By now, you’ve probably read or heard me expressing some level of concern about the MLS is Back Tournament. To quickly recap, my concerns fall mainly along two lines: 1. COVID-19 is far from contained and the matches are being held in one of the worst spots for the pandemic; 2. The games could potentially prove to be a bit of distraction from the social justice movements going on in society, which I believe deserve our attention.
As far as the COVID-19 situation goes, I think we can probably say that it’s only gotten worse over time. While I am willing to believe that the players can be kept reasonably safe, concern over the disease has already forced several matches to be rescheduled and for two teams to be completely withdrawn.
Even taking the league’s word that this is all indicative of the protocols working as planned, what’s harder to reconcile is the ethical dilemma that the tournament continues to pose. Not only is there a broad optical issue of holding this tournament in one of the world’s COVID-19 hotspots, but there’s an even more problematic appearance that in order to keep the players safe the league is diverting resources from the general population. However you feel about the direct impact rampant testing inside the MLS bubble has on wait times for everyone else, it’s a bad look at the very least.
None of these concerns are going to go away as long as the tournament continues, but I strongly suspect that most of us have either made peace with this moral quandary or we’ve decided to not pay attention to the games.
There has been a more promising development in terms of my other primary concern, at least. Rather than serving as a distraction from protests championing police accountability and racial justice, the league’s players have done an impressive job of amplifying that message. The tournament opened with a lengthy period of silence that included nearly 200 of the league’s Black players on the field, many holding up their fists in a call back to the famous protests of track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The ESPN broadcast did a commendable job of not only showing the protest in its entirety but talking about it and the context in which it was staged on the broadcast.
Since then, virtually every team has come up with a way to continue spreading their message, with the league even providing a space on each player’s jersey to write some sort of message. Philadelphia Union players went as far as replacing their names on their shirts with the names of various people killed by police. The Sounders commissioned a local Black artist to design the captain’s armband to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and have pledged to continue putting actions behind their words.
“For me as a white male athlete, it’s important to listen, it’s important to educate myself,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said during Friday’s postgame press conference. “But I want to be part of it. Everybody has to be part of it. What we’ve seen with George Floyd’s senseless murder was the last straw. The rawness of that video upset a lot of people and hopefully that senseless murder will have some meaningful change toward accomplishing that American dream.
“We’re supposed to be the land of the free, justice for all, all that fun stuff. Let’s make it count, let’s work toward that. That’s what I want to see.”
The following day, both Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris followed up with messages about the victims they honored on their shirts.
BLACK LIVES MATTER! ✊ ✊ ✊— Jordan Morris (@JmoSmooth13) July 12, 2020
Breonna Taylor, like so many others, deserves justice. We must all come together to demand change. Continue to educate yourself, vote, sign petitions, and join the movement. Continue to say her name. pic.twitter.com/5vowT7Whik
Manuel Ellis like countless others was at the cruel end of police brutality right in our backyard(Tacoma,WA). A man that did not deserve death, strangled at the hands of police officers 4 months ago. As things die down it is important to keep saying their names.— Cristian Roldan⚽ (@CristianRoldan) July 12, 2020
What kind of change the players can ultimately effect and what actions they choose to take beyond these messages are still very much unknown. What we do know is that the players seem intent on using the platform games provide as a way to amplify this message, rather than allowing the tournament to serve as a distraction.
Overall, there wasn’t a whole to get excited about from the Sounders on Friday. They struggled to retain possession, still managed to create some chances and generally looked like a team that hadn’t played a competitive match in four months. One positive development, however, was the overall play of Yeimar Gómez Andrade.
Although the Colombian centerback had made two previous appearances at the start of the season, he was clearly still trying to get acclimated and more concerned with avoiding mistakes than flexing his abilities.
I think we saw something closer to what we can expect going forward in his performance against the Earthquakes. Gomez Andrade showed off some impressive mobility, most notably in his dribbling where he carried the ball deep into the opposing end.
Matias Almeyda agressive man-marking scheme in full display this night. With an approach so physically taxing, i was surprised that the game ended in a 0-0.— João Mateus (@JMateusPOV) July 11, 2020
Seattle wasn't able do disrupt San Jose's defense. It wasn't for lack of space-failed to take advantage of the free player. pic.twitter.com/6ulomZfB0n
Gomez Andrade finished the match with a team-high 51 passes and completed 88.2% of them, second only to Gustav Svensson’s 92.3%. Gomez Andrade also completed 6 of 7 long balls.
Coupled with another active and effective match from Xavier Arreaga — his ill-advised yellow card aside — there’s at least reason to think that this could prove to be an upgraded centerback pairing.
As much as we were hoping to finally see the Sounders at something like full strength in this tournament, that was not the case in Game 1. João Paulo was a notable absence from this game and his participating is very much in question.
Brian Schmetzer chose to go with a more defensive duo in Jordy Delem and Gustav Svensson rather than moving Cristian Roldan back a line. Delem and Svensson were fine, I suppose, but the midfield was less dynamic than would have been preferred. Delem attempted just 15 passes in 55 minutes. The duo barely even ventured into the offensive half.
That was perhaps best illustrated by the two central midfielders combing for just 54 passes. João Paulo, by contrast, averaged 72.5 passes by himself in the first two games of the season back in March. Granted, that was while playing mostly as a 10, but even Nicolas Lodeiro only managed 41 passes in this game, which is a far cry from the 63.6 he averaged last year.
I can understand why Schmetzer is trying to keep Roldan as a wide player since that’s where he’s likely to see the most minutes this year, but you have to imagine that he gives the Sounders an overall more consistent analogue to João Paulo. My personal preference would be to see Miguel Ibarra start wide and Roldan to play deeper until João Paulo is back.