When trying to assess who would be the favorites at the MLS is Back Tournament, there were several lines of thinking. Being that this was a short tournament with a World Cup-style format, maybe it would be the veteran squads. There was another line of thinking that deep teams with lots of young talent would excel given the short training window beforehand. Maybe it would simply come down to talent.
The prevailing thought, however, seemed to be that the teams would do best would be the ones who were simply the most motivated. In a league like MLS where the talent margins are already pretty thin and given all the other aspects of this tournament that give it a surreal quality, it made sense that the teams who simply wanted to be there would be the ones who were there longest.
After two games, I think it’s fair to wonder if the Sounders are one of the teams who wouldn’t mind heading home early.
In some ways, Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Chicago Fire was an improvement over the 0-0 tie against the San Jose Earthquakes a few days prior. Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer noted that one way they had hoped to manage their tied legs — nine of the starters had started just three days prior — was to spend less time chasing the ball.
They managed to do that by holding 61 percent of possession and completing about 250 more passes than they did in their MLS is Back opener.
Unfortunately, completing passes doesn’t mean much by itself. The Sounders managed a rather meager seven shots despite completing 83% of their 174 passes from inside the offensive third. The Sounders were perfectly comfortable throwing numbers into the Fire’s end, but didn’t seem to know what to do with the ball once they got there.
None of this means the Sounders lacked effort. I think that was there. I just think that they were put in a nearly impossible position, made worse by the schedule that had them playing an early-morning game on just three days’ rest. A flat performance under these circumstances was almost inevitable. It seems entirely plausible that Raúl Ruidíaz’s comment before the game may be somewhat indicative of the team’s overall feeling about it.
Raúl Ruidíaz on #MLSisBack:— Diego Montalvan (@DMontalvan) July 13, 2020
I understand MLS wanted to do a nice tournament and get us playing, but things don’t feel right. Groups of teams have all their matches at night and not at daytime when it’s much hotter, there’s a disadvantage. It wasn’t a good idea to come play here. pic.twitter.com/YDULOerZCg
Over the course of the pandemic, the Sounders have shown themselves to be one of the more thoughtful teams when it comes to dealing with it. At least outwardly, they’ve constantly erred on making sure players feel safe and comfortable rather than doing what would be best for optimizing performance.
I don’t know if that’s really what’s going on here, but I feel like it does make a certain amount of sense. I also strongly suspect that as much as the Sounders would like to win on Sunday that they might not be too heartbroken if they failed to qualify for the knockout stages of this tournament and got sent home.
A moment of quality
The one notable exception to the Sounders’ lackluster play was the goal. Xavier Arreaga made a nice pass into the box to Jordan Morris, who let the ball run to the end line before placing a perfect cut-back pass to a charging Handwalla Bwana. The left-footed finish showed some quality that has been in short supply at this tournament.
For Arreaga, it was the kind of ball-at-his-feet ability that makes him so intriguing despite the mistakes. For Morris, it was just another example of the kind of dynamic play he’s able to bring even in abbreviated appearances. Dating back to last season, Morris now has 11 goals and eight assists in his past 24 MLS appearances. Most interestingly, perhaps, it was the latest glimmer of hope that Bwana can emerge as a bonafide MLS-quality contributor.
I’m not going to go as far as even passively comparing Bwana to Christian Pulisic the way Matt Doyle did at MLSsoccer.com, but I will agree that it was a very good run and the type of thing I’d love to see Bwana do more of. I’m also a little reluctant to get too excited because although he’s shown us glimpses of this kind of play before, the problem has always been his ability to string together several of these performances — or even moments like this in a single game — in a way that keeps him in the rotation.
From the sound of it, he’s at least in line for another start in the Sounders’ group stage finale. Here’s hoping he makes the most of the chance.
The other homegrowns
I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little surprised to see Schmetzer use so little rotation against the Fire. Nine of the 11 players ended up starting their second straight game, with the only exceptions being Shandon Hopeau for Morris and Miguel Ibarra for Jordy Delem.
Like most people, I assumed this would be the game where the Sounders tested their depth a bit and was a little surprised not to see someone like Danny Leyva, Josh Atencio, Bwana or even veteran Shane O’Neill get a start.
Even more perplexing was Schmetzer’s answer when asked about the decision to start Hopeau.
“It’s been a mandate by the club to get younger players in the squad, so I’m doing what I can,” Schmetzer said.
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Hopeau earning the chance, even if his play was nothing particularly inspiring.
My assumption is that Hopeau had actually done enough in training to get that chance and that this wasn’t simply Schmetzer picking an attack-minded player off the bench. At first it seemed like perhaps it was more an indictment of Bwana’s place in the rotation — and maybe it was — but that seems to be a bit beside the point now.
I bring this all up not because I have some grand point. I don’t honestly know what to make of it, aside from Schmetzer seemed very frustrated after both games and that this whole tournament feels a bit off right now.