A bashful smile washed over Joevin Jones’ face as he stood at the edge of CenturyLink Field’s pitch after Sounders training Friday.
Mixed up in the significance of the club’s matchup against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday is an intimate meaning for Jones. His homecoming.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Jones said before glancing up at the empty seats. “But I’m up for the challenge.”
The versatile midfielder re-signed with Seattle in May after a two-year stint playing in Germany. Jones is a fan favorite, helping the Sounders win their 2016 MLS championship and recording three goals with 14 assists overall in two seasons.
He’s played 49 minutes in his return, appearing as a reserve in two road games. MLS has been on a two-week break for international competitions, with Jones joining his Trinidad and Tobago national team for an unsuccessful run in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“It was disappointing in the Gold Cup because we didn’t come out of the group stage,” Jones said. “It helped me a lot because it’s international football. When you play for your country, it’s high level, so to come back here to the Sounders, I’ll be at that level.”
Seattle (7-4-5) will need that level when it hosts Vancouver (4-6-8). The match resumes Cascadia Cup games and league play but both teams remain without key players due to the U.S.-based Gold Cup and Copa America, which is being played in Brazil.
Both tournaments have entered the quarterfinals with each championship match slated for July 7.
The Sounders’ depleted roster is partly why it finished the opening half of the season on a four-game losing streak. Seattle’s last win was a 2-1 result against Orlando SC in May at CenturyLink.
The club’s best start in franchise history boosted it to third in the MLS standings with 26 points. And players, along with coach Brian Schmetzer, believe they’ll soon snap that skid, pointing to the team’s history of playing well in the second half of MLS seasons.
With Jones in the starting lineup, the Sounders went from last place to win the title in 2016. In 2017, the club had a forgettable start but worked its magic to again advance to the postseason. And last year the Sounders set a league record for best play in half a season by finishing at 14-2-1 after an MLS break for an average 2.53 points per game.
“But it’s not a given that all of a sudden we’ve developed this chemistry as a team to succeed in second parts of seasons,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “It’s not a strong game plan.
“And we should be removed from the fast start because if you keep thinking, ‘Oh, we had a fast start,’ the work dissipates. Right now, the good thing is we had a fast start and we’re sitting pretty good on the table. But the more you think that way and not add points to it, the more you’re destroying that hard work you put in earlier. I kind of want us to forget it and say, ‘No, we have to get back going.’”
After not playing in front of their home crowd in six weeks, the Sounders are happy to be back in the building where they haven’t lost in 11 matches – the third-best streak in club history.
In addition to reveling in the expected crowd of about 40,000, Sounders players will be honoring former teammate Chad Marshall in a pregame ceremony. The three-time MLS Defender of the Year was forced to retire from a 16-year career in May due to a rapidly deteriorating knee injury.
Then there’s the newly installed turf and new signee in Justin Dhillon. The Tacoma Defiance forward was called up to the first-team roster to help fill a void at the position. Backup Will Bruin suffered a season-ending knee injury at training last week while first-choice forwards Raul Ruidiaz (Peru) and Jordan Morris (U.S.) are with their national teams.
“When I first stepped out here, I thought, ‘Oh, my God,’ it’s bigger than I thought” Dhillon said of training at CenturyLink the past two days. “To be on the field with that many fans is going to be pretty special.”