It is mid-June but the weather is like the belly of July and the seats at Sounders Stadium were full with the regulars but also a new swath, high school seniors, soccer players who were finally done with school, with league play and team play and playoffs. They are headed to soccer schools all over this country, to D-1 programs where they will try to star or to walk on, to Community Colleges where they will try to shine for a future tryout. They have been playing since last June. They are 18, they have an iPod, a cellphone and about 12 days of vacation before they must begin the soccer training all over again, this time as the skinny-legged rookie.
And they know well the fix the Sounders had gotten themselves into. Winless in six games, five ties, a loss they should have won, five red cards, third place in their division, where once they looked like a new race car — now they look like a new RV on a steep hill. Worst of all, playing a team they should beat, the San Jose Earthquakes, a fine team but in slight disarray, Saturday evening at home, you cannot win this except to win what you are supposed to win. And the Sounders do, stretching out a 2-1 victory, while fires for future games burn all around the night: Chivas loses to the Houston Dynamos (a team the Sounders have not even met, but will on July 11, right here, Saturday at 1); DC United, coming here next, beats Chicago for first place in the East. It is getting very complicated in this MLS season and the Sounders have not even met all the dinner guests.
The games you are supposed to win are best played with a careful poise and form, and the Sounders began with just such a rhythm. At the sixth minute, a cross from Zakuani was only a part second early for Ljungberg and a goal there would have freed the fretful Sounders. Zakuani plays San Jose like a back country skier and seems to find elegant stretches of running room against them. On such a lovely Saturday night, soccer is a fine way to make a living. Joe Cannon, the San Jose goalie, seemed also inspired, and no matter what concoction the Sounders would create, they could not get the ball past Cannon.
Sebastien Le Toux was starting for the red-carded Nate Jaqua. Le Toux is not the physical offensive force of Jaqua but he is a relentless trapper from the first moment to the last, relentless in a degree that can surprise a defender or a keeper. He is a torment where there are not typically torments, and it was his pestering that started to open the San Jose defense. Twice their clearances flew out of bounds. Twice their keeper had to rush his kick.
The soccer boys in the stands perched up and smiled a bit. They know what comes when there are moments of indecision on defense — like fly fishermen, they know what the water looks like when something might happen. And it nearly did. Ljungberg gave one of his lovely lessons in soccer, laying off a soft lead to Zakuani, his cross to Montero, goal for certain but somehow it hits the very inside of Cannon's leg and bounces wide. Montero kicks the inside of the net in frustration.
But Ljungberg now has the scent and he is not a gentle hunter. He breaks past a San Jose defender, who trips him, and Ljungberg is up like a shot, screaming nose to nose, toe to toe. Ljungberg knows it is there, the soccer boys know it, San Jose can feel it and sure enough, their defender makes one slip, one pause, it is a crowd in there and Montero slips it to Le Toux, who lays it gently rolling downfield and out of the pack comes Ljungberg, it is his, now rushing alone onto the keeper and he slots it over Joe Cannon's right ear, goal, 42nd minute.
Seba has the scent as well and forces three more corner kicks in the minutes before the half. Corner kicks are a quiet, often private weapon in a soccer game. They may not even yield a goal, indeed the Sounders have not done well with their set pieces, but they take a toll. They are like getting a walk in baseball, with men on base — you are still up, taking a whack at it and they are still on defense, trying to keep the door shut. By the game's end, the Sounders would take ten corner kicks, San Jose three.
At the half, coach Sigi Schmid walks off the field with his arm around Ljungberg. The game is not over but some of the drought is over and Ljungberg has struck.
San Jose came out in the second half pressing, pushing, scrambling, punishing the Sounders, as they had to, for their counter attacks had not given them much. For eight minutes, they outswarmed the Sounders. Everyone noticed that this lovely June night seemed suddenly too long.
Ljungberg chose the corner kick to retake the game. He drove deep into the right corner, swivelling, turning, until finally faced up with one defender, he went through all of the options and for right or wrong, none of them make enough sense or more sense, and so he drives then even deeper until he can be sure and hits it off the defender's leg for a corner. It is all done in a moment but it is a fine soccer moment in a very advanced soccer math, for the Sounders still have the ball. And it comes true - Ljungberg's cross ticks off Ianni's head to Montero's foot, Fredy misses with the first kick (the soccer boys went crazy for that!) but whacks the second and it is now, in the 59th minute, 2-0 Seattle.
That should have been it. Playing at home, lovely night, work done, dinner with friends, but 2-0 is a tricky score and proves tricky indeed as eight minutes later, San Jose scores to make it 2-1. Sigi says later, we lost the plot a little bit. But in truth, it was a Montero error. He was back helping with defense and had an idea to back heel for some room and it backfired. San Jose scored in two passes and suddenly they could see much more than getting beaten up.
Seattle was playing this game without their central defender Jhon Hurtado, another red card signup. It had not mattered when the game was fair and in some order. But now, with 20 minutes to finish, it is a melee, for pride and honor and progress, and San Jose becomes the aggressor and the game begins to outreach the referees. It is a palpable chaos. Both Montero and Zakuani are subbed for and leave the field exhausted. There are 35 fouls called, seven yellow cards, three in the final minutes. It may be easier to assemble a competitive league than it is to assemble a competitive base of referees. The players have a wider frame of reference of what is possible, from all over the world, than the referees could possibly experience.
Seattle holds on to win, but that is not what the school boy seniors are jostling about. They are still laughing at a Ljungberg exploit in the final minutes. Brought down on a hard tackle from behind as he drove goalward, Freddie turned on his San Jose defender, who had chased him the night long and was about out of time, and reached down for the ball. He held it up, cocked his head and pantomimed to the defender, "Is this what you want?"