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Postgame Pontifications: Picking up the pieces

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Thursday’s result is going to sting for awhile, but Sounders attempt to look forward.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — This one is going to sting for awhile.

Brian Schmetzer certainly seems to feel that way. Maybe it was partly the illness he’s been fighting for more than a week, but his body language and cadence told the story of a man deeply disappointed with the night’s result. The Seattle Sounders had just been eliminated from Concacaf Champions League — probably at least two full rounds earlier than just about anyone expected — after they fell in a penalty shootout to Honduras’ CD Olimpia on Thursday.

The Seattle native who often wears his heart on his sleeve went as far as to apologize to fans, not so much for a performance that was more underwhelming than overtly bad, but more as a way to share that he felt his team missed a glorious opportunity.

The Sounders had, after all, spent all offseason and preseason gearing up for a lengthy CCL run both in words and in actions. The two big signings they made — perhaps later than many would have preferred but still much earlier than they have in previous seasons — were both done with an eye toward maxing out the budget early in the season as opposed to waiting until summer as they normally do. The team spent a significant chunk of preseason training in Mexico in an effort to prepare for LIga MX and Central American opponents.

Everyone from GM Garth Lagerwey to the players talked of the competition’s importance and embraced the opportunity to become the first MLS team to win the tournament.

All of that preseason work is not exactly for naught, but there’s no denying a shocking degree of incompleteness to all of this.

“We like to think of ourselves as a big club,” Schmetzer said. “We like to think of ourselves as a team that can compete in Champions League, in MLS play, in Open Cup, in every single game that we play be better than our opponent and it didn’t happen this time. I’m personally very disappointed and I know there are a lot of guys in there who are disappointed as well.”

The idea that this season may already be lost is obviously outrageous. The Sounders open the regular-season on Sunday, won’t begin the U.S. Open Cup until late April, will have the Campeones Cup in late summer and will hopefully have a chance to defend their MLS Cup in the playoffs. It’s entirely possible that the early CCL exit allows them to put even more emphasis on some of these competitions and this setback aside, seem capable of winning all of them. It goes without saying that pulling off such a fete would carve out an impressive place in MLS history.

Yet, CCL was the trophy the Sounders had placed most of their preseason emphasis on. The Sounders weren’t at full strength in the series, but Olimpia was missing as many as six potential starters in the second leg and were playing both legs on short rest. The Sounders were in preseason form and fitness, but were also the only MLS team not to advance.

It’s hard to imagine a more manageable path to a continental title than the one that was laid out this year. Beating Olimpia would have set up a quarterfinal match against a Montreal Impact team that looks destined to finish in the lower half of the Eastern Conference and they’d probably have closer to a full squad by the time they matched up against either New York City FC or Tigres UANL in a potential semifinal.

Even if the Sounders go on to run the table in the rest of their competitions, there will be this overwhelming sense of “what could have been.”

“It should provide some motivation,” Schmetzer said. “I thought we got rid of the slow-start narrative. We’re going to have to work on that a little bit more. I have to give them the tools to be successful, the confidence to be successful.”

So what happened?

The Sounders got off to a bit of a slow start and seemed a bit shell-shocked after giving up a 4th minute goal on Olimpia’s first corner kick. They eventually settled in and would end up controlling the match with about 65 percent of possesion and had by far the bulk of the scoring chances. A penalty shout for Raúl Ruidíaz, a Nouhou goal that was flagged offside and another golden chance in front of goal that João Paulo couldn’t quite connect on were all potential opportunities to blow the game open.

Despite those setbacks, the Sounders still found themselves with a seemingly comfortable 2-1 lead heading into the match’s final moments. When Olimpia lined up for a free kick from about 50 yards out in the 86th minute, they’d gone nearly 40 minutes since even attempting a shot and they’d not forced Stefan Frei into making a save since the 9th minute. Olimpia hadn’t completed a single pass into the penalty area all game and had only even completed a handful of passes into the offensive third. It was nothing like a clinical performance, but the Sounders seemed to be putting together a professional performance that would put them through to the next round.

Then lightning struck. A 22-year-old midfielder who hadn’t scored a professional goal as recently as a few weeks ago lashed a volley from about 20 yards that gave the Sounders defense no time to react and brushed the post as it nestled into the back of the net.

The Sounders problem, it seemed, wasn’t so much a couple lapses on defense as much as it was a failure to fully take advantage of the chances they had on the other end. The game just seemed to be waiting for a dagger from someone like Raúl Ruidíaz that never quite came like it had in so many big games of previous years.

“We just stopped making plays,” Schmetzer said almost mystified.

Shifting focus

Amidst the rubble of the Sounders’ CCL dreams there was a glimpse of a silver lining. With as many as six midweek games suddenly removed from the Sounders’ schedule, they can focus on the MLS regular season.

The impact of the loosening congestion may be felt as soon as Sunday in the MLS season opener against the Chicago Fire. While the Sounders had once suggested that the early part of the campaign would be a chance for the team’s younger players to get some minutes, Schmetzer suggested on Friday that “we’re going to put our best team out there.”

This is the beginning of a whole new season, let’s not forget.

“None of the hard work we put into the offseason has been put to waste,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said on Thursday. “We have a season ahead of us. Maybe it’s a mental challenge before the season. I often talk about character building as a team. We need to have our own challenging moments and we have one already that we can utilize, to figure things out and come out on the other end.”

Strange as it will be to be create a festive mood around unveiling a MLS Cup banner on the heels of possibly the most surprising loss in franchise history, there’s also an overwhelming desire to turn those emotions around.

“A final in November seems a long way off from right now,” Schmetzer said. “The game last night was disappointing, it was very disappointing. But I think we’re ready to move forward because Sunday is a big day for us. It will be a celebration of that day last November. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”