SEATTLE — Expansion life in Major League Soccer — in any sport, really — is typically a grind. While there are high draft picks or allocation money or expansion drafts, teams are still trying to put together a puzzle with only half the picture. And no matter how many experienced executives or high-priced veterans you bring in, it’s never as simple as just plugging and playing.
Of course, there is the occasional needle in the proverbial haystack, and every once in a while the lottery ticket hits. The Seattle Sounders cashed in their inaugural season, lifting a US Open Cup trophy and making the MLS Cup playoffs, a feat they have repeated every year since.
Granted, 2022 still finds the Sounders on the outside of the playoffs looking in, a position they’ve rarely found themselves in. And when a struggling expansion side comes to town, most would assume that banking the three points is not only expected but necessary.
Still, 70+ minutes into the Sounders match with Charlotte FC on Sunday, it was an open question whether they would even find a way to wrest a point from the match. Not that the Sounders weren’t the dominant side — they were. But their advantage in possession and dangerous chances was mostly nullified by some of the most profligate shooting in recent memory.
But as they so often do, the Sounders find a way. And eventually their quality allowed them to leave Lumen Field with a narrow 2-1 victory in a game that probably never should have been that close. Certainly, coach Brian Schmetzer and the Sounders won’t ultimately care how the three points get tallied, but certainly, this was a “take a deep breath” type of ending, which probably wasn’t the script they were expecting.
Unrewarded for first-half dominance
It was an interesting juxtaposition, as the Sounders opened up the match dominating proceedings as expected. They also created more dangerous opportunities throughout the first 45 minutes and generally played some very attractive soccer. But unfortunately, the pretty buildup was more tease than payoff because the Sounders were unable through a series of unfortunate events — OK, poor finishing — to take advantage of the dominance. As for Charlotte, they took advantage of their one true chance on a free kick that was initially well saved by Stefan Frei, but took an unfortunate rebound that was opportunistically put home by Ben Bender. And again, the Sounders were chasing the game.
One could think the Sounders were unlucky to be behind after their first-half performance, and that might be true. But you don’t need luck if you take advantage of your opportunities, and the Sounders spurned enough chances to last them the rest of the summer, the worst of which was in the 37th minute when Jordan Morris misfired from essentially point-blank range in front of goal. Had they converted any of those chances in the first half, it’s more likely than not that the Sounders cruise in the second.
Less than stellar second-half
The Sounders are known for making the second-half adjustments that lead them to victory, but sometimes tinkering doesn’t come off, and about halfway through the second half, it looked like it was going to be one of those days at the office. Where the Sounders were wasteful in the first half, they seemingly couldn’t get untracked in the second, struggling to create chances as attacks died under the weight of misplaced passes and inability to break down a stubborn Charlotte defensive line. But eventually, the Sounders' quality got them there, thanks to a well-taken header from Jordan Morris and a thunderbolt from Raul Ruidiaz, who just always seems to show up when the Sounders need him most.
Jordan Morris’ redemption
Jordan Morris is under a lot of pressure these days. As not only the prodigal homegrown son of the Sounders, Morris is still in the mix for selection for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. While the squad won’t be selected until the fall, the eyes of the USMNT coaches are on him. So when he missed his opportunity in the 37the minute — a chance that he likely converts 9 times out of 10 — one could figuratively see the pressure weighing him down. But as he has done through most of his career with the Sounders, Morris persevered, and when he got another opportunity in the 72nd minute off a peach of a left-footed cross from Alex Roldan, Morris made sure he didn’t miss. There was no celebration after this one, as in this game, and his quest to make the World Cup team, Morris realized there was more work to do.
Ruidiaz does it again
Speaking of World Cups, Peru is set to take on New Zealand in World Cup qualification playoffs in less than a week. Raul Ruidiaz won’t be a part of that squad, having been spurned in his on-again, off-again relationship with head coach Ricardo Gareca. Whether this spells the end of his national team career is unknown, but as coach Brian Schmetzer suggested after the match, Gareca could probably use someone with Ruidiaz’s flair for the dramatic, which was on full display in the 80th minute when Ruidiaz took his initial blocked shot off of a corner, dribbled to the edge of the top of the penalty box, and unleashed a howitzer of a shot that found the upper corner and secured the three points of the Seattle. Ruidiaz had been somewhat quiet all night as the Sounders struggled in the second half, but as he usually does, he shines when the Sounders need him most.