TUKWILA, Wash.—In the soccer world, there are pros and cons to the kind of fixture congestion that the Seattle Sounders are facing this week. Three matches in eight days is not ideal in terms of fatigue, travel, and general stress, but it does allow the team to get right back onto the pitch in an attempt to redeem themselves. Head coach Brian Schmetzer said on Friday that his team is more than ready for a chance to get rid of the memory of their last-gasp draw against Orlando City on Wednesday. “One of the hallmarks of this group is that they’re mentally strong, they would much rather play earlier than let that sit for a full week.”
It also helps that the Sounders are often up for matches against the Portland Timbers, their opponents on Sunday, though the matchup is often tougher at Providence Park than at CenturyLink. Regardless, the Sounders head south with a number of things to lord over their Cascadia rivals: the star above their crest and a 2-0-0 record in all competitions so far in 2017. Schmetzer said not to read too much into either match, especially the recent Open Cup meeting in which both teams fielded second- and third-string squads. “I’m expecting another tough game,” Schmetzer said, “The game up here was tough, we won 1-0. Cristian scored that goal early and we were able to hang on. But it wasn’t without a bit of strife. Portland put us under pressure a lot of the time.” The Sounders coach pointed out the early exit of David Guzman as crippling for Portland, who were already without Diego Chara in May’s meeting in Seattle.
Even though the Sounders are missing a couple of depth players to international duty, they should have a completely healthy squad to choose from on Sunday. Brad Evans will likely return at right back after not playing from the bench against Orlando on Wednesday. Schmetzer noted that he was pleased with how Cristian Roldan was playing at the position, hence his decision not to bring on Evans as a substitute. “Cristian was doing well, you don’t usually like making changes on your back line. If I had to do it over again would I have brought [Evans] on? Maybe, but we were saving him for the Portland match and to make sure he’s right for that.” It’s possible that Evans wasn’t fully fit just yet, and only made the bench in case of emergency. Schmetzer said Evans is ready to go on Sunday.
The Timbers may be without a handful of players due to injury, namely Jack Barmby and Liam Ridgewell. But their most notable losses are due to disciplinary reasons: both Sebastian Blanco and Roy Miller are suspended for Sunday’s match. The former saw red for violent conduct against Minnesota United earlier this week, while the latter is serving a game for yellow card accumulation. Schmetzer said these losses don’t really affect his game plan for Sunday’s match. “Caleb’s a good enough coach, he’ll know how to figure it out, he’s got players on the bench he can go to.”
But even if the Sounders have the advantage of a nearly full squad to choose from against Portland, their attackers haven’t exactly been clinical in front of goal this season. Schmetzer said he’s seen positives from Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, and Nicolas Lodeiro, but now that it’s halfway through the season, they absolutely have to get the job done. “I thought we created some good play against Orlando, we just couldn’t finish the chances. It’s too late in the season to say it’s a work in progress, those guys gotta figure it out now.”
Despite being one of the most creative players in the league this season, Lodeiro’s seemingly weak connection on the pitch with the team’s other attackers has been targeted as a reason for the team’s lack of goals. Some think that it’s because the rest of the league have “figured out” Lodeiro, despite being rather well-known in the soccer community before he signed with Seattle. Schmetzer thinks that could be part of it, but he resists the idea that Lodeiro has been particularly bad this season. “I think now everybody has enough tape on him, they obviously do the scouting and research and find out where he likes to pick up balls and stuff,” Schmetzer said. “He’s still one of the guys that has the most fouls against him in the league. He’s a good player, gets into good spots, it’s challenging for other teams.”
If nothing else, Lodeiro’s ability to draw fouls is just another part of the player’s versatile skill set. Against Orlando, the midfielder was also tackling and intercepting all over the pitch, always desperate to get the ball back. Schmetzer chalked that up partially to one thing: “he’s Uruguayan.” The Sounders coach compared Lodeiro to one of his countrymen, FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo. “One of my best friends, Fernando Clavijo, broke my nose in training one day. He’s Uruguayan. They have a little bit of an edge to them sometimes. They’re tough people.” He pointed out not only does Lodeiro show the willingness and ability to tackle, he also constantly gets up and back into the game despite being fouled on a pretty regular basis. “He usually gets up and keeps going, it’s a testament to his character.”
While Schmetzer said that working on the chemistry between Lodeiro and the other attackers has been the team’s number one priority in training, team staff are also desperately trying to get Morris back into the confident goalscoring form that earned him Rookie of the Year last season. “We’re putting him in more of those situations in training. We’ve been working with him every day to get more reps, just to get him more comfortable.” The club was criticized a bit for continuing to start Morris despite a nagging ankle injury for much of the early season, but Schmetzer said that the young forward is “all good physically” right now.
It was announced earlier this week that Sunday’s match would be moved until the evening in order to mitigate any risk of heat-related injury for the players. Schmetzer said his team has played in Portland at all hours of the day, and that it doesn’t really change his preparations. He did add that he was pleased with the time change. “It’s gonna be hot down there. I don’t want to be political, but I believe in global warming so we gotta do something.”
Other than such factors, which are outside of his control, Schmetzer said that his team has to stop being so inconsistent, and Sunday’s match is the perfect time to turn things around. “I think we’re a good team. There were spells against Orlando in the last couple of games...we played some good stuff.” He maintains that if his team can play better defense and finish their chances in Portland, they could string together enough positive results to turn the season around.