SEATTLE — One of these days, contrasting this year’s Seattle Sounders team to last year’s is going to get old. This is not that day.
Coming off a dispiriting loss to a rival, needing to make a last-minute change to what was already a somewhat rotated lineup, and facing a team determined to make life difficult, the Sounders were in the kind of situation that tripped them up repeatedly last year.
For nearly 80 minutes, Saturday’s match against Minnesota United seemed to be following a similar script. The Sounders were controlling the match, but not really dominating it. There were half-chances and some close calls, but nothing about their gameplay suggested a goal was some sort of inevitability.
Unlike last year, however, the breakthrough came when Fredy Montero conjured a bit of his old magic. The veteran forward somehow blindly volleyed a throw-in through a sea of five Minnesota defenders right into the path of Albert Rusnák, who struck it cleanly from the edge of the penalty box and past Dayne St. Clair. It was Rusnák’s first goal of the season, Montero’s first assist of the season and was just enough for the Sounders to pull out a 1-0 victory.
Given how often we’ve asked the players to compare and contrast this year and last year, I was a little sheepish about posing the question to Rusnák again in the postgame locker room. But even he had to admit this felt like a game the Sounders would have failed to get three points from last year.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said with a knowing grin. “There were many games like that [last year]. I feel like this year even the LA Galaxy win away, I feel like last year we would have found a way — or the game would have found a way — for us to lose it. It’s a different thing right now than last year. It’s important to win these games when you aren’t playing so well.”
Not to bring it up again, but just as a reminder the Souders went just 7-15-5 in matches decided by one goal or fewer last year. That’s 26 points from 27 one-goal matches, an average of .96 per game. Under Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders had averaged 1.55 points per game in such contests. If they had simply performed up to that standard, they’d have claimed an additional 14 points over the course of the season. That would have been enough to finish third in the Western Conference, rather than the 11th place spot they actually occupied.
That’s not to suggest their place in the standings was somehow undeserved. As Rusnák admitted, the Sounders often “found a way” to drop points last year. That’s part of what made last week’s loss to the Portland Timbers just a bit more painful, as it had all the hallmarks of a 2022-style collapse. Despite controlling the match and having a lead through 70 minutes, the Sounders somehow came up empty. Was that going to be a turning point in the season?
As if the loss weren’t enough, the Sounders were dealt another blow on Wednesday when it was revealed that Raúl Ruidíaz had suffered yet another hamstring injury and would miss at least the next month. That night, it also became apparent that they wouldn’t be able to start Jordan Morris after he played 88 minutes in an ultimately meaningless friendly for the United States. Then, just a few hours before kickoff, it was revealed that starting left back Nouhou was going to miss the game after suffering migraines.
At one point during the week, Schmetzer mused to no one in particular that “it’s getting to be a bit much.”
Schmetzer admitted some apprehension on gameday. He said he knew the effort would be there, but was worried that his players might over-correct by putting too much pressure on themselves to bounce back from the “debacle in Portland.”
In an effort to lighten the mood, he made some comments about how Rowe would be able to offer different attributes than Nouhou. He highlighted Rowe’s ability to cut in and to connect interior passes with his right foot. He also casually mentioned Rowe’s speed.
“I don’t know if the guys appreciated the joke,” Schmetzer said. “I thought it was funny.”
Rowe’s speed did not, in fact, play a factor, but Schmetzer’s joke did seem to have the intended effect. While the Sounders didn’t exactly play free and loose, they also didn’t appear to be pressing or getting frustrated with the Loons’ ability to compress the midfield. When the Sounders’ first big chance presented itself, they pounced.
“We all knew we had to have a performance, especially coming back home,” Rowe said. “I guess the role I play is just calming things down. It was great to grind out that win.”