Ten games into their first season, at the one third mark, the Sounders are on a true Rogue's Tour of their new league. They have won four games, tied four, and lost a couple. Most importantly, they have lost a few cans of their new paint, some of their humor, and a stash of petty illusions.
The Sounders opened their season as the perfect proud hosts, streamers of fans and scarves and banners oh my, all to a pitch, set in the best seat that sports can buy and the game was barely long enough to contain them. They even travelled to a sold out Toronto, to a terrible wind, and breezed through to a victory. Every league team, especially the veterans, took careful note.
For the past two weeks, the Sounders have played on the road, first FC Dallas and then the Colorado Rapids — Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas and Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. Neither one is the best seat that sports can buy, and the Dallas team does not even get to have fans. This is the belly of the MLS history and a little like going to your friend's house and finding out that he has no bed or sheets. It is a league that dropped anchor in the dusty suburbs and only dreamt of a field downtown and 25,000 fans.
Dallas did not appear eager to be any more than desultory. The Sounders were left to appear over dressed or at least over prepared. They clanged shots off the goal posts, missed open goals, and passed to people with other ideas. It is one way to defend or at least defuse the Sounders, making the very game itself so flat and inelegant that they lose purpose. The Sounders have not as yet hammered themselves into a strict blade or shape — too young, too new, whatever the case, they still flicker and fumble and lose shape to their opponent. They are buoyant, and dangerous, in a spirited game, and dead dull in a dull one. When you play the Sounders, you are well advised to drag some of the game around like a sack of laundry. A week earlier, on Mother's Day, in the brightest sunshine, the LA Galaxy used that tact at Qwest Field, draining the blood from the game until even the mothers were bored.
Dallas would have given way, certainly after the Sounders scored in the 22nd minute, but Seattle could never quite kill the game. With not a moment left in the half, Dallas scored a goal from a lovely cross, and then and there decided to stop being fodder. They chased the Sounders all over the second half and, save from somehow missing a header to win at game's end, the Sounders were lucky to even get a tie. They had played without Ljungberg, out with a migraine, and Riley, out with a red card for being too patriotic on Mother's Day. And they had missed them.
On Saturday, the Colorado Rapids posed a quite different task — the Rapids are a proud team, only points behind the Sounders in the Western Conference standings, and there was no dallying to this match. Colorado is lead by a fine bull of a forward, Conor Casey, a kind of Wayne Rooney with a prep-schooled finish. Casey, from New Hampshire and a member of the US National team, played in college at the University of Portland, with the Sounder forward Nate Jaqua. Casey works and works a game, pounding on the very doors of the defense, for any slip or soft line: he would score one goal in this contest, bouncing a driving shot off a Sounder leg.
But it was his header, in the 35th minute, that defined this game, a header hit perfectly from the cross, with such force and assertion and fact that it would stick and finish a game. Somehow, the Sounders Kasey Keller, himself from the University of Portland ten years earlier, deflects the header and Casey (C) holds his head in anguish and Kasey (K) nods in relief. The game itself ends in a 2-2 tie, to the Sounders' relief and the Rapids' dismay, a chance lost, a chance saved.
Seattle had not played well. Their entire starting midfield was out with injury, and it left them appearing less coherent and more a collection of parts. All of a soccer game passes through the midfield, to be adjusted or distributed or reinforced or recalled, to be quickened or slowed or held; and the quality of that exchange shall often be the inexorable determinant of a contest. Without Alonzo, Evans, and Ljungberg, the Sounders lost confidence in their ability to transport the ball through the midfield and reverted to simply driving the ball over the centerline into the attack. It is always one of the options and does indeed keep everyone quick-footed, but it is more an act of desperation than a very good diet.
In time, the Sounders will have more depth in their midfield, and by the end of May, their three regulars will have returned. And then, it gets quite interesting — seven home games during June and July, two away versus the leader Chivas and the NY Red Bulls. By the start of August, you should know quite well the temper, talent, and curve of this Sounders team.