
After all, the team’s stated goal is to finish with a record good enough to host an MLS Cup final. The Western Conference also is uncertain enough that the Sounders can stumble back into the final even with a start worse than this already is.
Right now, another trip to the championship match seems the minimal goal for some Sounders fans. But talk about that with the Warriors, Yankees, Penguins and other sports franchises where lofty goals are the norm.
They don’t get lauded simply for drawing big crowds and making money. No, they are judged for their ability to do that and win championships.
And whether the Sounders like it or not, that’s increasingly the raised-bar standard they’ll have to live – and die – by going forward.