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Postgame Pontifications: Passing the stress test

Sounders dug deep into their reserves but still managed to pull out a win in the U.S. Open Cup.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

TUKWILA, Wash. — Throughout the week leading into the Seattle Sounders’ U.S. Open Cup match against the San Diego Loyal, head coach Brian Schmetzer had talked about the importance of preparing just like they do for any other opponent.

The Sounders would break down game film, go through the same training calendar, and use consistent messaging.

At one point, Schmetzer had hoped to use a lineup that featured several of his regular starters. But in the weeks leading up to the match, the Sounders lost Cristian Roldan, Nouhou and Raúl Ruidíaz for various reasons. Josh Atencio was also still working himself back into full fitness.

Using a bunch of regular starters wasn’t really an option without also sacrificing the Sounders’ ability to field a full lineup in their upcoming league game.

Instead, Schmetzer opted for a starting lineup that could only charitably even be called “heavily rotated.” The entire starting lineup had a total of eight 2023 regular-season starts among them, and five of those belonged to Léo Chú. Eight players had zero regular-season starts and just 74 minutes combined, with four of them getting their first first-team minutes of the season.

Even including veterans Fredy Montero (35), Xavier Arreaga (28) and Stefan Cleveland (28), the average age of the Sounders’ starters was just 23.0. That was more than four years’ younger than San Diego’s lineup, whose average age was 27.3.

Under normal circumstances, a 5-4 win at home over a lower-division opponent might seem little cause for celebration. But given the lineup the Sounders fielded — and the way the victory actually unfolded — the feelings around the result have been overwhelmingly positive within the organization.

“They had to overcome a couple of gut punches and that’s hard,” Schmetzer said the day after the game. “A lot of teams might fold. Credit to them.”

While Schmetzer surely would have preferred a less stressful result — the Sounders failed to hold leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3 — he had to admit that there was some invaluable experience gained during the 120-minute affair.

“The intensity, the pressure, playing against a good opponent,” Schmetzer said. “You can’t measure that kind of experience.”

Perhaps best exemplifying the Sounders’ performance was Cody Baker, a 19-year-old who got the starting nod at left back after signing a short-term contract. The Issaquah native first signed with the Tacoma Defiance in 2021 and has now accrued about 2,500 minutes in his professional career, but just two of his 25 career starts had come as a left back.

Baker’s 2023 was actually off to a bit of a slow start, as injuries had limited him to just two appearances and one start. The start actually came on Sunday against Houston Dynamo 2, and he’d only been able to train with the first team on Tuesday.

Still, Schmetzer had faith in him to execute the game plan, which he said consisted of relatively simple instructions: “lock it down.”

“He’s a hard-nosed, no-nonsense defender,” Schmetzer said. “He’s got the mentality that I like.”

Baker actually did more than that. In addition to 10 clearances, 8 recoveries, winning 7 of 10 duels and generally never looking out of place against veteran attackers, Baker also set up the Sounders’ third goal with an impressive left-footed pass that traveled about 50 yards and hit Paul Rothrock perfectly in stride.

Rothrock was one of three Sounders who scored their first career first-team goals in the match, joining Ethan Dobbelaere and Reed Baker-Whiting. Defiance players Rothrock, Travian Sousa and Hal Uderitz also made their first-team debuts, while Sota Kitahara got his first start for the Sounders. Of the 15 Sounders who featured in the match, 10 of them came to the organization through either the academy or Defiance.

It wasn’t anything like a clinical performance, but in its own way it may have been even more important from the perspective of stress test for the health of the organization’s talent pipeline. Mature clubs should be able to dig into the reserves and still beat a lower-division opponent, even one that’s as good and experienced as San Diego.

“It was really important for their confidence,” a clearly exhausted Montero said after the game. “They are training next to us every day and they deserve to have this opportunity in front of these people and they are getting used to the pressure. There was a lot of pressure they had to manage and they did well. And in the end, we won.”

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