The Seattle Sounders’ woes in Sandy, Utah have been well documented, having not won any MLS match there since Mario Martinez’s late-winner in the 2012 playoffs. A difficult place to play under the best of circumstances, Saturday afternoon’s (and eventually evening) match added another difficult spike from Mother Nature in the form of a 2-hour lightning delay, compounded by some hail and eventually snow.
Combined with a rotated squad and a new (old) formation, and well, it’s no wonder the Sounders looked out of sorts for portions of the match. Still, they had some chances similar to the opening day 1-0 loss to Nashville, but the result was the same — punished by one particularly bad defensive lapse and unable to find a response.
So now the Sounders must move on, and focus on a huge Concacaf Champions League match at home against Club Leon on Tuesday. By rotating his squad against RSL, head coach Brian Schmetzer will mostly be able to start a first-choice squad in the first leg, though injuries may prevent it from being an optimal one. Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game
Jackson Ragen solid in debut
The need to rotate the team meant that centerback Jackson Ragen completed his somewhat circuitous path to his MLS debut. A former Sounders Academy player that left to play college, his Homegrown rights were lost when he entered the draft. After failing to catch on with the Chicago Fire, Ragen spent a year at Tacoma Defiance. The Sounders were impressed enough to acquire his MLS rights for $50,000 in General Allocation Money and a third-round draft pick before signing him this offseason. That appears to be money well-spent, as Ragen acquitted himself nicely in his first MLS start. After some early nerves dealing with the skill and experience of the likes of Justin Meram, Ragen settled in the match, displaying some quality on-the-ball skill and incisive passing. After the match, Schmetzer indicated his biggest learning curve will be on the defensive side, dealing with the speed of play at this level. At minimum, the Sounders centerback scouting network is alive and well.
The lighting delay surely did the Sounders no favors, but upon their return, there were some warning signs about the risk of conceding. Having to return to complete two first-half minutes before a short halftime break, the Sounders nearly conceded in that interval, needing a save from Stefan Frei to keep things even at the half. Schmetzer then made three halftime changes — one more than initially planed — and at the second half restart, the Sounders looked slow and out of sorts. Salt Lake pounced immediately, dragging the Sounders out of position and allowing Bobby Wood to collect a pass all alone in the penalty area. Although his intitial shot was blocked, he put away the rebound.
Rotating six players out of the 1-0 loss to Nashville, clearly indicates the Sounders had at least one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League match and reverting to a three centerback “house” formation was surely designed to keep things tight at the back. To that end, the strategy was mostly a success, if conceding only one goal on the road can be called as much. That gave the Sounders a chance to get a result, but offensively, while the Sounders did create some opportunities, they didn’t create enough, and certainly none of the quality that led to Salt Lake’s winner. Schmetzer called the offense a work-in-progress after the Nashville match, but after another shutout, the level of progress is up for debate.
Grinding this early is rarely a good thing. The so-called “dog days of summer,” when injuries creep up, and fatigue and travel take their toll, are usually when teams talk about the need to grind out those 1-0 home results, or 0-0 road draws. Unfortunately for the Sounders, the dog-days have a decidedly winter feel to them, as they work with a squad that is just ... not right for a variety of reasons. The Sounders have faith they’ll eventually get things going, because trophies or no, they’ve never not. But it’s a slog right now, and that’s not fun for anyone.
On to Leon
All that said, a victory Tuesday at Lumen against Leon will cure a lot of what ails the Sounders. Whether one truly values the Champions League over the MLS season is up for debate. What isn’t is the Sounders’ ethos: Compete and try to win every competition they enter. As much was said by Schmetzer after the match with Real Salt Lake: They’re already over it. Truly there wasn’t much else to add about a March road match in Utah given the conditions and squad rotation, so time to move on.