SEATTLE — From the moment the players were supposed to exit the tunnel on Sunday, there was a sense that something was a little off at CenturyLink Field.
The whale call that precludes the Sounders’ walkout went on quite a bit longer than normal, delaying the start of the introductory “boom-boom-clap.” Then rather than kicking off almost immediately after the national anthem, a ceremony honoring former club owner Joe Roth delayed things a bit more. Once the game kicked off, there were far more empty seats than usual.
The weirdness continued from there. Jordan Morris scored off a corner kick less than two minutes into the game, only for officials to delay the restart while they checked for a possible handball. The Sounders managed to get out to a 2-0 lead despite not looking particularly dominant, only to give one of those goals back before halftime.
That’s when the game took another peculiar turn, as ECS walked out en masse after a capo was removed for waving an Iron Front flag for much of the first half and throughout halftime. The entire second half was played in relative silence — at least by CenturyLink Field standards — with only sporadic attempts to start cheers and the occasional eruption as the Sounders blew their initial lead only to pull out a 4-2 win. But even that last goal was a bit odd as it was initially ruled out for offside only for VAR to reinstate it.
After doing their customary victory lap around the stadium, the Sounders lined up for their normal bow to fans in the Brougham End only to be welcomed by mostly empty seats.
Rather than triumphantly being able to puff out his chest a bit after beating a likely playoff-bound opponent and moving into the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, head coach Brian Schmetzer’s postgame interview opened with a sort of plea after praising his team’s performance.
“It’s a little bit of a sad day for me, because I understand that there were some people leaving, I understand the conflict, you know, and I don’t want that to affect the performance of the team,” he said. “So the last thing I’ll say on this topic is, look I’m an ECS member, I’m a guy that fights for the team, there’s a lot of guys here that, this is an issue that I hope that both sides can find a solution, because I don’t like to see that end of the stadium empty. I think we have the greatest fans, the best fan support .. but this club is the relationship between the fans and the players, and I don’t want that to stop.”
As much as Schmetzer may have wanted that to be the last thing he had to say about the protest, he was asked about it. He insisted that the walkout didn’t impact the way the Sounders performed. But whether or not the walkout had an impact, he could not avoid the reality that his team had blown a 2-0 lead at home for the second straight game and that they’d blown leads at home in three straight. That the Sounders have gone 2-0-1 in those games is obviously a positive, but Schmetzer knows that’s not a recipe for longterm success.
“It is concerning, very concerning actually,” Schmetzer said when asked about the inability to hold a lead. “In that first 15 minutes of the second half, we needed to control tempo of the game, some of our possessions that we lost or we were afraid to play.
“I think that what we’re going to try and do and look at is to figure out a way that we message the group and figure out a way to give them the tools to when they go up 2-nothing, how do we change tactics? What are we doing next? What’s the next phase of our game? That’s what us coaches were talking about on the sideline as that second half was unfolding.”
The sentiment was largely shared by goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who has now allowed more home goals in the past five games (13) than he had in any of the previous three seasons.
“The manner in which we’re winning is a bit frustrating right now,” Frei said. “I’m not really sensing a lot of control on our part if we’re realistic and honest with ourselves. We scored three, four goals again and that’s fantastic, that’s great but once we go up 2-0 can we find control of the game? At that point, at 2-0, it needs to be game over.”
The good news is that the Sounders will likely take one of the top two spots in the Western Conference if they can simply win their final two home games, regardless of what happens in their two remaining road games. The bad news is that very little of what we’ve seen in the past few months suggests they’ll make it look that easy.
Jordan Morris, so hot right now
It’s been said many places at this point, but it bears repeating that Morris’ emergence as a genuine offensive force has to be the most positive development this year. Where once we had a talented but sometimes reluctant star, we now have a player budding with confidence. It’s now at the point where we should expect him to do something amazing almost every time he touches the ball.
This is most obvious by looking at his production. He now has five goals and five assists in his past seven starts, a span of games in which he’s failed to register either a goal or an assist just once. That one game was the 2-2 tie on the road against the LA Galaxy where his effort helped produce both goals. For the year, Morris’ .77 goals+assists per 90 are the most among MLS midfielders.
But his change can also be seen in less obvious stats. For instance, Morris is now averaging 1.4 successful dribbles per game. That’s more twice what he averaged in either of his two previous full seasons. He’s also showing himself to be a more complete player, basically doubling his career averages with .9 tackles and .5 dribbles per game, while winning 1.7 aerials per match.
Whatever struggles the Sounders may be having, Morris is looking like the type of player who can paper over them effectively.
Building from the back
While the Sounders may still be struggling to replace the sort of possession that Osvaldo Alonso helped facilitate, we’ve been seeing signs that they at least have a plan and a big part of that may be Xavier Arreaga. The centerback is looking more comfortable each week, and this week completed more passes than any other player (46). More than the sheer number of passes was that he was making them farther up the field, often times carrying possession near midfield.
Meanwhile, Kim Kee-hee attempted just two fewer passes, while pressing even higher into the attack. Defensively, the duo combined for four tackles, six interceptions, 10 clearances and 18 recoveries. The Sounders still have work to do in terms of shoring up their defense, but it’s looking like the problem may not be their centerbacks as much as an inability to control the game in the midfield.
The straw that stirs the drink
Of course, let’s not overlook another outstanding performance from Nicolas Lodeiro. Despite having a relatively low usage rate by his standards, Lodeiro still ended up with two goals and probably should have been given an assist on the first goal.
But the main reason we should be talking about him this week is his new goal celebration, which we can only assume was dreamed up by his son.