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Postgame Pontifications: Cautiously satisfied

Sounders get a rare road CCL shutout but know they have work to do.


How someone feels about the Seattle Sounders’ 0-0 tie with FC Motagua on Thursday probably has a lot to do with the degree to which they’re willing to look at the circumstances.

It’s entirely fair, I think, to be somewhat disappointed, at least devoid of context. Despite having arguably the more talented team and not having to deal with the hostile crowd that usually comes with playing in Central America, the Sounders were rather conservative with their game plan. They seemed reluctant to push numbers forward, were content to keep the ball instead of pushing the action, and the subs were mostly designed with those two objectives in mind.

While accurate, that also overlooks some important circumstances.

All of Sounders’ head coach Brian Schmetzer’s decisions, I think, are rooted in the reality that this preseason was pretty weird. Camp opened about a month ago with most of their starters absent for a variety of reasons and it was only in the final portion of it that the majority of those players returned. Two of those presumed starters — Nouhou and João Paulo — never even appeared in a preseason game.

Nouhou, who should be perfectly fit after spending the whole preseason with Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations, was at least able to come off the bench. João Paulo, the team’s MVP and one of the league’s best players in 2021, missed most of preseason while finalizing his green card and was sent back to Seattle early in hopes of getting him fit in time for next week’s return leg.

To further complicate things, several of the team’s presumed top backups were also unavailable. Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva and Jimmy Medranda are all dealing with injuries that have kept them out of preseason action and Will Bruin picked up a knock while the team was in Palm Springs.

That led to Schmetzer fielding a lineup with Kelyn Rowe at left back — a position he’s not started at since 2018 — and 16-year-old Obed Vargas as one of two defensive midfielders.

When you combine all that with the reality that the Sounders had failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their previous 13 CCL road games — a stretch that includes a 2-6-3 record in Mexico and Central America — suddenly the result seems a bit more palatable.

“Of course we’d have taken a ‘W,’ but to come down here and have arguably the better chances, we’ll take that,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei told the media afterward. “There were some good things to take away from that. We were able to possess the ball at the end and get them tired. That was nice to see.”

While reluctant to use it as an excuse, Frei did acknowledge that the field conditions posed some challenges. The grass looked especially long and bumpy, with the Sounders often struggling to control passes and get clean touches. Combined with the normal struggles of early-season fitness, the heat and elevation, it helped explain why the game was so slow especially toward the end.

In one seemingly telling moment at the very end of the match, Nouhou chested down an errant cross to Frei and then immediately began sprinting up field. Rather than fire the ball into space and let Nouhou run, Frei just looked him off, held onto the ball for a few seconds and finally kicked it long. Nouhou won that ball, it should be said, but only in a way that allowed the Sounders to retain possession as opposed to putting them in position for one last attack. The final whistle sounded moments later.

“We were smarter in the way we played,” Frei said. “We took our time when we needed. We were smarter with our possession-making. All those things helped to see out the full 90 minutes. We pride ourselves in things like our direct press, but sometimes you have to be smart. If it’s not in the cards, maybe it’s better to stay compact and come back.”

Schmetzer voiced similar sentiments. Sure, they were a bit disappointed not to win the game, but he felt the Sounders created enough chances to feel as though the game plan was sound. He pointed to the open shot from 10 yards out that Albert Rusnák sent wide, a shot that Nicolás Lodeiro had blocked from close range, a clever move by Obed Vargas that created an opening and a couple other dangerous looks Jordan Morris generated.

Aside from a couple nervy moments, mostly on set pieces, the Sounders defense was solid and seemed to have the game reasonably under control from about the 30th minute on.

Given that the Sounders finished last season on a seven-game winless run in which they failed to score multiple goals in any of those games, I get why defensive solidity might be a bit underwhelming. But the reality is the Sounders head home in position to advance with any win.

“I would say it’s always harder to gel offensively than defensively,” Schmetzer said. Securing a shutout was “one of our objectives. I believe we’ll find a goal or two.”

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