The Sounders FC resumed their Major League Soccer season Friday night after a near four-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Sounders played the San Jose Earthquakes in a Group B opener for the MLS is Back Tournament held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which is southwest of Orlando, Florida. The Quakes, despite not being able to train until June 24 because of government restrictions to help slow the spread of COVID-19, was the sprier team, but the match ended in a scoreless draw.
Sounders keeper Stefan Frei and the team’s revamped back line were the reason San Jose couldn’t poke one of its eight on-target shots past the goal line. Frei had eight saves to guard against the Quakes having 62.4 percent possession of the ball.
“There were difficult spells, but we put in a lot of hard work to make sure they (Quakes) didn’t collapse on top of me,” said Frei via live streaming video provided by MLS. His club played in 88-degree weather with 97 percent humidity.
“I was very pleased to see that willingness to put in that hard work and ultimately to be able to hold it and not cave,” Frei continued. “That was great because at times when you get fatigued, you have to stay mentally sharp and remember we’re defenders. We’re not playmakers.”
San Jose’s best opportunity to score was a powerful right-footed attempt from deep by midfielder Jackson Yueill in the 70th minute. Frei dove to his right for the clutch save.
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz opened the match with a shot outside the box in the 10th minute. Teammate Cristian Roldan followed with near-chances in the 28th and 35th minutes that gave Quakes keeper Daniel Vega his own highlight-reel plays. He finished the match with six saves.
Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro, who made his season debut after suffering a tendinitis injury, had a pair of late attempts that nearly broke the deadlock. Ruidiaz appeared to not have the strength to get his shot past Vega in the 84th minute. Vega deflected Lodeiro’s in the 81st.
“Players are going to get fatigued,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer via live streaming video provided by MLS. “I saw the replay on Raul’s chance. I saw Cristian’s chance, if they’re in mid-season form, maybe they make those goals. … The team was not as sharp as they should be. But the attacking movements are always the last things to come back. The defending, the effort was all there, so I’m happy with that.”
MLS teams played two matches each before shutting down March 12. The Sounders’ last outing was a 1-1 draw against the Columbus Crew SC on March 7 at CenturyLink Field. The three group matches played in the tournament count toward the regular season, should the league return to a traditional schedule this fall.
The Sounders, who won the 2019 MLS Cup, returned to voluntary, individual training on May 18 and full-team training on June 12.
But the Rave Green took the field without midfielder Joao Paulo because of a right quad strain and forward Will Bruin was out with a right knee injury suffered prior to traveling to Florida.
The absences limited the club offensively, especially Joao Paulo, who was signed as a Designated Player in January and scored two goals during CONCACAF Champions League play in February. Bruin, a backup for Ruidiaz, initially suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2019.
“When we were patient, we were good,” Roldan said via live streaming video provided by MLS. “In the end, obviously sloppy play, first game in three months, whatever. It probably was going to be summed up like that. But if we could have taken care of one or two opportunities, we’d be happier with the result.”
MLS clubs have been recognizing the Black Lives Matter movement in distinct ways, beginning with Wednesday’s league-wide demonstration prior to the tournament opener between Inter Miami FC and Orlando City SC, coordinated by the Black Players for Change, a newly formed group of more than 170 of MLS’s Black athletes.
The Sounders commissioned Seattle-based artist Teddy “Stat” Phillips, a Black man, to design a colorful captain’s armband with the acronym “BLM” for Black Lives Matter. Lodeiro had the honor while teammates wore black armbands stating their initials or nickname “Stands with BLM.”
MLS jerseys also feature white strips below the numbers on the back where players can write personal messages. Roldan wrote “Manuel Ellis BLM” to honor the 33-year-old Black man who was killed by Tacoma police in March.
“Enough is enough,” Roldan said via live streaming video provided by MLS. “We’re not fighting for something political. This is racial equality. We have these bands that were player-driven and we want to support local businesses in Seattle and we want to eventually take action, not just wear these things.”