Traditional fans are upset that a Supporters’ Shield has been seemingly lost by May, while casual fans question why the team tolerates players showing more interest in the World Cup than their own squad.
An increasingly difficult 2018 season has the Sounders struggling to navigate a razor-thin line between pleasing their traditional supporter base while also attracting more casual fans.
And right now, its front office having somewhat deliberately sacrificed a quarter of the Major League Soccer season already, this 2-5-2 team appears to be pleasing nobody.
Traditional fans are upset that a Supporters’ Shield for the top regular-season record has been seemingly lost by May, while casual fans on social media question why the team tolerates players showing more apparent interest in the FIFA World Cup next month than their own squad.
The World Cup issue has been encapsulated by midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and to a lesser extent defender Roman Torres.
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Lodeiro taking his time rehabilitating a toe fracture in hopes of making Uruguay’s preliminary 26-man World Cup roster — which he did Tuesday — has been both understandable, yet quietly exasperating for team officials dealing with a slew of other injuries. Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei expressed the team’s mounting frustration after the 1-0 defeat Sunday in Portland.
“People really need to take it upon themselves to do everything in their power to get back,’’ Frei said. “It’s one thing for us to sit here and say, ‘If we had this and this player on the field we would be playing better.’ That ain’t going to help you with squat. They need to be on the field.’’
Frei isn’t the type to single out individual players and was likely frustrated by the injuries as a whole, rather than taking veiled jabs at Lodeiro or anybody in particular. But the Sounders have spent the season with millions of dollars worth of players sidelined by injuries that seem to drag on.
Midfielder Victor Rodriguez hasn’t played, his knee sprain taking weeks longer to heal than expected. Osvaldo Alonso has battled multiple injuries, playing just a few contests.
Torres, earning $645,000, arrived at training camp in less than peak condition. He hurt his hamstring and then injured it worse after struggling in games. It’s debatable whether Torres would have played as early had this not been a World Cup year he was trying to gear his ill-conditioned body for.
He’s on Panama’s provisional World Cup roster, but his hamstring strain is apparently so serious it’s questionable he’ll even play.
Speaking of rosters, Gustav Svensson just made Sweden’s provisional roster.
With Lodeiro, the team’s highest-paid player at $2.3 million, there’s been internal Sounders debate about whether he could be rehabbing more aggressively and actually playing in matches he’s skipped in hopes of feeling better by June.
For soccer worldwide, these are things teams deal with every four years. The World Cup far surpasses the Super Bowl in global presence, and Lodeiro could retire a Godlike figure in his homeland if he makes the roster and Uruguay wins it.
But for casual fans buying Sounders tickets, the idea that Lodeiro, or Torres, might be focused more on the World Cup than the team’s immediate needs seems crazy. Lodeiro would be crucified in this country’s other major sports after even a hint he wasn’t giving his all for his team at any given moment.
The Sounders have avoided any criticism of Loderio even as casual fans like to take online jabs at him while citing the “minor-league” status of MLS.
Just like the Joevin Jones fiasco last year, this is a made-in-soccer “no-win” for the team. Jones left the Sounders without permission last summer to prepare early for international matches with the Trinidad & Tobago national team.
The Sounders knew Jones had signed to play this season in Germany and suspected him of trying to force his release so he could head there early. Such antics do frequently occur in soccer’s global marketplace, and they felt they had a better chance of winning with Jones than without him.
So they kept quiet, allowed the summer transfer window to close and took Jones back without serious consequences. Just like they won’t risk a public spat with Lodeiro now that causes him to mentally check out in the latter half of the season.
They know Lodeiro typically endures a ton of physical abuse without complaint. If anything, his absence the past several matches reinforced how badly the Sounders need to keep him happy.
For now, their bigger concern is whether the second half will be worth worrying about.
“Time is slowly running out,” Frei said. “We’re getting pushed into a corner again, and we know how difficult it can be.”
If anything, the cynical decision by general manager Garth Lagerwey to avoid signing additional impact players until July was borne from a desire to appeal to casual fans. Chicago native Lagerwey knows fans of major U.S. sports covet league championships above all.
And that, two years ago, his Sounders struggled for half a season before taking the MLS Cup.
So faced with signing players during a limited spring transfer window to bolster his club’s early record, Lagerwey gambled that he could absorb some losing until better talent surfaces come July.
“You want to build a roster that has you playing your best at the end of the season, which maximizes your chances of winning MLS Cup,” Lagerwey said.
For now, Lagerwey needs all capable hands to heed Frei’s advice and get back on the field. That way, the Sounders can at least start appeasing some fans instead of upsetting all of them.