SEATTLE — The Sounders started their 2021 campaign with a lot of questions for a team defending a Western Conference title. Over the offseason, they lost several key veterans, suffered injuries to two invaluable starters, and also decided to utilize a new formation. Additionally, given the team’s salary-budget constraints due to a lower-than-expected salary cap, the Sounders weren’t able to reinforce as they might have preferred. To top it off, their preseason was truncated due to some Covid-19 related limitations and cancellations. Put it all together, and you could be forgiven for worrying about the state of the team.
One game in, and the Sounders have allayed at least some of those fears.
After a sluggish first half marked mostly by a missed penalty by Raúl Ruidíaz, the Sounders came to life in the second half, sending four goals past Minnesota United to send the 7,042 fans attending the game home happy.
Here are five things we saw:
An early candidate for Goal of the Year
João Paulo got off to a bit of a rough start, picking up three fouls in the first seven minutes of the game. He eventually settled in, though, and then banged in an early goal-of-the-year candidate, volleying a cleared header to himself and then lasering a shot from 25 yards out past a helpless Dayne St. Clair. JP was his characteristic dogged self, getting stuck in challenges and making his presence felt on the defensive end. In the end, it was his offensive contribution that got the Sounders going.
The return of Fredy
That is one way to mark your return to the Lumen Field faithful. Fredy Montero had a productive preseason, but there was always a bit of a question about how he would fit into the team nearly a decade on from when he last donned the Rave Green. His stint with the Vancouver Whitecaps was productive, if not spectacular, though that may have more to do with the talent level up north. Coming in as a substitute in the 69th minute, Montero looked like he hasn’t lost a step, helping set up Ruidiaz’s second goal with a sublime pass to release Cristian Roldan, who provided the final assist. Montero capped his storybook return with a well-taken first-time shot off a cross from Alex Roldan to round out the scoring. Montero might be really good, y’all.
The emergence of Atencio
Coach Brian Schmetzer may have a bit of an issue on his hands when Nicolás Lodeiro returns from injury. No, Josh Atencio won’t be displacing Lodeiro in this (or any other) universe, but the 19-year-old had a fantastic game and made the case for more playing time. Cleaning up defensive messes and showing a penchant for getting involved in the attack, Atencio displayed a maturity on the field that will surely have Schmetzer confident in giving him more opportunities.
The 3-5-2 looked good ... eventually
There was always going to be a learning curve in making a dramatic formation change, especially given the fact that the Sounders weren’t really able to have a normal preseason to implement it. And in the first half, they certainly showed that they are still working out some of the kinks. To Minnesota’s credit, they pressed the Sounders into a number of mistakes, and for the most part controlled the possession. That said the Sounders did look dangerous whenever they were able to get out in transition. However, everything turned around in the second half with the João Paulo screamer, and the Sounders seemed to figure out how to better play with two forwards on the field. Still, there are issues to work out, particularly in wide areas going forward. But even there, the Sounders looked vastly better in the second half, with Alex Roldan providing a lovely cross to Montero for a goal.
The redemption of Ruidíaz
The rough first half could have been somewhat mitigated, had Ruidíaz converted a penalty in the 31st minute. To be fair, it wasn’t an awful penalty and Dayne St. Clair made a quality save. Still, when you bag a brace in the second half on the way to a 4-0 win, nobody will remember a missed penalty. The two goals have to be especially rewarding to Ruidíaz and the Sounders, given the tumultuous preseason that saw the star forward miss a month with green card issues. Now, all of that is behind them.