SEATTLE — They can’t all be masterpieces.
Saturday afternoon’s matchup between the Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United won’t go on display at the US Soccer Hall of Fame. Your parents would probably would struggle to make a place for it on the fridge. But in a long season, function counts as much as form sometimes, and the Sounders at the end of 90+ minutes got what they needed: three points.
To be more than a little fair to the Sounders — and Minnesota for that matter — the matinee probably always figured to be a bit of a grind. Twelve days out from their last match, the Sounders might have been well-rested but they were hardly at full strength, with two of their key pieces likely still groggy after spending most of the previous day traveling and landing in the early hours of Saturday morning. That is to say nothing of the Brad Smith and the brothers Roldan, who returned to Seattle not long before the CONMEBOL contingent.
Minnesota United wasn’t hurting from international absences; they were just hurting, with Emanuel Reynoso (hamstring), Robin Lod (calf), Juan Agudelo (thigh), Niko Hansen (groin) and Justin McMaster (thigh) all ruled out for the match. So given a long layoff, extended travel from a three-game, seven-day international window and injuries, the recipe was definitely there for a slog.
But the Sounders did find at least one moment of brilliance, and they made the 22’ goal stand up thanks to some bend-don’t-break defense and the return of Stefan Frei. The Sounders can put the three points on the board, and look forward to an intriguing midweek match with Santos Laguna for the right to become the first MLS team (in two attempts) to appear in the League’s Cup final. And then, it’s back to the grind.
Here are five things we liked from the game:
Righting the home form
The Sounders came into this one winless in their last four home games, leaving them hovering around .500 at Lumen Field. That’s neither where they hoped to be, nor what history tells us they’re capable of. So it was important, then, that they were able to grind out a 1-0 win in front of the Brougham End Saturday to improve their home record to 6-3-4 on the season. After the match, Stefan Frei noted the importance of being good at home in the playoffs. Limping into the playoffs with a pedestrian home record would raise concerns about an early exist. Better then, to resolve those issues now.
Stefan Frei’s long-awaited return
It was certainly a long time coming, but the Sounders co-captain and security blanket finally returned between the pipes. After a considerable layoff, which was apparently further delayed by a head injury, Stefan Frei claimed his place behind the Sounders defense for the first time since the May 12 match against San Jose. Truth be told, Frei wasn’t called upon to make any spectacular saves, or really do anything particularly complicated. But he didn’t miss a beat either. Much like the Sounders on the day, it was a solid return, and more than anything, it was the emotional boost of having him back that will likely provide the biggest impact.
João Paulo puts in another shift
The landscape of MLS is littered with South American Designated Players who for one reason or another don’t pan out. Whether it’s a scouting failure, an inability to get acclimated to the league or some other issue, there’s always a risk that the big-money signing doesn’t pay off, which can be particularly damaging in a league with a salary budget and limited ways to expend your resources. So credit the Sounders scouting department for getting it right — again — with João Paulo, who has been everything he was advertised to be and more. João Paulo had an excellent all-around game in the center of the pitch, leading the team in tackles, was the team’s most active presser and, most importantly, the gam,e-winning goal following some good buildup from the Sounders. João Paulo certainly has the potential to score more goals for the Sounders, and when the team eventually — finally — gets to full strength, perhaps those opportunities will increase.
Will Bruin holds up
It was a little bit of back to the future for Bruin, as he was a bit unfortunate not to convert on several of the early chances created by the Sounders. On another day, he could have had at least a goal and/or assist, but he did contribute nonetheless as a release valve of sorts for the Sounders holding up the ball well and winning a team-high three fouls and generally occupying the Minnesota United backline. Bruin would surely like to see more end product for his efforts, but in this match, they were valuable just the same.
Subs shut things down
Sometimes, the substitutions are called upon to provide a spark, and other times to close things out. Saturday was a case of the latter, as it was apparent it was going to be one of those days in front of goal. But having gotten the elusive goal early and it obvious that a second was not likely to come late, it was something of a rear-guard action that Schmetzer called on his substitutes to reinforce. As Schmetzer noted after the game, each of the subs who played significant minutes added something to the proceedings: Brad Smith (pace), Montero (possession) and the Roldan brothers (bite). Montero in particular displayed his usual calmness in possession, which allowed the Sounders to hold the ball and kill the clock at the end.
It would be remiss not to say a word about the other Sounder returning from a long-term absence, if only because his full essence was on display. It wasn’t quite vintage Nouhou, but he did a lot of things he did so well early in the year: Physical defense, limited attacking forays, shaky passing and a flair for the hilarious. The latter never better on display than in the 59th minute after shepherding a ball out of bounds, Nouhou decided the shortest distance between the end-line and his starting position on the goal kick was directly over a prone Ethan Findlay. Nouhou was of course careful not to touch the Minnesota United player, employing a step-over that would make Eddie Johnson proud. Referee Alex Chilowicz was less impressed, and had a few words for Nouhou after the move.