The addition of Osvaldo Alonso for his first start of the season in the defensive midfield enabled the Sounders to push Cristian Roldan further upfield and swarm the porous Minnesota defense.
Most of the postgame talk concerning the decisive early moments of Sunday’s first Sounders victory of 2018 was about the players who weren’t on the field.
It was hard to miss a healthy forward Clint Dempsey and midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem being kept sidelined until the second half of this 3-1 win over visiting Minnesota United FC. Instead, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer started the Roldan brothers, Cristian and Alex, in the attacking midfield and saw their speed and tenacity largely overwhelm a porous Minnesota defense the opening 25 minutes.
Afterward, Schmetzer did little to deflect speculation he was sending a message to some of his highest-paid veterans that more is expected after a rough start to the season.
“I think overall for the team, it’s good to have competition,’’ Schmetzer said. “That’s pro sports, that’s the way it is. We’ve built the roster and there’s going to be some challenging decisions that the coaching staff has to make.’’
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Schmetzer tried to couch his answers somewhat, talking about Dempsey’s career second-half tendencies and the need to ease players like him, Kelvin Leerdam and Victor Rodriguez — who didn’t make it on the field — back in there after long layoffs without disrupting team cohesion.
But make no mistake: A move like sitting a healthy designated player in Dempsey, who hadn’t played in a month after a two-game suspension for a red card in Dallas, doesn’t get made without the front office signing off. That was indeed the case here and the optics were obvious, requiring Schmetzer to have an uncomfortable discussion with Dempsey ahead of time.
“It’s a conversation you have to have,’’ Schmetzer said. “He’s not happy, because he wants to play. But he accepts it because he’s a team guy. He gets grumpy a little bit, but all of them do. None of these guys wants to come off the field.’’
Schmetzer’s decision looked good early in front of 39,477 fans at CenturyLink Field when Alex Roldan had a near miss, followed by older brother Cristian assisting on goals two minutes apart by Gustav Svensson and Will Bruin in the 23rd and 25th minutes. The Sounders eased off the throttle after that, trying to protect their lead and nearly paid a price when Christian Ramirez cut the advantage to 2-1 in the 66th minute.
Francisco Calvo nearly equalized in the 89th minute with goalkeeper Stefan Frei down and out, but hit the side of the net with a shot from close range. Dempsey, who’d come on the 60th minute, helped put things away in stoppage time by feeding Jordy Delem a breakaway pass for the clinching goal.
The victory gives the Sounders a 1-3-1 record and all but eliminates any chance of the team picking up another high-powered forward before the July transfer window. Had the Sounders gone winless in a fifth game, there might have been ownership pressure on general manager Garth Lagerwey to back off his long-term vision of not making a “panic move’’ for a player before the current transfer window closes on May 1.
As of now, that’s highly unlikely.
Instead, Schmetzer and Lagerwey plan to go with their current crop of players until midsummer. Both know the team that will still be playing come October is unlikely to be the same one that comprised Sunday’s starting lineup.
In a perfect universe, they’d prefer to have Dempsey and Eikrem at the top of their games by and look to be using these early bench stints to light a fire under them. Schmetzer made it clear last week that Eikrem sat most of the Kansas City game for performance reasons and didn’t use him this time around until a 75th minute substitution for midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
It was the return from injury to a starting role by Alonso that enabled Cristian Roldan to be pushed up the field in Dempsey’s usual spot. Roldan and Alonso combined for Svensson’s opening goal, finding the Swedish midfielder all alone near the top of the box for an ensuing 23-yard cannon blast into the top of the net.
“We had pretty good fluidity in the game,’’ Svensson said of the opening 25 minutes. “We dominated big parts of the game. We did the runs we were supposed to do. We played the way we were supposed to. We won duels. We helped each other.’’
The crowd had barely settled back into their seats after Svensson’s goal when Roldan fought for a ball along the left side and sent a cross to the box. Bruin was right there to slot the ball home with a left-footed shot for a two-goal lead.
Roldan admits the team eased off after that, making it more difficult for Schmetzer to decide who will start on attack next weekend on the road against Los Angeles FC.
“It adds a little competitiveness within the team,’’ Roldan said of all the injured and suspended players returning. “During practices it’s a lot more intense. Guys are fighting for spots at this point.’’
And the Sounders as a team, their first three-point match of the season secured, will now look to fight for a spot in the standings that doesn’t involve last place.