It seems almost unbelievable to type this, but there seems to be a sense of minor crisis around even before the MLS campaign has even begun.
To recap: The Seattle Sounders - somewhat surprisingly - lost their first competitive match of the season 2-1, to lightly regarded Santa Tecla in El Salvador. After jumping ahead early and looking perfectly competent in the first half, they lost all semblance of an attack and ended up losing after giving up a somewhat unlucky goal and then a decidedly controversial penalty.
The loss itself wasn’t the only problem, though. Rather, it was Jordan Morris’ season-ending injury that has suddenly left the Sounders without one of their main offensive weapons and the only starting attacking player truly capable of stretching defenses.
If you’ve been hanging out in the comments sections recently, you’ve seen things get a bit ... heated. I’m going to see if I can’t bring a bit of sense to all of this:
Nothing is f*cked, at least not yet
Losing the first leg by a goal — especially with a road-goal in hand — of a two-legged series is not itself a particularly disastrous result. With more of their veteran playmakers available, and playing at home where they’ve been virtually unbeatable during the Brian Schmetzer era, the Sounders are still solid bets to advance.
Something as simple as a 1-0 victory or any two-goal win will see the Sounders through. The Sounders have only lost one of their 26 home matches since Schmetzer took over as head coach; 16 of those results would be good enough for the Sounders to advance to the CCL quarterfinals. Considering the quality of the opponent and the expected reinforcements, the Sounders should feel confident.
Still, how they got into this situation is a bit concerning.
I’ve been a big defender of Schmetzer’s tactics, and I don’t buy that he’s as tactically naive as some have suggested, but the kindest read of what happened on Thursday is that he simply got it wrong (a thing, of course, that most coaches do at one time or another). Schmetzer offered some explanation that at least put the decisions into context — essentially, he thought Will Bruin could soften up the Santa Tecla center backs and felt Alex Roldan was his best option try to get a bit more of the possession — neither move worked at all.
Neither Bruin nor Roldan were able to find much of the ball and, rather than going into a diamond with Morris up top, they stuck with a 4-2-3-1 that proved ineffective. Even the inclusion of Gustav Svensson, who missed a bunch of training while his wife was giving birth, proved far too late to have any serious impact.
Some of that is due to simply having a short bench - after all, the Sounders were playing without five of their top players. But you’d still like to think they had enough firepower to get a better result than they did.
Dealing with Morris’ loss
Of course, all of that pales in comparison to the longer term problem that losing Morris for the season presents.
It’s entirely possible that Bruin can fill the bulk of those minutes and the Sounders will figure out how to deal with an extended absence, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be anywhere near as dynamic. Even when Morris isn’t scoring, he gives the Sounders the kind of over-the-top threat that opens up defenses in ways that Bruin simply can’t. His willingness to run down seemingly hopeless balls, and the effect this has on an opponent’s shape, is another underrated aspect that will be missed. Making this all worse is that Morris was looking quite capable of reclaiming his goalscoring form of 2016, when he took the league by storm and found the back of the net 14 times.
Even if you weren’t as high on Morris’ performance as Realio was, it was his run that put Santa Tecla on its heels and allowed Nicolas Lodeiro the opportunity to hit that audacious chip.
The only way to fully replace him will be to go outside the organization. Garth Lagerwey has suggested that’s what the Sounders intend to do, but has understandably not put a hard timeline on when that will be. The Sounders have until May 1 to try to get someone signed for this window. While that may not happen there’s every indication that someone will arrive before the stretch run.
Where this leaves us
Add it all up, and given we don’t have much else to work off, I understand why some of us seem to be freaking out a bit. Slow starts have become more the norm than the exception over the years; the last two have been especially bad.
It is important, however, to keep in mind that, even without Morris, the Sounders have a much more talented team now than even a year ago. Since that slow start, the Sounders have added veterans Kelvin Leerdam, Victor Rodriguez, Waylon Francis and Magnus Wolff Eikrem. Assuming otherwise full health, at least one of Bruin, Rodriguez, Dempsey or Eikrem are still going to be coming off the bench. Every indication suggests they’re about to add South Korea international Kim Kee-Hee as well.
Simply put, this roster is far more equipped to handle the loss of a few key components than previous iterations. I won’t try to convince you that this is a Supporters’ Shield favorite today. I recognize that the Sounders feasted on some relatively bad teams during their 12-2-6 run prior to MLS Cup. But, regardless of how strong those opponents were, that performance should give us at least some confidence that the Sounders are not poised for an early season collapse.
If the Sounders stumble over these next few games? Maybe it will be time to push up the timeline on a few things. But, until the results prove otherwise, I still think there are plenty of reasons to be, if nothing else, at least cautiously optimistic.