By any reasonable accounting, the Club World Cup is a competition for which MLS teams are poorly suited to compete in. Without throwing too much of a pity party, here’s a quick reminder of a few of the challenges the Sounders were facing:
- The tournament is played almost smack dab in the middle of their preseason, beginning about four weeks after they open training camp and three weeks before the MLS regular season begins. The Sounders had not played a competitive match in nearly four months.
- Not only was their opponent in literal midseason form, but they were also playing very well. Al Ahly had not lost a match since August and came into Saturday’s match with a 16-0-6 record across all competitions, having outscored opponents 45-7 in that time.
- While Morocco is technically a neutral location, it’s probably worth pointing out that Seattle is about twice as far away from Tangier as Cairo is from there.
Despite those challenges, I think any reasonable observer would agree that the Sounders’ performance ranged from “dominating play” to “holding their own.” The offense did not create many great chances and there was certainly room to criticize the substitutions, but the defense didn’t really give up much more and only conceded off a poorly taken shot that took a very unlucky deflection.
If there’s frustration attached to this result, I would hope that it’s not so much with how the Sounders played but that there was still a real opportunity to advance and that it’s entirely possible they’ll never get that close again.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei told reporters. “We were super happy to be here and to be part of this, but you don’t want to just be participants. You’ve worked hard to get to this point and we’ll most likely never ever have another chance to participate in something like this.
“There’s some sad faces in the locker room and some anger, some disappointment. That’s all exactly where it needs to be.”
Most of that anger and disappointment came down to the scoreline, but there’s still some room for frustration with the performance. While I think most of the Sounders’ problems can be chalked up to the lack of sharpness you’d expect at this point in a normal preseason, the reality is that they didn’t create enough truly dangerous chances and that head coach Brian Schmetzer was oddly reluctant to make aggressive changes to address that. Although the Sounders had won the Expected Goals battle .46-.39, that was due to a lot of relatively low-probability chances. The Sounders also only generated four shots and .13 xG in the second half, according to Opta.
That Schmetzer waited until the 90th minute to make his first offensive substitute was also a bit of a head-scratcher, which seems to have been noticed by the players as well.
“There were some encouraging sequences,” Frei said when asked about positives. “Getting João on the pitch ... a few minutes after he gets on, we run out of juice. If we have people who make runs for him, with his vision and quality that would have helped us.”
All of that is fixable if still frustrating, though. Aside from fitness and some positive tweaks to the Sounders' tactics, the entire buildup to the Club World Cup seems to have been a positive team-building exercise, hopefully washing out any nasty taste leftover from how last season ended.
The key now is to not let what should be a headstart to the season go wasted. The Sounders are farther along in their preseason fitness than they’ve ever been before and now have nearly three weeks to prepare for the season. They’ll play USL Championship side Louisville City on Feb. 18 and then open the regular season with 3 of 4 games at home.
There’s every reason to think the Club World Cup should act as a springboard into the season, not cause some sort of hangover. The best way to wash the taste of this out of their mouth is start winning games.
“We have to make sure to make it count,” Frei said. “We have to build on this, we can’t reverse.”