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Postgame Pontifications: Time to get back to business

Playing at Starfire was a welcome distraction, but there are bigger prizes in play than the U.S. Open Cup.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

TUKWILA — As contrasts go, the setting of the Seattle Sounders’ last two home games could not be starker.

A week after playing in front of nearly 70,000 fans for a continental championship, the Sounders were facing the San Jose Earthquakes with fewer than 4,000 in attendance at a soccer stadium that is most often used for youth tournaments in an early round of the U.S. Open Cup.

In a sense, it was a welcome relief, even if the result did not go the Sounders’ way.

“I’ve played in this complex many times as a kid, especially on this field,” said Federal Way native Kellyn Rowe, who was playing here for the first time as a member of the Sounders. “It was nostalgic coming back, and the fact that we were able to play so long made it fun.”

Despite being eliminated in the 11th round of a penalty shootout after coming back from a 2-0 deficit, the night was, dare I say, fun. Games at Starfire with its tight confines and limited capacity often feel tense, especially since the games that are played there are invariably win-or-go-home affairs. But the mood on Wednesday was a bit more festive.

That it had been five years since the Sounders played here had sort of contributed to the legend of Starfire Sports Stadium. It obviously helped that the Sounders had just won the Concacaf Champions League a week earlier and that this marked the first time that most fans could get up close and personal with the trophy. The line to take pictures with the 32-pound beauty stretched hundreds of people long and it stayed that way for most of the time gates were opened until kickoff. Fans and front-office personnel mingled together freely. Many of the first team players who didn’t suit up watched from the stands, exposed to the elements just like everyone else. Starfire serves as a reminder that the Sounders are not just part of the community, they are embedded in it.

Even after the Earthquakes scored the opener just 10 minutes into the match — on a penalty awarded to a foul that appeared to happen just outside the box — the mood in the stands still seemed buoyant. When the Earthquakes added a second in the 50th minute, the mood barely shifted.

But when Jimmy Medranda finally got the Sounders on the board in the 54th minute with an exquisitely taken freekick, Starfire seemed to come alive. Rather than dampen the proceedings, the rain that started falling shortly after that only seemed to raise the mood. The equalizer that felt almost inevitable came in the 77th minute when Fredy Montero headed in a Kelyn Rowe cross.

The Sounders pushed hard to get the winner that never came, and their bad luck in penalty shootouts continued, but the players mostly seemed satisfied with the effort if not the result.

“We had a great run in CCL, had a lot of high emotions, but now we have to get back to reality and learn how to grind out games,” Rowe said. “You saw that comeback from down to 2-2. I think that’s great for league games that we still have that grind, that willingness to never give up.”

Head coach Brian Schmetzer selected a lineup that was full of mostly reserves and even left most of his normal starters off the team sheet. When asked about that, Schmetzer pushed back with somewhat surprising force.

“I put a team out there that was able to win this game. Dead stop,” he said. “I have complete faith in [the players he used]. I don’t buy into that narrative. Those guys played really well and I’m proud of them.”

While it’s not hard to imagine having someone like Raúl Ruidíaz or Cristian Roldan would have helped, Schmetzer had a fair point insofar as the Sounders were the better team on the balance. The Sounders had an xG advantage of 2.98-1.78, outshot San Jose 26-11 and dominated most of the “effort” metrics like duels and tackles.

There’s also something to be said about forcing those reserves to figure it out themselves. Playing 120 minutes of high-stress soccer — a decent chunk of which was played against what is effective the Earthquakes’ first team — will hopefully pay dividends down the road.

I have no doubt that Schmetzer genuinely wanted to win this game, I’m sure there were many players who were just as disappointed as him, and I’ll even admit that I liked the Sounders’ chances to make a long run even with this second-choice lineup, but I still can’t help but feel as though this might be for the best. The Sounders just finished an absolutely grueling start to their season, one that included four road trips that added at least 20,000 miles to their travel schedule. As much fun as it would have been to now embark on a less-grueling-but-still-tough Open Cup run, there are bigger goals at play.

With the deck now virtually clear, the Sounders can focus on getting their MLS season back on track.