Sounders prevail in second big test

Kyle Beckerman, RSL captain, tries to contain the Sounders' star, Freddie Ljungberg Credit: Seattle Sounders F.C.

For their second game of their very first season, the Seattle Sounders once again sold out their allotted section of Qwest Field and once again defeated a strong new opponent, this time Real Salt Lake, with a shutout victory 2-0. This second victory had only moments of the dominance that marked their season opening win against the NY Red Bulls.

It is interesting to be starting an outdoor professional season in March, particularly this ill humored March. Baseball will wait until April, and if the games land on a day more winter than daisies, the players will dress as if they landed in someone else’s play. But soccer, at every level, is at least a three of the four seasons sport, drawing the line, typically, at ice on the ground. Soccer people often have clothes and boots for all of the seasons in their trunk.

The two Sounder victories have both landed on days of miserable March weather — wind, snow in the mountains, 40 degree rain — yet both have seen it clear up for the pregame. There were 28,000 fans at the Real game, seemingly 27,000 with the soft green Sounders scarf wrapped about, and they fill up Qwest Field like a dispenser. If summer ever does come, SFC should consider a lighter cotton scarf, for the gentler evenings.

This was hardly a gentle game. Real had obviously had enough of TV replays and news of Sounder March madness and Fredy Montero. The Salt Lake team seems to have decided, well in advance, that they would bring some sturm and drang to the proceedings. Last year, Real was a very powerful contender for the MLS title, and they have kept their team intact and intend to be even more powerful this year.

The game had barely started when they coldly fouled Montero with a slide tackle. The referee held out the yellow card but the announcement was up. Montero was intently dropped four more occasions and drew another Real yellow card. The Salt Lake team was in this one for blood and to take a full test of the Sounders’ relation to pain and punishment. They were coldly blatant, the final cue coming when Montero was tossed from behind head first into the light panels.

Coach Sigi Schmid talked about the Montero treatment after the game, saying “this is part of the game and Fredy will have it like this most of the season.” It would be their job, he noted, to teach Fredy when to hold the ball, when to give it up, when to stay out of dark alleys. Montero is only 21 but he is hardly a waif. He has spent his entire career dealing with whatever abuse defenders might devise and countering with whatever cunning and craft he might devise. And when he does get whacked, he makes a notice of it.

Real came into the game intending to whack away at the Sounders (they will meet at least twice again this season) but their cause was undercut by the elegance of the Sounders’ first goal, a lovely play that began with Steve Zakuani, one on one at the left side of the Real goal. Zakuani was drafted by the Sounders as a sophomore in college at Akron, where he lead the nation in goals and assists in 2008. But his line runs much further even than that, for he played six years with the Arsenal Youth team, from ages 9 to 15, after his parents moved from the Republic of Congo to London. His brother Gabriel plays in the highest temple of soccer, the English Premier League, Arsenal being one of that league’s most notorious musketeers.

Zakuani, who said that is one of the things I do, did precisely that, running the Real defender Borchers to three distinct cuts, ending with a right-footed cross to the fine center forward Nate Jaqua to score with his shin. It was a clean, and true goal. At that moment, it seemed the Sounders were indeed a new blood to the League. They had again scored in the first 20 minutes and the force seemed with them, and Salt Lake seemed like the past.

Soccer is a great length of a sport and for many reasons, some quite small and particular, odds can change. By the second half, Real became the aggressor, nearly tieing the game at the 49th minute, saved only by Kasey Keller coming farout of goal to stop the breakaway. Suddenly, it appeared, the Sounders could no longer pass nor move in motion, and they became very ordinary and vulnerable.

Freddie Ljungberg, the Sounders long-awaited former Arsenal, former Swedish national captain and only already certified superstar, entered the game at the 61st minute, his first moment for Seattle. There was a great standing ovation and relief for he has not played for a year, recovering from injury. He looked, in truth, a bit stiff, like he had been on a bus for a while. When he was tackled, it seemed a moment for him to get up. But, it may in truth have saved the game, for whatever funk had been chewing on the Sounder’s soul, it began to let up.

Salt Lake was having none of it and continued their charge. but Ljungberg seemed somehow to bring a bit of order. He is after all one hell of a ballplayer, and when he gets in true form, he will be one hell of an old man in the middle and the youngsters like Zakuani, Nyassi, and Montero will all be thrilled with the chances he creates.

Fourteen minutes later, after two more dangerous Real shots, the other Fredy took his revenge and settled matters. As Ljungberg later described it, “he killed the game” with a shot from yards outside the box. Fredy kicks what they call a heavy ball, no spin, a ball with weight and speed — and he killed this ball. A fraction after you thought, no, don’t shoot from way out there, the ball dropped like off a cliff into the back of the net, and Real was done.

The Sounders leave this week for a Saturday game in Toronto, against a very strong and undefeated Toronto FC. It will be interesting to see how they react to a world without 27,000 pale green scarves. There is a good chance they will continue their remarkable run for they have only begun to unfold all of the talent and possibilities of their team.

Sigi Schmid was very clear that the second half was a disorder and would be rebooted into form. Half of the Sounders have never been out into the particular wildernesses of the MLS but no professional soccer player is a stranger to travel.

The true task for the Sounders is not only the contest but the the nature of the team itself. It has clearly a new and remarkably strong spirit — that is its gift and its gift to the entire league. In the best outcome, Seattle, then Vancouver and Portland, all will combine to make the MLS considerably stronger. more talented, and literally more relevant. Most of these first two games have been a hoot, the Sounders unleashed to play their game. There is a lot of grinding up ahead — with any luck they will stay unleashed.

While they are away, there is some Sounder housekeeping to do. The Star Spangled Banner is too weird; no one wants to be the one to say so: stopping mid song is not due to become a habit. The Sounders have never solved the Anthem task, but they should pay it some attention. Also, the Press Box announcers still do not know how to pronounce the players names. Zakuani is 4 syllables, and anything other puts you back in a very bush league. You must not mispronounce the names — it is absolutely a crucial detail of the very form of soccer that each language and country be carried correctly and honorably.

Finally, and perhaps most unlikely to be considered, the long advertising light bars that parallel the field, that announce Xbox 360 and Coke and all the other happy sponsors, in a rock show kind of way — they are cheesy, distracting, and dangerous. The management may not see it that way and maybe most of the fans do not see it that way, but they are first and foremost cheesy.

And the one membrane that must be protected, the membrane that pro football and basketball, most notoriously, have penetrated, is that of not being cheesy. Xbox 360 must protect its soccer. The moment marketing finds a way to stop this sweet game for an ad, to stop any of the 45-minute half even for a moment, that will be a fatal stab indeed.

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