SEATTLE – Finding a player to talk after a bad loss is always a challenge. Not only is it uncomfortable to talk about a bad performance, but they do it knowing that their teammates are within earshot. Walking the line between being accountable to fans without alienating your co-workers is hardly easy.
Stefan Frei, albeit reluctantly, manages to find the balance better than most. So it wasn't entirely surprising that he was the one who faced the press following the Seattle Sounders' 2-0 face-plant against Atlanta United on Sunday.
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But this time, Frei's comments carried a little added weight. It marked the first game since he had been named the team's permanent captain, fully shouldering the responsibility he had often shared with Nicolás Lodeiro throughout most of their Sounders tenures.
"Nobody is going to take us out of this hole," Frei said following the Sounders' third straight multi-goal loss, which included an embarrassing exit from the Leagues Cup group stage. "It’s us, no one else. I just think working harder, finding another gear in training, that’s what it’s going to take. If we pull apart, we’ll fail as individuals."
The decision to pass the armband from Lodeiro to Frei had actually taken place prior to the Leagues Cup loss to Monterrey, but the responsibility for that game went to João Paulo with Frei out with an injury. Frei downplayed the significance of the change, noting that he had served as vice-captain and even co-captain.
"I try to do whatever I can in that role already," Frei said. "It’s more logistics, if guys have problems I need to voice to the coaches or anyone else. Come to me, I want to be the guy who’s in between and gets yelled at if the team doesn’t get what they want. I want to look after my teammates, make sure everyone is happy. But what’s on the field in training, it’s not going to change for me, it’s not going to change for Nico. He always works his tail off."
Significant or not, it is just the latest of what has so far been a series of minor tweaks that have been designed to break the Sounders out of a funk that has followed them around like a cloud for the better part of five months. Since the Sounders' blazing 5-1-1 start to the season, they've gone just 5-10-5 including a pair of Leagues Cup losses and are trending in the wrong direction.
This was the Sounders' third-straight multi-goal loss and the fourth time in five games they'd lost by at least two goals. Their offensive struggles have been a regular thing for months, but their league-best defense has now allowed 14 goals in their past six.
The loss to Atlanta was, in some ways, the worst of the bunch. The normal excuses – short rest, multiple key player absences, a road game – didn't apply. Still, the Sounders were practically played off the pitch in the first half, conceding an almost impossible-to-believe 70% possession and being very lucky to only be down 1-0. The second half was better, but mainly because the bar was so low. Of their 16 shots, just two were on frame for a xGOT of .07. That's not a predictive stat, but it's about as illustrative as they come.
The Sounders have built up a significant enough cushion – and the rest of the Western Conference has been so mediocre – that missing the playoffs for a second straight year still seems unlikely, but after a performance like this that can't be taken for granted. The Sounders have to stop this slide and I suspect bigger changes need to be made.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer has so far been reluctant to do anything drastic. He has mostly stuck by his veteran core, showing the kind of faith you'd expect in a group that has collectively been as successful as any in MLS history. But Schmetzer seems to be finally facing the reality that his highly decorated stars appear to have a hit a wall and even alluded to the possibility that the coaches' messages aren't getting through.
At one point in his press conference, Schmetzer reeled off a rather long list of areas the team worked on during the extended break. From positional points like where Jordan Morris or Albert Rusnák should get the ball to points of emphasis on execution like where Léo Chú sends his crosses and how many players are there to receive them, it was clear the plan was not followed.
"The belief has to come from everybody, not just the coaches," Schmetzer said. "We’ll try to give them some different training, maybe we’ll make some shifts in the lineup. We have to find something to spark them."
That this all came on the same day that Frei passed Osvaldo Alonso for most all-competition appearances in Sounders history – allowing for a literal passing-of-the-torch pregame ceremony – was a bit serendipitous. When asked to talk about his relationship with Alonso, there was a wistfulness in Frei's answer, maybe even a sense that the Sounders could use someone like his old teammate at a time like this.
"El Corazón, Ozzie is a legend," Frei said. "When I first came in 10 years ago, you knew right away who Ozzie is and what he’s about. I remember I yelled at him once and he wouldn’t talk to me for three weeks. I felt I was justified because he didn’t track back on a free kick.
"Just really wore his heart on his sleeve and works this butt off. You see a guy who’s willing to sacrifice. He’s had hardships, he’s come back from a couple of injuries and fought back. That’s commendable. I look up to people like that. I understand how hard it is to be a professional for as long as he has. He came from Cuba, that’s an incredible story. He’s someone I still look up to and should never be forgotten in Sounders lore. Those are the players you want your young players to be molded after."