There were more than a couple of cliches for the Seattle Sounders to be wary of coming into Saturday’s matchup with the San Jose Earthquakes. First up is “new coach bump,” the Earthquakes having finally bit the bullet and ended their rocky marriage with the mercurial Matias Almeyda early last week. The saying goes that a new coach brings in new ideas, and players have a sense of relief and urgency, given the new coach isn’t necessarily married to keeping them around.
And of course the infamous “trap game,” with the Sounders casting one eye towards the next two Wednesdays, with history becoming, and the opportunity to be the first Major League Soccer team to lift a Champions League Trophy. There’s almost no way not to look forward to that matchup, regardless of the messaging from head coach Brian Schmetzer that the next game is always the most important one.
To that end, Schmetzer kept true to his word, starting the strongest possible starting lineup he had available in San Jose. But something was a little off in this one with the Sounders at some points seemingly going through the motions for large parts of the game. That could have been attributed to not taking San Jose particularly seriously, given their place in the standings. But Sounders don’t have much room to talk there, and even less so after what could only be described as a capitulation, giving up three unanswered goals to drop 4-3 result in a game they had no business losing.
So again the Sounders will try to regroup and focus on the biggest final in team history. Two bad losses on the bounce heading down to Mexico won’t make anyone particularly confident, but that’s the situation the Sounders will have to deal with.
Much like a prospective grad who has already gotten into college, or has that first job lined up, it can be tough to get through those last days before the exciting new chapter begins. The tediousness of another homework assignment when spring weather is so nice can be mind-numbing. But the work is the work, and there is something to be said for leaving on a high note, even if you’re done it all before. For the Sounders, it surely would have been beneficial to take two wins over beatable opponents into their match with Pumas. Now, they’re left to wonder if something is wrong fundamentally, or simply one-off.
To keep the cliches coming, Saturday’s performance exposed a Sounders side that knew they were more talented, and thought they could coast to an easy victory. And for large parts of the game, it did seem like it would happen. Jumping out to a 2-0 though not playing particularly well, it was like the Sounders showed up for the midterm not having studied, but still managed to ace the first part of the test. Unfortunately, sometimes that can bite you, and the last part of the test apparently to covered some material the Sounders had apparently ignored.
They are who we thought they were
San Jose were, by and large, a disaster under Almeyda’s leadership, though a typically entertaining one. That’s how earthquakes work generally. Dangerous and at times dynamic in attack, the Earthquakes typically eschew defense as an annoying concept rather than an essential part of the game. So it was hardly surprising that they frequently tested the Sounders’ defense. But for as much potential as they have going forward, so too are they unrefined, as evidenced by the nature of the shots they took, many that would never trouble Stefan Frei. But complacency can be contagious, and Frei was caught unawares on a shot/cross by Christian Espinoza, and the comeback was well and truly on.
Matching SJ’s Energy
If there is one area where the Sounders likely expected to have trouble with San Jose, it was weathering what was likely to be an energetic effort as the Earthquakes played in front of their new interim coach. It was evident from the beginning that would be an issue, as the Earthquakes pressed the Sounders defensively and were largely successful at creating turnovers in dangerous locations, and winning second balls. That the Sounders were still able to easily create scoring chances — and goals — speaks to the talent disparity on display. But as the Sounders found out, but best team doesn’t always win.
If last week’s loss to Inter Miami at home didn't serve as a warning sign due to the amount of roster turnover in that match, Saturday’s concession surely should. At the point, the Sounders have put all of their eggs in the Champions League basket. And they should: It’s a chance to make history. But the MLS hole is getting a bit deep here, and while the Sounders are far from in danger of missing the playoffs, things aren’t going to get easier as they look to also continue their streak of participation in the MLS tournament. But for now they have more immediate concerns, as a performance like this on Wednesday in Mexico might mean they can concentrate on the MLS issues a bit earlier than they want.