It’s almost certainly going to be the most watched MLS game in history (Seattle v Portland currently holds that mark). Immediately following France vs Croatia in the World Cup Final on Fox at 11 AM Pacific Sunday July 15 the match features the side that changed expansion expectations, earning six major trophies, setting an eight-year attendance record and featuring America’s most well-known soccer player (for now). Seattle Sounders head to Atlanta United, who took all those expectations about expansion that Seattle reset and blew them away, at least on the business side. AUFC is still seeking their first trophy, but with a world famous coach, the Golden Boot favorite and a few players worthy of Best XI nods, the Five Stripes should be thinking about this year as their opportunity.
Haris Kruskic from Dirty South Soccer answers Three Questions. The exchange took place from Tuesday to Friday.
SaH: Atlanta fans are doing what Sounders fans did a decade ago but in a much bigger way. How do Atlanta fans feel about Sounders fans in light of that history?
DSS: From what I’ve been able to gather on social media, I don’t really think Atlanta fans have an issue with the Sounders. That may be because they understand they’re doing things in a “much bigger way” and have surpassed Seattle in terms of attendance numbers, so they don’t see them as a threat to their fandom throne for lack of a better way of phrasing it. Atlanta fans take a lot of pride in their support of the team and there’s a sense that they’ve already taken the title of “best atmosphere in MLS” away from the Sounders.
SaH: Is the only thing that can keep AUFC from the Shield the sale of a couple of their top players?
DSS: I wouldn’t say that’s the only thing. It’s tough to ask more of a team that is currently top of the league, but I’ll say they’ll need to adapt to the loss of Darlington Nagbe for the next 6-10 weeks as he deals with an adductor injury.
Martino will rely on Julian Gressel to step in and continue to work as a Swiss Army knife of sorts for the team. The German has seen almost all of his playing time come at the right winger/wingback role, but he moved centrally after Nagbe went out. His play in midfield has been surprisingly good since he moved over and he’s certainly the best option for Atlanta at the moment, but it’s tough to replace Nagbe who was really beginning to fall into the No. 8 role well.
They also need to adapt to including a player that just recently joined the team for training. Eric Remedi, another midfielder from Argentina, joined Atlanta for a reported $2 million transfer fee. With Nagbe out, Remedi will likely see playing time as soon as he makes his way stateside. Making him comfortable with the system quickly will be of utmost importance.
For what it’s worth, it’s hard for me to imagine that either Miguel Almiron or Josef Martinez are sold this transfer window. We haven’t heard many serious transfer rumors flying around as of late. I still think Almiron will be gone at the end of this season, but that obviously won’t affect 2018 Supporters’ Shield hopes.
SaH: How do the Five Stripes play when the opposition clogs everything up, trying to play for at most two goals scored combined?
DSS: It’s a mixed bag. There have only been a couple teams that Atlanta has played against that try to make things as messy as possible. DC and Montreal try and are pretty bad at it, but that’s more so because they are generally bad teams. The Portland match a couple weeks ago was interesting because they did sit back quite a bit to muddy the match up, but they were also able to counter very well to earn a point. Counterattacking isn’t a strong suit of Seattle’s, so this is the first match Atlanta will play against a team that is actually a really good defensive team while also being a bad attacking team.
It’s hard to tell how well Atlanta will do, but if Seattle’s plan is to sit back for as long as possible and just absorb a plethora of attacks, I like Atlanta’s chances. The Five Stripes have been known to grind out a goal or two against teams like this dating back to last season.
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DSS: Seattle is currently 10th in the West and 10 points behind the final playoff spot, so is this the point in the season where they make a crazy run on their way to the MLS Cup?
SaH: It’s happened each of the past two seasons. If they do it again the whole league will have to mimic it, why not?
Things do feel different this year. Seattle is essentially as bad as they were in 2016. The expectations may have been higher than any point in Sounders history. They started the season as the Western Conference favorites, expected to challenge for the Supporters’ Shield and with a respected squad, if old. Injuries smacked them around, so did their mental failures as they started the season with red cards in their first three matches. As the losses mounted, head coach Brian Schmetzer grew more and more conservative in playing style, attempting to grind out 1-1 draws or 1-0 wins. Instead those tended to be 1-0 losses with a couple 0-0 draws thrown in for good measure.
Now they are again nearly fully healthy, with the new Designated Player joining them. If there is going to be a run, it has to continue with at least a draw against the best team in the league, in their building, on national TV. The 2-2-2 record in the last six isn’t good enough, but a three-match road swing with five points would be massive. Somehow stealing a win to get 7 in three would be a declaration that it is Summer in Seattle, again, again.
DSS: How are fans reacting to Brian Schmetzer at this point?
SaH: The #SchmetzerOut movement is growing. It may start because of high expectations, earned by high performances. He’s weak to average tactically on offense, leans heavily on a defensive structure that has dominated for two years now, is an extraordinary motivator and a winner. Even after this second poor start under Schmetzer (the ‘16 poor start was under Sigi) he’s earning 1.56 points per game (if he was doing that over this season it would be good for 5th in the West and 8th in the Shield).
There are leagues where finishing 1st and 2nd two years in a row would insulate a coach and general manager for at least a year. As this season continues to advance my previous thoughts that MLS was one of those are fading away. If there’s no run this Summer, one or both of Schmetzer and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey probably go.
DSS: What are the odds Seattle’s newest signing Raul Ruidiaz plays on Sunday?
SaH: They’re really good. We know he’s in Atlanta. We also know he’s both fit and rested, since he was at the World Cup and hardly played. The chances are low that he starts. He will have practiced only two days with the Sounders. The first was the day they announced him, prior to him flying back to Morelia and Peru. The second is Saturday. But Seattle’s attack needs the boost, and a guy that’s scored 20 goals each of the last two years in Mexico should play.