Brian Schmetzer knows that when the Sounders open the MLS season Friday against Minnesota United FC at Lumen Field, the Loons will be holding a grudge.
There was a flip side to the Sounders’ legendary, absolutely stunning comeback from a 2-0 deficit to win the Western Conference title with a whirlwind spree of three late goals in December. And Minnesota bore the brunt of it.
“It was a special moment for Seattle sports and for this franchise,” Schmetzer said Thursday. “But, you know, Minnesota was on the opposite end of all that euphoria.”
Funny he should use that phrase. The Sounders know all about what it’s like to be on the opposite end of euphoria. They experienced it in their very next game after the Minnesota blood-rush.
As rousing as it was for the Sounders to make the MLS Cup for the fourth time in the past five years in 2020, the massive letdown of getting to the brink and then falling short was every bit as chilling.
You’d better believe that 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew stuck in their craw. And so as a new season dawns with myriad changes and more than a modicum of intrigue for Seattle, the Sounders will have a grudge of their own to nurse.
“I think our team is motivated,” veteran midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We struggled at the end. Our last game is what mattered the most, and we came up short. So our team is motivated to get back on the field and send a message that we’re capable of getting there, we’re capable of having a really good year, and our last game was a fluke.”
The Sounders will make those efforts in what they hope are the waning remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted their sport along with every other. This game will mark the first time they’ll be serenaded by live fans since the early stages of the 2020 season.
They’ll be playing without a stalwart of their dynastic run, Jordan Morris, who was loaned to Swansea City and then suffered a devastating knee injury. In a very much related development, the Sounders will be introducing a new two-forward formation that will have profound implications on the style of play they deliver.
“We relied on Jordan quite a bit last year,” Roldan said. “Thus, the formation change, right? We don’t have any quick, fast wingers like Jordan. So it’s difficult to replace him. Now, what we can do is strategically plan and use the strength of our players, which is our wingbacks, and having two capable forwards, three capable forwards, of putting goals in the back of the net.”
He’s referring to Raul Ruidiaz, Will Bruin and the newly reacquired Fredy Montero as those capable forwards. On Friday, however, the team likely will be without the playmaking help of the Sounders’ all-time assists leader, Nico Lodeiro, who suffered an undisclosed injury during training.
The Sounders also will be missing past stalwarts such as Gustav Svensson, Kelvin Leerdam and Joevin Jones, along with Morris. A larger-than-normal influx of young players is expected to make its mark as the season progresses.
But Schmetzer is downplaying the notion that this is a season of unusually cataclysmic change for the organization. As he put it, change is a way of life in pro sports, and the Sounders haven’t been immune in prior years.
“It was a pretty big, monumental change when (previous coach Sigi Schmid) left and I took over,” he pointed out. “There’s been a lot of players that have come and gone from this franchise. … I mean, there has been a lot of change. But, you know, I think that’s just normal.”
What doesn’t change is the Sounders’ expectation to be in the thick of the MLS Cup race. And as long as they have players such as Lodeiro, Ruidiaz, Roldan and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, it’s a realistic one, despite the turnover around them.
“I think we’re a playoff team falling out of bed,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said this week on KJR-AM.
How far they get beyond that will largely depend on how cohesively the new elements blend together. It may take into the season for it to happen fully, but getting the team to coalesce just in time for the meat of the playoff run has been a Schmetzer strength.
Of course, last year that all disintegrated in a shockingly lackluster finale against the Crew. And that bitter memory will be a backdrop not just to Friday’s opener but the entire season.
“As an athlete in a team sport, there’s a legacy that you’ll leave behind, and that legacy will be how many trophies you were able to help put in the trophy cabinet for your squad,” Frei said.
“Not too many teams, not too many players, get opportunities to play for trophies. So we’ve had an extremely high standard, and that’s something to be proud of. But you know the standard is not your legacy; the trophies will be.”
Frei hopes the disappointing finish will reinforce the need to treat every game as vitally important. Last year, the Sounders were two points behind Columbus, which meant the difference between hosting the Cup, as they did successfully in 2019, and playing in a hostile environment in Columbus, Ohio.
“I think the lesson to be learned yet again is that we needed to just take maybe three points somewhere else during the season,” Frei said. “We get those three points, and we’re playing this final at home. It’s a completely different game.
“It’s tough, but I still feel blessed that we had the opportunity. Hopefully it’s something that spurs the guys on and gets them going to have another chance at it. And hopefully at home in front of our fans.”
One thing that doesn’t change for Seattle: the perennial quest to be on the right end of the ultimate euphoria.
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