At the start of play yesterday, I think we can safely say we expected the Sounders to lose to Monterrey and we fully believed Kansas City would beat Houston at home.
Funny how reality can start to mess with our expectations.
Around 7 p.m., it was not only looking like the Sounders were going to become the first American team to win Mexico, but that the Wizards were going to lose the lowly Dynamo.
The Sounders, featuring a lineup with just one semi-regular starter, were leading mighty Monterrey 2-0. The breaks were going their way, the offense seemed to be finding space and suddenly the CONCACAF Champions League was not feeling like such a lost cause. Meanwhile, the Dynamo had built a 3-1 lead and seemed poised to give the Sounders some breathing room in the MLS playoff race.
We all know how this turned out, and I'm not going to bother you with details. It did get me thinking, however, about the lessons we can take away from yesterday's roller-coaster ride.
Lesson 1: Winning in Mexico is really, really hard
Twice during the CCL Group Stage, MLS sides have come out strong early and carried two-goal leads in the second half. Twice, those teams have failed to even grab a point. As you may remember, RSL suffered a similar fate as the Sounders did, but a game played in monsoon-like conditions ended with them on the wrong side of a 5-4 scoreline.
As a longtime member of the U.S. coaching fraternity, I'm sure Sigi Schmid was well aware of what his team was on the verge of doing. He surely knew that at 70', no lead was safe and that Monterrey was not just going to lay down.
There have been some who have questioned his substitution decisions -- replacing offensive players with more offensive players instead of trying to pack it in -- but the more I think about it, the more I have a hard time questioning his thought process.
Schmid had four defensive players at his disposal: Jeff Parke, Patrick Ianni, Peter Vagenas and Nathan Sturgis. I think we can probably all agree that he wasn't going to replace his centerbacks. I think we can also agree that if Schmid had played Vagenas and the same thing had happened, that would have been a far easier to second-guess choice since Vagenas had not even played in months. I suppose you could argue that Sturgis could have come on earlier for Seamon than he did or that he could have used Ianni there, but that's a much easier call to make knowing that Seamon's attempted backpass directly led to the third goal.
What Schmid was trying to do, then, was play to the strength of his bench. The thinking, I'm sure, was that Fredy Montero and Sanna Nyassi could provide some fresh legs to an offense that had started to stall in the second half. He probably felt the Sounders were going to need another goal either way and those players gave the Sounders their best shot at doing so. Obviously, it didn't work out, but if the Sounders had gone on to win 3-1 -- not such a far-fetched idea -- I think Schmid would have been hailed for his aggressiveness.
At this point, I just refuse to lay the blame for the loss at the feet of a coach who refused to play cynically. (Side note: I'm also unconvinced that the personnel at his disposal would have reasonably allowed for a park-the-bus approach.)
Lesson 2: The kids are all right
Many of us called for the youngsters to get a good, long look. Our request was answered. More importantly, our hopes were realized. Miguel Montano, after a nearly three-month absence, looked spry and as dangerous as ever. Mike Fucito was an absolute revelation, scoring once and creating the opportunity that resulted in the other goal. David Estrada looked nothing like the overwhelmed rookie we saw at the start of the year. He was composed, got the ball off his feet quickly and gave every indication that his time away from matches has been well spent. We even got to see Alvaro Fernandez acquit himself quite well as a center mid.
I don't think anyone was so amazing that we'll see them starting at the same positions against Chicago, but I think we can expect more minutes in MLS matches and should feel good about our chances in the final two CCL contests with those players. Equally important, we learned that all of these players seem to have solid futures in MLS.
Lesson 3: The Wizards are for real
There are those that have doubted the Wizards and their ability to make a real run at the final playoff spot. They look at the fact that they were tied with DC United for the second fewest points in MLS as recently as a couple months ago and think it's impossible to turn it around this dramatically.
Well, it might not always be pretty -- and despite the seven goals scored, last night's game was not necessarily the beautiful game -- but the Wizards have shown that they have figured out how to win. They've lost one match since July 14 -- a 1-0 loss at San Jose -- and showing they can win in different ways. They have allowed one or fewer goals nine times in their past 10 matches and scored four goals in a game three times this season. I only caught the final 30 minutes of last night's game, but I can tell you that they create offensive pressure as good as anyone. They could have easily won that match 6-3 based just on the stuff I saw.
The Sounders are simply going to have to care of business themselves. Any kind of result this weekend will keep them in front of KC. They'll then face Toronto in another match in which they absolutely need a result before travelling to Kansas City. Seven points in those three matches would probably seal the deal, but anything less than four will leave them in lots of trouble.