How anyone feels about the Seattle Sounders’ 0-0 draw with FC Motagua on Thursday probably has a lot to do with the degree to which they are willing to look at the conditions.
It’s perfectly fair, I think, to be somewhat disappointed, at least devoid of context. Although arguably the most talented team and not having to deal with the hostile crowds that usually come with playing in Central America, the Sounders were fairly conservative with their game plan. They seemed reluctant to push the numbers forward, contented with holding the ball rather than driving the movement, and subs were mostly designed with these two goals in mind.
Although this is accurate, it also overlooks some important circumstances.
I think all of Sounders coach Brian Schmitzer’s decisions are rooted in the fact that this pre-season has been very strange. The camp opened about a month ago with most of their novice players absent for a variety of reasons, and only in the latter part of it has the majority of these players returned. Two of these supposed players – Nuhu and Joao Paulo – never appeared in a pre-season match.
Nohu, who should have been quite fit after spending his entire pre-season with Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations, was at least able to sit on the bench. Joao Paulo, the team’s best player and one of the league’s best players in 2021, missed most of pre-season while finishing his green card and was sent back to Seattle early in the hopes of making him fit in time for next week’s second leg.
To further complicate it, many of the supposed team backups were also not available. Josh Atensio, Dani Leiva and Jimmy Medranda are all dealing with injuries that have kept them out of pre-season action and Will Bruyne took a beating while the team was in Palm Springs.
This led to Schmetzer forming a squad with Kelyn Rowe at left back – a position he hasn’t started in since 2018 – and 16-year-old Obed Vargas as one of his defensive midfielders.
When you combine it all with the fact that the Sounders have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their previous 13 games on the CCL Road – a stretch that includes the 2-6-3 record in Mexico and Central America – suddenly the result looks like a little more palatable.
“Of course we would have had a W, but to come here and have better chances, we’re going to take that,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frye told the media afterwards. “There were some good things to take away from that. We managed to get the ball at the end and tire them out. Which was nice to see.”
While he was reluctant to use it as an excuse, Frei acknowledged that field conditions posed some challenges. The grass looked particularly long and bumpy, with the Sounders often struggling to control passes and get clean touches. Combined with the regular fitness struggles early in the season, heat and altitude, this helped explain why the game is so slow especially towards the end.
In one obvious moment at the end of the match, Nohu sent Frey a wrong cross and then immediately started running onto the field. Instead of shooting the ball into space and letting Nouhou run, Frei just looked at him, held the ball for a few seconds and finally kicked it for a long time. It must be said that Nohu won that ball, but only in a way that allowed Sanders to keep the ball rather than put it in a position for one last attack. The final whistle sounded moments later.
“We’ve been smarter in the way we play,” Fry said. We took our time when we needed to. We were smarter with our ball possession. All of these things helped make the whole 90 minutes known. We pride ourselves on things like our live press, but sometimes you have to be smart. If it’s not in the cards It might be best to stay pressed and come back.”
Schmetzer expressed similar sentiments. Sure, they were a little disappointed that they didn’t win the game, but he felt the Sounders created enough opportunities to feel as though the game plan was in order. He noted the open shot from 10 yards by Albert Rusnak wide, a shot by Nicolas Lodeiro from close range, a clever move by Obed Vargas that created a hole and two other dangerous formations created by Jordan Morris.
Aside from a few tense moments, mostly from set pieces, the Sounders defense was solid and appeared to have controlled the match reasonably well around 30 minutes ago.
Given that the Sounders finished last season in seven games without a win as they failed to score multiple goals in any of those games, I understand why defensive solidity can be a bit disappointing. But the truth is that the Sounders are heading home in a position to advance with any win.
“I would say it’s always more difficult to attack than to defend,” Schmitzer said. Lockdown was “one of our goals. I think we will find one or two goals.”