Sounders undefeated and imperfect, with tougher schedule looming

Sounders undefeated and imperfect, with tougher schedule looming

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Sounders undefeated and imperfect, with tougher schedule looming

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SEATTLE — It was almost surreal. The Seattle Sounders, of all teams, nitpicking an early season victory.

After dispatching Real Salt Lake 1-0 in front of 37,722 at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night, the Sounders stand at 4-0-1, the best start in club history. Designated player Nicolas Lodeiro delivered the lone goal of the match in just the 18th minute, an improbable and spectacular volley nestled into the side netting as he fell to the ground.

A team that took until July 4 to earn its 13th point last season has done so in just five games this year. Since that same Independence Day match last summer — a 2-1 road victory over the Colorado Rapids — the Sounders have posted an astounding 19-2-2 regular season record.

But Saturday night’s victory came harder than it probably should have — even if the club was without star striker Raul Ruidiaz, out with a bruised heel picked up in last week’s road draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

In the post-match locker room, Lodeiro seemed to sum up the team’s conflicting sentiments most succinctly.

“I feel happy,” said the 30-year-old Uruguayan midfielder. “The team too. But we know we played badly, so we need to [do] better. We need to close [out] the game.”

After looking overwhelmed for the first half-hour, Real Salt Lake — missing designated player Damir Kreilach to a red-card suspension — willed its way back into the match, possessing much of the ball and outshooting the hosts  13-11 on the evening.

“The good,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, “[is that] we get three points, maintain a shutout at home. But the rest? Not too happy, honestly. We need to put this team away. To let them linger on and give them hope and chances, is something we have to fix. Again, great to get three points and keep it going, but lots to do better in this game.”

The Sounders had numerous chances to add a second goal, but either failed to see or connect with an open teammate, or just missed open shots.

Jordan Morris, one of the feel-good stories of the early MLS campaign as he returns from a torn anterior cruciate ligament with three goals and assist, saw a pair of opportunities go by.

In the 37th minute, the 24-year-old converted winger sent a Lodeiro cross back across the face of goal and past the far post. Just past the hour mark he sailed a Cristian Roldan cross into the stands from the penalty spot.

“I don’t want to kill Jordan,” said Schmetzer, “because he played a good game. But the ball that Cristian lays to him, normally he’d like to do better, get that on frame, make [Nick] Rimando make a save.”

Morris, for one, remained upbeat.

“Obviously, every game there’s going to be things we can clean up a little bit,” he said. “I thought we had a great first half. Second half, let them maybe have too much possession. They had a few good chances. But I think you gotta walk away at 4-0-1 and be pretty happy and keep building on the things we know we can build on.”

Jefferson Savarino nearly punished the Sounders for their profligacy in the 73rd minute, somehow getting behind left back Brad Smith on a free kick taken from well inside Real Salt Lake’s own half of the field before slapping an open look off the near post.

“If we’re sitting comfortable at two- or three-nil, maybe they’re not even pushing as hard any more,” said Frei. “But even if they do, a lucky squirt or control doesn’t bother us as much, right? But that could be costly. When we let teams linger on all they need is one little slip up, one little mistake, one little lucky bounce for them, and a guy who can put a ball away, and then we’re even. So lessons to be learned there for sure.”

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer was not thrilled either.

“I’m not pleased with it,” Schmetzer said. “I’m not pleased with it at all. It was a set piece way back here. That ball traveled 70 freaking yards on the field, up in the air, and our guys didn’t react. So I’m not very happy about that, at all.”

And the visitors actually out-possessed the Sounders in the second half, not exactly a frequent occurrence at CenturyLink Field.

“For us, we pride ourselves on being a good possession team,” said Schmetzer. “When you’re up 1-0 you must dictate tempo through your possession. That’s one of the things we’ll certainly look at on film.”

Much of that trouble maintaining possession stemmed from some messy soccer.

“Especially [in the] second half, I think there’s a lot of sloppiness on the field,” said Frei. “There’s a lot of trying to build up and not really being able to maintain possession. Stupid little mistakes, balls slip under our feet and go for a throw in. Those are frustrating things. Those are things we can as individuals clean up. And as a team collectively. That would help us a lot. Those little stupid errors that just are turnovers and turnovers and turnovers.”

After a soft start to the 2019 season — three out of five matches at home, no schedule congestion, no powerhouse opponents — the Sounders now play three matches in eight days. They travel to Colorado to face the Rapids on Wednesday, then return home for their first marquee match of the season on Saturday, hosting a revitalized Toronto FC (3-0-1, 10 points). April then closes with another three-match week featuring a pair of tilts against conference-leading Los Angeles FC, which just so happens to have won its last three matches by a combined score of 11-1.

Tougher opposition, less rest, more squad rotation: The Sounders may be off to the best start in club history, but over the next few weeks will be a lot less likely to get away with “stupid little mistakes,” or with allowing teams to linger.

And the league as a whole will probably know a lot more about the Seattle Sounders by the end of April.

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