Eight months ago, Brian Schmetzer was preparing his team to face Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup.
The Sounders lost 3-0, thanks in part to a brace from Columbus midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. However, even with the recent history between the two clubs, Schmetzer says it’s up to his players to decide how they want to approach Saturday’s game.
“It’s not ancient history,” Schmetzer said. “It sounds or it feels like it was a long time ago, but (the players) weren’t pleased with their performance, and so I think it’s incumbent on them, without my help, to dictate as to whether they’re going to make this a big deal that we’re playing Columbus again or not.”
Less than a year after Columbus and Seattle met in the MLS Cup Final and a day before the two teams prepare to face each other for the first time since, the teams appear to be headed in opposite directions.
Seattle’s postseason form continued into the new campaign. The team currently sits atop the Western Conference on 39 points with a record of 11-6-3. The Sounders’ goal differential of 17 is the best in the league; forward Raul Ruidiaz leads the MLS Golden Boot race with 14 goals; and the team hasn’t lost since July 25, sneaking past FC Dallas and demolishing local rivals Portland in its past two matches.
Cristian Roldan’s selection by fans as captain of the MLS All-Stars for the Aug. 25 All-Star Game against Mexico’s Liga MX All-Stars has simply added to another strong season for Seattle.
Columbus’ fortunes haven’t been the same. Languishing outside the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, the Crew has lost its past five matches. But Schmetzer isn’t willing to risk underestimating them, even if the reigning MLS Cup holders appear to be the underdogs.
“They are going to be desperate,” he said. “That is the message that I sent, that we need to be prepared for the first 15 minutes of the game. They’re going to come out and try to win the game any way, shape or form they can.”
The Crew’s woes have continued. On Friday, Columbus head coach Caleb Porter announced forward Gyasi Zardes had been ruled out for Saturday’s game against Seattle after a hamstring injury forced him out of Columbus’ most recent match, a 1-0 loss to New York Red Bulls. Zardes, who started the 2020 MLS Cup Final, has four goals in 14 appearances and was the focal point of the Crew attack.
Schmetzer says Zardes’ absence has made preparation for Saturday’s game more difficult. He says it’s harder to plan against the Crew attack and negates any lessons learned from facing Columbus in 2020.
“Does he play with Zelarayan as a false nine?” Schmetzer said. “Does he bring (Erik) Hurtado in? He’s got (Miguel Berry), who’s 6-foot-4. I don’t know how (Porter) is going to line up.”
Schmetzer has some selection headaches of his own, too. Talismanic midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro came off the bench again in the Sounders’ win against Dallas as he continues to work his way back from a knee injury, and Saturday’s match presents Schmetzer with a chance to reintegrate him into the lineup.
“How we’ve always kind of done things is we’ve used the first part of each season to kind of tinker and try and kind of mold and get some ideas and figure out how we are going to play,” Schmetzer said. “Because we haven’t had (Lodeiro), arguably one of our most influential players, on a consistent basis, how we integrate him, where we integrate him — it might still take us a couple of games to figure out exactly the best position and the best lineup and rotations, and some of those nuances.”
Additionally, Seattle’s goalkeeper situation remains slightly unclear. A good performance from Spencer Richey, making two saves and earning a clean sheet against Dallas, puts more pressure on current starter Stefan Cleveland. Longtime starter Stefan Frei, who’s missed most of this season after his knee injury developed a blood clot, was targeting a return by the end of the month.
“We’re getting close to that full strength squad,” Schmetzer said. “We’re going to be very close here because I want to get to it sooner rather than later — figure out a real, defined way we’re going to play for the rest of the year.”
Seattle takes on Columbus at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Lower.com Field, the first time the Sounders will get to play in the Crew’s new stadium.