No one bought a ticket for this kind of a game. They came in their green droves, pouring into Qwest Field on this Spring vacation, Easter/Passover weekend, to watch their undefeated Seattle Sounders confront the Kansas City Wizards. The early traditions stayed intact, for it was a now-normal cold rain and windy day that only cleared in time to march to the stadium and get under way.
No one may particularly recall, but it was in the air that of all the early opponents, Kansas City was the weakest. The big game, the bigger game, was the following week, against Chivas, Club Deportivo Chivas USA to be precise, also 3-0, and very tough, a true test. Kansas City was a test, of course, but more a game that would define the Sounders, hone them and make them stronger for the week to follow. Soccer is always a challenge but in truth few imagined that the Sounders would not beat, even overwhelm, the Wizards and they came with just such a collision in mind. Announcers talked of a 4-0 victory, of preserving the unscored-on streak, of meeting Chivas head to head, the two very top teams.
Kansas City was thrilled, playing the best team in the nation, in the most amped up stadium, and with their modest 1-2 record, they had every hope that with a little luck, a bounce, a tip, a nick here and there, they might tuck in a win. They did not come out, like Real Salt Lake in week 2, in any particular fury; theirs is a quieter confidence and a more modest assessment.
Seattle, on the other hand, might have been excused a bit of over confidence, for they had weathered three fine opponents, a long road trip, their own inexperience and juggled lineups, and were still completely unbeaten. They talked proudly of there being a bullseye on their jersey, other teams wanting to be the first to score, the first to defeat. Their coach Sigi Schmid carefully warned that Kansas would be the fastest opponents to date. In the press box, it was figured that the Wizards' best hope would be shots from very long range.
The game started tentatively. Seattle was, for the first time, fielding an offense with both Fredy Montero and Freddy Ljungberg, the 3-Ds; and over the season, their combination will drive many a defense to self doubt. But any great player, young and old, will affect the very music of an offense, its speed and nature, habit and humor. Last week, it was Ljungberg who broke the Toronto defense, Ljungberg who used the very mathermatical scales of give and go to make it perfectly clear that Seattle would win. Ljungberg is the distributor, the shop steward, the keeper of ball and flow, a very willful sort, demanding and selling order in the middle of chaos and flying bodies. Montero, 11 years younger, Colombian not Swedish, is a different sort entirely. He can barely wait to get downfield, he is the let's-fly to Ljungberg's going-on-foot.
There was a fine moment in the 60th minute, the score still 0-0, a free kick just outside the penalty area, Ljungberg the true veteran and Montero the true rookie, the two, talking, nodding, posturing, nodding, whispering, conferring, turning away and turning back — and the defense, hands over their crotch can only wait — and at last the two seem to have settled on something, it looks like Fredy will take the kick but he fakes and Freddy comes forward, and he too fakes, only to slow-roll the ball across to Montero, who blasts a shot that no keeper in the league would ever find but it is high by 4 inches and bangs off the crossbar. If that shot goes in, Kansas City would have closed sooner than Joe's Sporting Goods, and the Sounders would be undefeated heading into Carson, California.
That is the thrill of two such players suddenly together. But there are downsides. The relationships take time, and the time can appear awkward and that is how Seattle appeared to start the game. They were a single step off-center, as if a slight tape-delay, their natural speed kept at the corral. They seemed to want something, maybe credit even — they had won every game by playing unleashed but for this one they seemed to want to play with order and form, force still, but under control. Kansas City seemed relieved that the Sounders were willing to feel each other out.
In truth, the Wizards should have scored first. Hercules Gomez had a near perfect chance in the 11th minute that Keller barely saved. It might have helped the Sounders to get that virginity out of the way. Ljungberg moments later, plotting in his higher math, wound through the KC defense to set up Brad Evans: the shot is wide and for the first time Seattle does not score in the opening 20 minutes.
At this point, Kansas City likely felt some relief. There was no score, the crowd had nothing to chew on, the Sounders were not quite massed into a fearsomeness. The Wizards had survived, or at least avoided, whatever it was that had demolished their compadre teams. In fact, they had even survived a couple seemingly obvious handball infractions; they were inheritors of some kind of advantage.
At the 29th minute, this contest suddenly went south and took a completely new form when Kansas City flew past the outside left of the Sounder defense and drew goalkeeper Kasey Keller out of his penalty area. The shot hit Keller on the wrist, a red card for a handball in an obvious scoring moment, and that sent Keller off both for this game and the following game against Chivas. The Sounders would now play the rest of the game, 61 minutes, a man short, with a new keeper, Ben Dragavon.
Some will argue that Keller should never have come out so far. Some will argue the Wizards should never have penetrated so easily. Whatever the case, the game the fans came for, the game the Sounders planned for, was gone. replaced with a 10 v. 11 construct that is more a test of mettle than elegance. It was very nearly a test that the Sounders would profoundly win. Moments before the half, Montero was only a second's fraction from chipping over the keeper for a score. And in the second half, Seattle literally outshot and outcornered the Wizards.
At the 80th minute, Kansas City took their second shot on goal, a very long drive, and scored. Seeking now a tie and fully engaged, the Sounders dominated the final 10 minutes, playing with such a fury one could not but admire. At the last moment, they just missed a score from a Jaqua header. There is a sense when something simply will not be, and this had all of that sense.
The Sounders will tinker from this loss and should. They wasted considerable time being formal but with luck they have learned that their strengths seem best served by unleashing this team and sending it out to play. It may even be a small advantage that they have taken a loss; the wound may serve them well as they prepare for Chivas. The Sounders may indeed be a great force but they are also four weeks old. At their best, they will make the very league stronger.